The City of Hope:
The first step to a better future is imagining one

Gerry Hassan

The Point, November 2nd 2008

Hope is not ignoring … the challenges that stand between you and your dreams. Hope is imagining, and then fighting for, and then working for, struggling for what did not seem possible before.

Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope

Thinking of the future is one of the characteristics of being human. It can be seen in the visions of the future of H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and films such as Tom Cruise’s ‘Minority Report’.

Another way of imagining the future has been provided by government, corporates and public institutions who have used what is called  ‘futurology’ and scenario building and planning to assess how the world will look from the interests of these elites.

In the last couple of years I have led two major futures projects, Scotland 2020 and Glasgow 2020, which aspired to widen the conversation about the future and nurture and develop different ways of imagining the future. This was both a process and an end point – in democratising the future.

Scotland 2020 began by addressing the power of negative accounts of Scotland post-devolution and assessing if there were more positive accounts. From Scotland 2020 came the more ambitious idea of Glasgow 2020 – taking a city and seeing if it was possible to have a public conversation and mass imagination exercise about the future.

With nearly two years of activities, Glasgow 2020 involved over 5,000 local people in events or directly with the project, amounting to nearly one percent of the city.

Glasgow 2020 was an imagination exercise, not a consultation. Instead of operating within the system, Glasgow 2020 sat outside the system, while engaging with it through its twenty project partners ranging from the city council to health, fire, police and universities. Animation, fun, humour, creativity and fuzziness were the main characteristics of our events.

Discussions did not focus on peoples’ identities as ‘single parents’, ‘young Asians’ and ‘creative entrepreneurs’, and instead developed a general and structured conversation about the future.

Different public spaces were used, including everyday public spaces such as libraries, museums, community centres and cafes. There was also a strand that encouraged the disruptive use of public space such as taking over Glasgow-Edinburgh trains, hiring a boat sailing up and down the River Clyde equipped as an office for the day, and running a Saturday of events in the city’s biggest art gallery and museum.

One of the central pillars of Glasgow 2020 was the power of story. Stories matter and are a key way we understand our lives and the world around us. The project encouraged people to create, imagine and develop their own stories, characters and storylines of the city of the future.

It developed dozens of stories from activities, which coalesced into seven different types of story, the city and future, all of which were evident in the city today. Thus, none of the seven were sci-fi or dystopian, as each was an exaggeration or development of some part of today.

During Glasgow 2020 everywhere we went we found people that expressed hope for themselves, their family and friends, their neighbourhood and
city. From the poorest to the most affluent areas, young to old, Glasgow born and bred to recently arrived, people had a sense of hope and showed that they had individual or collective ways they acted upon this.

What was evident on numerous occasions was that people were often slow and hesitant to feel they could get in touch or find the right language and words to articulate this hope. However, when we moved our discussions from the general part into the explicit story creation element, hope flourished in a myriad of ways.

It has increasingly become a cliché to talk about the scale of ‘hopelessness’ in disadvantaged areas or people who rely on state benefits, and this has led to government policy in recent years becoming increasingly authoritarian and punitive. However, this approach seems to be based on false assumptions.

Superficial engagement with people as ‘single parents’ or ‘unemployed people’ can lead to them struggling and failing to find words for the hopes and dreams they have in their hearts. However, if you speak and listen to people as fellow human beings and in particular use the power of story and story creation, people get in touch with their real feelings.

There were differences between different groups on this. Women were by and large more hopeful and optimistic about the future than men. What was even more revealing was that more women had a view of change which saw them do things, was more micro, local and flexible. More men had the idea of change as macro, being something that was done to you by politicians and others.

One of the missing elements that arose in our discussions about the city and the future was the question of ‘agency’. In an age when political parties are narrow groups with unrepresentative memberships, and trade unions and churches have declined, what institutions can people create and call their own, which can give voice to their hopes, beliefs and aspirations?

This issue touches on a question people are looking for answers to across the world, and we came up with the suggestion of developing what we termed as ‘assemblies of hopes’. These would be networks, initiatives and groups which like Glasgow 2020 sat outside the system, but engaging with it.

Embryonic ‘assemblies of hope’ already exist across the city in a variety of settings and styles, ranging from artistic and cultural projects such as Studio Warehouse Glasgow to the visual arts festival Glasgow international, which has morphed into something engaging with and reimaging public space.

‘Assemblies of hope’ are only one suggestion from a project that was filled and shaped by hope, optimism and peoples’ belief in themselves, others and that of the city. Glasgow 2020’s work has led on to all sorts of initiatives: a music album, postcards of different cities of the future, and numerous public agencies which have changed their consultation processes due to the project.

Glasgow 2020 showed a different vision of the city and of the future, and ultimately it pointed to a very different, more organic notion of change.

Gerry Hassan, Eddie Gibb and Lydia Howland (eds), Scotland 2020: Hopeful Stories for a Northern Nation, Demos 2005;

Gerry Hassan, Melissa Mean and Charlie Tims, The Dreaming city: Glasgow 2020 and the Power of Mass Imagination, Demos 2007.