Seth Goldenberg is a designer, activist, curator, founder and CEO of Curiosity & Co. Goldenberg has designed retreats and thought-provoking projects for Apple, American Express, the Oprah Winfrey Network and the Governor of Rhode Island, among others.
Below, Seth shares 5 key insights from his new book, Radical curiosity: challenging common beliefs to imagine flourishing futures. Listen to the audio version – read by Seth himself – in the Next Big Idea app.
1. Curiosity is an endangered species.
Our modern world was designed to eradicate curiosity. At a time when all sectors of business and society are facing existential challenges, the potential extinction of curiosity is an emergency. We need questions more than ever. We often move too quickly toward solutions, acting before we have identified the real core issue we seek to resolve. We wear our action-oriented mindset as a badge in contemporary business, saying things like “I have a penchant for action,” but we’ve confused the act of dealing with the real impact. We reward the simple blow of the hammer, even when we have missed our mark throughout the 20th century.
Knowledge has become segregated, industrialized and routine. We consider thought as a commodity. Leading has come to mean the management of pre-existing knowledge rather than the discovery of new knowledge. Many of us, in our personal and professional lives, are occupied with transactions, routines and simple tactical activities that overshadow the questions of why? Why do we do what we do? Do we have the power? Do we have the power to question the trajectory in the first place? We live in a time of constant paradoxes. We don’t know for sure if the education works, but we’ll throw you in jail if you don’t attend. Our social systems are designed as paradoxes, and we let them pass, moving the chairs on the Titanic as we head towards crisis whose root we have not recognized.
2. We live in between.
These intermediate times are a kind of interregnum. In politics, the term interregnum is defined as a pause between two successive regimes, often seen as a juxtaposed period between two different ideologies. This type of interregnum is quite tangible, marked by milestones of change of government. Today, however, we live in a more abstract, but no less significant, type of interregnum, cultural rather than political. We live between patterns of how we see ourselves, what we believe in, and how we accept to realize those values. It’s as if society is stitched together through a shared code of what we believe, and we translate those beliefs into how we choose to live. This is similar to an operating system within our computer which dictates the basic functions it performs. Culture is a kind of operating system that guides the functioning of society; a set of rules and collectively accepted behaviors and values that are coded through millions of micro-agreements that keep the system functioning.
“As the challengers’ narratives become newborns still learning to crawl, they begin to capture the audience’s imagination and mature into a more predominant narrative.”
A cultural interregnum, however, is a unique moment in which ideas of the past are on the wane as we question them as potential legacy narratives. In turn, the new ideas and new possibilities that emerge are challenger narratives. This progression from legacy narratives to challenger narratives constitutes this messy middle of the middle times. We are seeing meaningful and diverse experimentation with new ideas that challenge our deeply held beliefs about ourselves, our business, our culture, and our definition of humanity. Legacy narratives often have a hold on the public imagination. They carry ingrained traditions and associated messages that reinforce the narrative and power structures that anchor the identities by which we live. As the challengers’ narratives become newborns still learning to crawl, they begin to capture the audience’s imagination and mature into a more predominant narrative. There is of course a friction, a kind of growing pain that we are experiencing between these two narratives, which is the moment we are living in now.
3. We need “fourth places” powered by citizen imagination.
Society is going through an operating system reboot, redefining what we believe in and what we value. We recode big ideas, from gender to economics, from work to health. How do we rewrite this code? How do we experience cooperatively and collectively? How do you determine which narrative will emerge next? Which narrative will prevail and become a predominant narrative, eventually evolving into an inherited narrative?
We need to invest in what sociologist Ray Oldenburg has called “third places”. Oldenburg defined them as places distinct from our home, which can be the first place, and work, the second. Third places are places where people exchange ideas and form relationships that build social capital. Examples of third places are leisure centres, parks, pubs, hair salons – gathering places that bring cohesion to our social selves.
“We need gathering spaces to champion unknown voices, examine emerging narratives, and leverage our collective creative capacity to build and realize new kinds of futures.”
Mere gathering, however, may not be enough on its own for the complexity of what we face. We need spaces that ignite the revolutionary spirit, spaces where we set the chapter for what comes next. We need gathering spaces to champion unknown voices, examine emerging narratives, and leverage our collective creative capacity to build and realize new kinds of futures. We need fourth places. They are much needed additions to the three spheres articulated by Oldenburg more than three decades ago. The future is a dimension to which we, as stakeholders, must pay attention. The fourth place is where we reclaim our identity as civic actors, responsible for shaping the emerging future. It’s a place where we can connect our public and private selves, manifesting a sense of purpose as we imagine and build what comes next. Since this future remains uncertain, these next steps will require conversation and curiosity.
4. The ultimate result of design is liveliness.
Design thinking has become a competitive advantage in business and civilian life. We need to ask more of design. We are only just beginning to scratch the surface of what design really means and the role of design in society. What is the highest result that design can deliver?
Liveliness is what we experience at the highest version of ourselves. Achieving such a high state requires imagination. Liveliness can only happen when we imagine a possible self that breaks through the mundane and becomes extraordinary. It is the greatest gift of the imagination, our ability to bridge the gap between possibility and achievement. We are deeply moved when we watch the performances of our friends, colleagues, or ourselves culminate in a performative event or milestone. We are witnessing someone who has experience with the highest level of themselves.
Vitality is about our ability to love life, show ourselves and devour it like a meal. We cannot achieve this by hurting others. We cannot realize ourselves without collective actualization. It is the great context design project of the century. It will measure our sum, not the singularity of individuals. It is our moral responsibility to be alive.
5. Imagination is the most precious natural resource on earth.
In 2010, IBM produced a landmark study involving more than 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries across 33 industries, exploring what they believed to be the most crucial factor for the company’s future success. A surprising theme emerged more than any other skill traditionally associated with business. The first quality CEO cited was creativity. In interviews, these leaders indicated that in an environment of increased complexity and ambiguity, requiring business model change and the ability to invent and navigate disruptive innovation, creativity should be prioritized over -above all.
“The daunting challenges we face are, for better or worse, the results of our own success.”
Yet society does not prioritize the imagination in business, government, or education. The evidence is staggering. In 2020, for the fourth consecutive year, the Trump administration announced its annual federal spending plan, ironically titled Budget for America’s Future. The budget eliminated the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The final version, fortunately, allowed an allocation of approximately $160 million for the NEA. In contrast, the same year, the federal allocation to the Department of Defense exceeded $700 billion, making the federal arts budget 0.02% of the military budget. Hold that up for a moment. The tools of the imagination were valued at two hundredths of one percent of the tools of war.
Imagination is a renewable resource. It’s rooted in a phenomenon known as mental synthesis, defined as our brain’s ability to combine known concepts to create new ideas. This ability is considered uniquely human, something that differentiates us from other living beings. The vicious challenges we face are, for better or worse, the results of our own success. Considering that we have imagined the current state of the world, we can reimagine our way out of it. Maya Angelou once said that “creativity cannot be exhausted. The more you use, the more you have. Imagination is perhaps the most precious natural resource in the world.
To listen to the audio read by author Seth Goldenberg, download the Next Big Idea app today: