Yeah, yeah, keep on dreaming!

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image © vincent callebaut architectures. 2050 Paris Smart City

” Can you reject innovative ideas because the attempts to realize them failed?” Frank Albers, Flemish author of Caravantis asks in a double interview on the occasion of an exhibition about the 500 year old Thomas More’s Utopia at Museum M in Leuven. It’s a question that consumed my whole day and I feel like sharing my thoughts with you.

Hans Achterhuis, professor in Social Philosophy, talks in the same interview about creating mini-utopias: small ideas & dreams that inspire others. As an example I give you my small dreams such as the basic income, hybrid houses in the shape of beehives covered with moss, cities without cars, or citizen cooperatives who determine their own energy bill and grow their own vegetable garden. Such mini-utopias are often crucified before they have the chance to develop. Untill a go-getter proves the opposite of ‘not feasible’.

Let’s take this idea of cities without cars, covered with algae that clean the air. Not achievable you think? Technology is already there. Knowledge too. One of the go-getters I am thinking about is Paris based, Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut. He designs self-sustainable buildings in natural forms like coral or even DNA and incorporates nature in technology. With his floating Ecopolis city he tries to find an answer to climate change and refugees. In the wall or rather ‘skin’ of his buildings natural processes occur using rainwater, sunlight, plants and smart technologie to purify liquid waste, heat units, reduce carbon emissions, and so on… Unfortunately, these plans are often not put into process. The gap between what is possible and what people actually do is immense.

The gap between what is possible and what people actually do is immense.

Let’s take another example: the Occupy activists were portrayed as a naive bunch of unorganized idealists. But if you take a closer look you understand that  they believed in interesting mini-utopias such as transparency and free acces to technology & knowledge. They were dissolved, but finally succeeded to reach the collective memory by challenging the political influence of corporations at the expense of ordinary people. They did influence the American political agenda. Just like Vincent Callebaut did with his thought provoking proposal commissioned by the Paris Town Hall to reduce carbon emission up to 75% by 2050.

Or let’s take a closer look to the basic income as an idea that raises a lot of opinions these days. Absurd? You might as well throw money out of the window? Here is what I read in Rutger Bregmans (Dutch historian and change maker) book Gratis geld voor iedereen : ” To end poverty in the US, only a quarter of its military budget would be required. To be exact 175 billion dollars according to economist Matt Bruening¹.” Calculate how high the military budget is and think again what is absurd. Violence will always find it’s way and the way we should fight it is not by raising the military budget for more police & weapons but by giving people what they need: to be understood. “We are richer than ever. Basic Income for everybody is possible for the first time in history and should mean the end of capitalism,” Bregman continues².

Basically what I understand about basic income is that technology and the welfare state accumulated enough money for everyone but sticks to the 1% (rich), while the 99% (you, me and everybody) loses it’s job to new technologies and lack of long term vision. Turn things around  and let technology work for us, so we can spend more time on self-development.


Implementing innovative ideas can be disastrous when it’s not well overthought and, as in a Greek tragedy, they can achieve the opposite: the dystopia. The consequences of 20th century grand theories like Communism and Fascism are just horrible. Flemish author Tom Lanoye calls it accurately “The Slaughterhouse of human history”.  The Russians, Maoism in China, the Nazi regime in Germany, the killing Fields in Cambodia… they all are responsible for millions of deaths, for fear, refugees, terror, the loss of our so precious collective naivety on how life can be…

This is why I believe we have to embrace little utopias even though some of them will never make it to society or collective memory. Because they counter the big disastrous theories by putting them to the test so they can prevent wiping away centuries of evolution. Another curious thing is when one takes a closer look at 20th Century history, he will realise that change hardly comes from politics- the irony. It was always us, the people who had to fight for the abolition of colonialism, women’s emancipation, shorter working week for labourers (check Henry Ford or the story about Kellogg’s), a better education, clean water, natural preservation, patrimony, cultural heritage…

What seemed to be impossible or ridiculous before is very logical today

At the same time these ideas such as car free cities, eating meat only twice a week, money without working for it will often be accompanied with heavy protests or miscomprehension by the people itself. Humans often do not want change because they are afraid, do not understand what is happening or already have a good life in their own private bubble. But what seemed to be impossible or ridiculous before, from women on the working market (they are going to steal our jobs!) & social security (that costs the state too much!) to stop smoking in restaurants & recycling, is very logical today. I agree with Vincent Callebaut when he says we need more utopians who think in the long term and that in times of crisis you need to think outside the box rather than to think practical. People who reduce the gap between what is possible and what we actually achieve. We need more dreamers with hope and imagination. So let the common man spout his ideas because they always work inspiring. Let them develop and re-adjust those small dreams and see where it leads us.

That is why I hope more people open up to new ideas even though they find them hard to believe in. Maybe we can never reach for perfection, but we always have to attempt to reach for it as the old Greek philosophers declared. For me, personally this is the sense of life.

Think from behind your desk, in bath or in bed, after sex, while smoking a cigarette outside, at the bar after three whiskeys. Every man has his mini-utopia within reach if he is just receptive for it. After all, this is the 21st Century.

  1. Rutger Bregman, Gratis geld voor iedereen (2014), P. 65
  2. Rutger Bregman, Gratis geld voor iedereen (2014), P. 67
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