Looking for Utopia

Can we get better at flexing utopian thinking as we try to tell stories about low carbon futures?

Laura Tozer

We were looking for utopia. Our time in the IABR exhibit was almost up, but I had found my way to a display titled Utopia as an Option. I considered the images suspended in a mesh of wires that gave an impression of both structure and space and I was particularly struck by the suggestion that we look for utopia “without losing our naivety”.

I had come to the IABR exhibit on The Next Economy as part of a workshop field trip. A group of researchers, practitioners and artists had gathered in the Lorentz Center in Leiden University for a workshop focused on how we might tell stories about low carbon futures. Radically reducing the entanglement of carbon in our economies requires not only action in the present, but also thinking about the future differently. And so we came to the IABR with burgeoning ideas about how we might narrate those potential futures.

The idea of utopia was particularly enticing to a group of the workshop participants. Utopia seemed to draw together shared interests in experimentation, better ways of being, and about the possibilities of positive story telling. At the same time, we were also curious about how easy it is to limit utopia. As we reflected on what we had seen in the exhibit, our group discussion developed along a key line of tension: utopian potential vs. limitations on utopia.

Utopian Potential
Across the exhibit, we saw nuggets of utopian potential. We saw that there were many stories told about the creation of spaces of encounter for people and the creative use of space in cities. These displays showed the possibilities of using encounters between people to solve other social and environmental problems at the same time. We also saw how many of the displays took an expansive view of infrastructure. Many showed us the ways that enhanced social systems, for example, can be thought of as infrastructure essential to the next economy.

But we also realized that looking for utopia was challenging. It is so easy to see the ways that ideas fail to reach our personal understanding of utopia. Can it be productive to suspend our criticism in order to offer utopian readings of ideas, even if it means working against the grain of the exhibit? Should we sometimes hold on to our naivety to fully unleash utopianism as a way of thinking?

Limitations on Utopia
In many ways, the exhibit also shed light on the ways that we limit ourselves when we tell stories about the future. The messiness of life becomes sanitized in computer renderings of the future, for example, so that there are no dirty utopias. We also found it hard to see utopian potential in cases where ownership and control was glossed over. The presence (though not exclusive) of top-down visions rather than those arising from the multitude limited what kinds of utopian visions were available across the exhibit. If we are looking for utopia, a key question is whose utopia are we seeing? What kinds of quality of life and what kinds of distributions of access are present in various utopias? Finally, by deciding on a primary goal, even an important one, we do shut down other approaches that might have centred on a different utopian ideal. The focus on productivity in some ways limits the things that can be accomplished by a utopia.

Practicing Utopia
Though we saw limitations on utopia in the exhibit, this tension in our group discussion showed how utopia might be a useful concept to exercise anyway. Maybe utopianism is a way of thinking that can be enabled or limited. Perhaps it is like a muscle that can be exercised and we can get better at flexing utopian thinking as we try to tell stories about low carbon futures.

Laura Tozer is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Toronto and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council CGS Doctoral Scholar.


Utopia as an Option at IABR–2016