Making the World Better with Storytelling featuring Joe Tankersley
Making the World Better with Storytelling featuring Joe Tankersley – How to Write the Future podcast, episode 72
“We’re in a time where if we continue to believe only in the negative possibilities, then we won’t make the effort to create positive tomorrows.” – Joe Tankersley
In “Episode 72. Making the World Better with Storytelling featuring Joe Tankersley,” host Beth Barany, creativity coach, teacher, and science fiction and fantasy novelist, talks to storyteller and professional futurist, Joe Tankersley, about the importance of positive future stories and the role of storytelling in shaping the future. Joe shares his own journey as a futurist and storyteller, highlighting the need for diverse and equitable futures. Joe also mentions the concept of “practical utopias” and the potential for communities to experiment with alternative forms of governance, culture, and economic organization. He encourages writers to explore Thrutopian-type stories that offer a middle ground between dystopia and utopia and to seek inspiration from real-world examples of positive change. Beth and Joe also talk about the Space Economy Camp for Writers event and offer advice to writers on exploring new ideas and finding inspiration in positive stories.
Center for Science and the Imagination, Arizona State University: https://csi.asu.edu/
Free World Building Workbook for Fiction Writers: https://writersfunzone.com/blog/world-building-resources/
About the How To Write the Future podcast
The *How To Write The Future* podcast is for science fiction and fantasy writers who want to write positive futures and successfully bring those stories out into the marketplace. Hosted by Beth Barany, science fiction novelist and creativity coach for writers. We cover tips for fiction writers. This podcast is for readers too if you’re at all curious about the future of humanity.
This podcast is for you if you have questions like:
– How do I create a believable world for my science fiction story?
– How do figure what’s not working if my story feels flat?
– How do I make my story more interesting and alive?
This podcast is for readers too if you’re at all curious about the future of humanity.
About Joe Tankersley
Joe Tankersley is a storyteller, futurist, and advocate for better tomorrows. Through his work as a professional futurist, he developed his strategic narrative technique that combines the rigor of foresight research with the imaginative spark of story. This unique combination came out of his 20-year career at Walt Disney Imagineering where he served as writer, creative producer, and internal futurist for the company’s elite Blue Sky Studios. As an independent consultant for the past 6 years, he has helped nonprofits, community groups and change makers Imagineer their best tomorrows.
Joe’s fiction and essays have appeared in New Maps, Disruption Magazine, Solutions, Conscious Company Magazine, and the anthologies, After Shock and Aftershocks and Opportunities. His short story “Gabby’s First Kiss,” from Reimagining Our Tomorrows, Making Sure Your Future Doesn’t Suck. (2018) was a winner of the 2021 Extinction Rebellion Solarpunk Story contest.
Joe has served on the board of directors of the Association of Professional Futurists, The Global Futures Forum, and the Blue Community Consortium.
Learn more at https://joetankersley.com/
Transcript for episode 72 – Making the World Better with Storytelling featuring Joe Tankersley
Hey everyone, welcome to How to Write the Future podcast. I am Beth Barany, your host.
How to Write the Future is a podcast primarily for science fiction and fantasy writers who want to create positive, optimistic futures, because when we imagine what is possible, we actually help make it so.
This podcast is also for anyone who cares about the future and in imagining better tomorrows for everyone. I am an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer, novelist, as well as a writing teacher and coach.
So today is with me, Joe Tankersley. Welcome Joe. So glad to have you here.
Great to be here, Beth.
Fabulous. So I’m going to read Joe’s bio for everyone to get to know Joe a little bit better, and then we’re going to dive into some questions. And then at the end, we’ll tell you how you can get a little support with your writing.
About Joe Tankersley
All right. So Joe Tankersley is a storyteller, futurist, an advocate for better tomorrows.
Through his work as a professional futurist, he’s developed his strategic narrative technique that combines the rigor of foresight research with the imaginative spark of story. This unique combination came out of his 20-year career at Walt Disney Imagineering, where he served as a writer, creative producer, and internal futurist for the company’s elite Blue Sky Studios.
As an independent consultant for the past six years, he has helped nonprofits, community groups, and changemakers imagineer their best tomorrows. Joe’s fiction and essays have appeared in New Maps, Disruption Magazine, Solutions, Conscious Company Magazine, and the anthologies Aftershock and Aftershocks and Opportunities.
His short story, “Gabby’s First Kiss,” from Reimagining Our Tomorrows, Making Sure Your Future Doesn’t Suck, 2018, was a winner of the 2021 Extinction Rebellion Solar Punk Story Contest. Joe has served on the board of directors of the Association of Professional Futurists, the Global Futures Forum, and the Blue Community Consortium.
And a little bit more about Joe’s perspective: All of his writing explores how we can create futures that are abundant, just, and regenerative. As an advocate for the future, Joe believes it is clear that the quote, “dismal science is at the heart of all visions for better tomorrows.” Imagining those better tomorrows starts with understanding the vast range of possibilities offered by heterodox economic theories.
And hopefully, we’ll circle back to that.
And for too many people, late 20th-century capitalism seems an insurmountable barrier to radical change. It is, in short, an imagination killer. By freeing our imaginations from the chains of neoliberal capitalism, we can explore a wider range of possible futures and discover new ways to structure our societies, so that both planet and people thrive.
Joe’s current work in progress, Signals of Hope: Travels Through Post America with Johnny Darlin, is an episodic future travelogue. The main character has been commissioned to visit and report on the communities of hope emerging across North America after the collapse of the United States. Each of the communities he visits offers the opportunity to explore an alternative form of governance, culture, an economic organization.
Great. Wow. Really, really interesting, Joe. Thank you so much again for joining me today.
And just a little bit of background, Joe and I know each other through a community that came together last year that Amanda Scott created called Thrutopia. It was like a class actually, and now we’ve evolved into a writing community and many other things.
So again, thanks Joe for joining me today. And gosh, where do we begin? Is there any opening remarks you want to jump in after, after hearing your bio read back to you?
It’s always depressing to hear your bio read back to you. It just makes me feel like I’m really old, actually. It’s too long, but you know.
Well, you’ve done a lot and that’s important. I mean, your insight adds to the conversation in a way that a lot of people don’t have, have that experience. So you’re really actually adding to the conversation, and I think people, especially the younger generation, they need, they need your wisdom.
Well, I appreciate that.
That’s, that’s, uh, hopefully useful, and, and I’ve been lucky to have the experiences that I’ve had. I’ve had a, you know, a chance to really explore a lot of different avenues throughout the years, which have sort of brought me to where I am today, still asking questions.
That’s fabulous. And I think it’s through those new questions leaning into the unknown that’s going to help us remake humanity and the world we live in through our stories.
Well, we certainly hope so because we definitely need some hope for better tomorrows right now.
Absolutely. And it sounds like your current work in progress will definitely give us some of that hope. So I hope to have you back when that story is done and out in the world.
No, I appreciate that.
And hopefully, that won’t be nearly as long as it’s taken me to get to this point with it.
You know how that is with stories. They come when they come sometimes.
Exactly. I always tell my writers, you know, it takes as long as it takes.
As long as we’re showing up for the work on a regular basis and not shying away from the hard stuff, it’ll get done.
No, no, you go.
I was just going to say that, that is so true, but hard to remember on a day-by-day basis when you’re staring at a blank screen.
Yeah. Yeah. And that’s why I have a lot of tools and techniques to restart after, after being stalled out for whatever reason. I have stalled out so many times, I have such a broad toolkit when it comes to getting started again.
That’s that’s probably a topic for another time.
So I asked you to gather some questions together for me that we could shine a light on for this interview. And I love your first question because I was inspired to start this podcast because I wanted to bring together the world of foresight and futurism, and what futurists do with writing, with creative writing, specifically with science fiction and fantasy because those two genres really lend themselves to creating new ways of being, new ways of thinking. And of course, there’s a lot of mashups there with other subgenres.
So let’s come back to this basic question for our audience, which is, I love the question, which is: what is a futurist? And maybe you can also weave in there how you see yourself as a futurist and what that means for you.
So plainly put, what is a futurist?
Well, you know, there, there are many different flavors. My background, it came out of what we call the professional futures field. And there are people who use a sense of understanding, with deep research, to have a sense of what is possible, what trends might be impacting the future.
They’re not people who predict the future. we can’t do that. What we can do is help people have a better sense of how they can have more power over the future.
And that’s a lot of what the work I do and most of the futurists that I know do. The profession as such is, what, about 70 years old now. It started after World War II.
The RAND Corporation was the people who kind of started all of that. And for most of the last 70 years, in this country, it’s been used by corporations.
In Europe, it’s been very popular amongst governments. And what I’m really interested in is seeing a trend in the work, moving toward doing futures work with community groups, with nonprofits, with people who typically don’t feel like they have power toward the future. And how do we unleash that? So.
Oh, I love that. I love that you’re bringing that to communities and I see that you work with nonprofits, community groups, and I love that you just call them change makers, people who want to bring change out into the world. That’s great. So can you tell us, How did you get interested in creating stories about the future? What’s your genesis there?
Well, I’ll try to keep the story short, because it took a long time to get here. I was working at Walt Disney Imagineering, about a little over 20 years ago. And in part, one of the reasons I was really excited about having that job was I was supposed to be working on the future of Epcot.
And I’d always been fascinated by the future, grew up on science fiction like most of us did, and as a result of that, this is a whole series of steps, right? As a result of that, I went to my my first world futurist futures conference. There used to be a conference every year of futurists. and I was incredibly excited. I was going to go learn about the future from people who knew everything about it. And what I found were a bunch of old white men with gray hair using overhead projectors. This is back in the late 90s. Making the future seem like the most boring place you could imagine.
And as somebody who grew up on science fiction, I knew the future wasn’t boring.
And so I went back the next year and I did a session trying to teach futures how to tell stories. So that was my first introduction, was that these people need to know how to tell stories because they’re missing the whole point.
The second piece was about that time I worked on a project called 100 Years of Magic, which was the life of Walt Disney. And I became really… Interested in his vision, because he was a futurist. In fact, Ray Bradbury calls Walt Disney the optimistic futurist. And I thought that’s what I want to be. But clearly that, those stories that he was telling in the 1960s, aren’t necessarily relevant to where we are today, right?
They created the future we live in. They created the high-tech world that we’re all experiencing today and both the good and the bad that came with that. And so what I really became interested in was how do we reimagine that process to get people engaged with thinking about the future, with believing they can create the future through stories and through stories that have some sort of critical analysis in them.
That’s what led to me deciding I would be a futurist. I pestered my bosses at Disney for probably five years, until finally, they said, okay, you can be a futurist mainly because we just want you to shut up and leave us alone. And so my first professional futures work was as an internal futurist for the Walt Disney Company, which was a great place to start.
Yeah, that’s fabulous. And then the storytelling part, have you just been writing stories all your life? Like how did you get into putting the passion for storytelling into the futurist work?
Sure. Well, I came to the storytelling first. When I first started my career, I was a filmmaker. I actually have a handful of bad B movie credits out there somewhere that fortunately are before the time of YouTube. So nobody can see them. And so I was writing and creating films when I got hired to work for Disney. And so my first job at Disney was also as a storyteller, a writer. That came first. It bled into the futures piece.
Mm hmm. Mm hmm. Oh, that’s great. And, and did you study filmmaking in school? How did you get into filmmaking?
Yeah, I did. So yeah, when I went to college, my undergraduate degree is in literature. And then I went to graduate school for film and television production. That’s why at the time, I was like everybody else. I was going to be a big-time TV director or movie director. And, things change.
Things do change. Did you move to Hollywood? You must’ve lived in LA to work for Disney.
Uh, no, actually I lived in Orlando. Worked at Walt Disney World and that was the thing that also sort of ended my fledgling filmmaking career was I didn’t want to move to Hollywood.
Yeah, back in the day, that’s all.
Back in the day, that’s where you had to be.
Right, right. So I would really love to hear a little bit more for you because it sounds like you are a positive futurist. And I, I didn’t know that about Disney. I mean, I had a feeling, but I hadn’t heard him or I guess an optimist futurist. How did you say it for Disney?
The Optimistic Futurist. That’s what Ray Bradbury referred to him as.
I love that. The Optimistic Futurist. So for you, why do you think positive future stories are important?
Well, as you said in your introduction, the future that we create is based on the stories that we tell about the future.
And it became apparent to me and a lot of other people in the past decade that we had been so deeply immersed in dystopian stories of the future that we had lost our ability to imagine positive futures. It really felt that way. And there’s, there are lots of reasons for that.
I’m sure you know many of them.
But we’re in a time where if we continue to believe only in the negative possibilities, then we won’t make the effort to create positive tomorrows.
And while I, I totally reject the idea that we’re going to somehow solve all our problems and create utopia, the term that I like comes from the Tofflers. It’s called Practopia, creating a future that can be measured to be proven to be better than today.
And you said that’s called what?
Prac Protopia. Practical Utopias as I assume. Yeah. It’s an old term. It came out in one of their early books in the 1970s. and I don’t know why it ever caught on, but it was the one that got me excited about thinking about positive futures.
That’s great. And who did you say the authors were?
That’s Heidi and Alvin Toffler.
Yeah, the Future Shock people.
It is hard to say, so that may be why. And when you hear it the first time, you’re- so there’s something about words that get passed on very easily have to be very easy to say and understand.
So that could be why it didn’t take off. If we called it “practical topia”. Maybe. That’s maybe.
But you know, and part of that too, they were from that same generation as Disney, and their vision for that better future was really about: technology was going to solve all our problems and, you know, etc, etc.
We could just keep getting bigger and better. And I think that’s part of the reason why that whole train of thought probably got somewhat lost over the years.
Tell me why.
Well, I mean, I think the, at least my reading of it, and I grew up at the tail end of all of this time, was the 1950s and 60s, the future was going to be great big, what was a great big beautiful tomorrows, right? Everything was going to be fabulous. And then we got into the 80s, and we realized that technology was creating as many or more problems as it was solving for us. And we went through that sort of 80s to 2000 era with literature particularly, where it became distrustful of technology, where all we could imagine were the terrible things it was going to do.
And so in some ways it’s cyclical, and I think what we’re trying to do again is get back to that hopeful future. But not one that is necessarily dominated by big technology, big governments. Big- Big is kind of not the future that I see when I think about positive tomorrows.
Tell me a little bit more about what you do see then. What are the- if we can get a sneak peek?
Well, I do think, the one thing is that the, there is no future. There are many futures.
They’re very different for all of us. And one of the things that we’ve seen that goes along with what’s happening in society is we are starting to see much more diversity.
So I think the futures will be more diverse than sort of the monolithic future that we’ve had particularly in this country for the last say 100 years or so.
You see already today communities engaging in all sorts of fascinating experiments, everything from new economic systems to places that are trying to change the way they deal with the climate problem. People are talking about at the local level, what are reparations. They’re just all sorts of fascinating experiments out there.
So that’s the positive future for me. It’s where we see people making effort to try new and different things, some of which will fail, a few will succeed, and those are the ones will start to grow.
And maybe more on the community level, because I noticed like in the story that you are working on, it’s about your character is going to different communities and noticing different alternative forms of governance, culture, which Implies so many different things and economic organization, and I’m wondering if you want to share a little bit of your thoughts based on your experience.
Like, for example, when you say culture, different alternative forms of culture, can you tell us a little bit more about some of those ideas you’re playing with?
Sure. You’re Well aware of the work that’s being done in, for instance, solar punk literature today. You know, and the, the whole solar punk kind of mentality is cultures that are very much about embracing diversity, embracing equity, and making that kind of the foundation for everything that they do within the culture. And so we’re seeing a lot of really interesting stories that are coming out of that world. So that’s one of the ones in terms of the culture piece.
The economics piece. It’s interesting for me to think about economics because I am a storyteller. And for years, like most storytellers, I was like, no, not economics. I can’t even balance my checkbook.
And a few years ago, I read Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics. Which I highly recommend to anyone who’s writing fiction. For the first time in my life, I understood economics. I also understood that it was simply a system that was human-made.
And so you could imagine any system you wanted to, particularly as a writer. Just create any kind of wild and crazy idea you wanted to.
And she, of course, has one that is very, interesting and powerful, in that, what if we created an economic system that was based on making sure that as many people as possible got into the safe area, the donut kind of? Everybody had the basic needs, but that we didn’t overshoot and destroy the environment.
So it’s an economic model that says, we’re going to balance what we need with what the planet needs with what other creatures on the planet need. And already places cities around the world are trying to adopt that model.
So that’s another example. That’s the thing that got me excited about what communities can do.
I love it. I just love it. Such great references. We’ll be sure to put in the show description. You are going to an event in Arizona for futurists and storytellers. Can you tell us about this event?
And I think people need to know about it.
Yeah, it’s really interesting. Well, first of all, Arizona State University has what is the Center for Science and Imagination, I believe is the correct title.
They’ve been doing some great storytelling work on this intersection between thinking as a futurist and creating interesting, compelling stories. And they’ve got a great model that they’ve used. They bring together writers, pair them with experts, and basically do what futurists do. They do some workshopping around possible ideas, and the writers go off and write these stories.
So they’ve been doing some really wonderful work for people who are looking for inspiration.
Anyway, this particular workshop is called the, what is it, Space Economy Camp for Writers. And I just happened to hear about it because I was following them. And it’s going to be a three-day workshop where we get to hear from people like the head economist for NASA, other economists, and then we work with some well-known science fiction writers who are really good at world-building.
And we’re going to try to build some worlds to think about what different economic models might be in these different worlds, so.
Oh, I love it. I love it. So up my alley. Wow, this is really great. So, I want to bring the conversation to a close but definitely open the door to further conversations.
Is there any advice that you have to writers out there who are working on their worlds, that they’re building, their stories? Any top advice, one or two or three tips that you can give to writers?
Well, I think the thing that brought us together, the Thrutopian community, is something that I really encourage all writers to think in terms of.
This idea that every story doesn’t have to be either dystopian or utopian. That we need to find a middle ground that’s really about exploring new, interesting ideas that suggest that maybe the future’s messy. But we can still have some success in that future, and we can still make things better.
So I think that’s a change of attitude. Because I think for so long, once again, as I said, we’ve been drummed into the the stories that sell are the ones where Armageddon happens, or the hero saves us from Armageddon. But what about a whole new way of exploring how communities work, how collaboration works?
I think that’s where the fertile ground is.
And the other thing is, is that don’t get hung up on the the sort of hose pipe of information that’s burying all of us. I find that if I can step out of that and really look for little interesting positive stories, and there are a bunch of sources out there that are really great for that.
Yes, Magazine is one. Positive news is another one. Places where you can see what people are doing to make the world a better place.
Every one of those stories could inspire a novel. And every time I read one, I go, that’d be great. I don’t have time to write it now. And so that’s what I would suggest for writers.
That’s fabulous. Well, Joe, thank you so much for being a guest on How To Write The Future. I really appreciate you bringing your insight and this wonderful cross-section interest that you have of futurism and fiction writing. So thank you so much for being on the show today.
Thank you so much for inviting me. I enjoy the conversation like I enjoy all our conversations. Thanks.
Write Long and Prosper
All right, everyone. That’s it for now.
So write long and prosper.
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ABOUT BETH BARANY
Beth Barany teaches science fiction and fantasy novelists how to write, edit, and publish their books as a coach, teacher, consultant, and developmental editor. She’s an award-winning fantasy and science fiction novelist and runs the podcast, “How To Write The Future.”
Learn more about Beth Barany at these sites:
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