At Issue: Dreamers vs. Visionaries

Visionaries build their own future. Dreamers sit on the couch and watch Star Wars.

by / April 9, 2012

The Intelligent Community Forum’s selection of a visionary for 2012 brings to mind a paradox about visionaries. The dictionary definition of visionary describes such a person as having “vision or foresight,” but also says they are “dreamy,” “unrealistic” and “utopian.”

Take Steve Jobs, for example. He envisioned something like an iPad decades earlier than its release. He was fired from the company he created, by the CEO he hired. Jobs went off and created NeXT, then was hired back to rescue Apple from ruin and did so. Now his mobile devices -- like the iPad  -- are changing the world. He had vision and foresight, but that wasn’t nearly enough. It took plenty of push too. The difference seems to be when the dream collides with reality -- visionaries act, while the “dreamy” fall by the wayside.

A visionary can look at a patch of rubbish-strewn ground, for example, and envision a park. One could say that is unrealistic, because the reality is the rubbish-strewn patch of ground. Anybody can see it, smell it and perceive its reality. Everybody is in agreement on what it is. It takes a visionary to imagine what it could be -- clean, with grass and playground equipment, full of kids having a good time.

The “dreamy” might idly speculate that a park would be nice -- and then take a nap. The visionary, though, would begin communicating the vision, get organized, make a plan and push what has been envisioned through the barriers – the costs, the apathy, the “nobody will want to bring their kids here” mentality. Too often, the dreamy become fixated on the obstacles and freeze like Han Solo stuck in carbonite during the famous Star Wars scene. Here’s where the dream is tested, as it must be real enough for the visionary to follow -- like a snowcapped mountain peak across a valley of mud, hedgerows, barbed wire and chasms.

So how would a visionary see the community of the future? Some experts have said that we will all live in megacities – more efficient that way – with less wasted energy and resources. Live in an apartment box, and share the walls with five other apartment boxes. Some have suggested we live in shipping crates stacked on one another. Some say smaller is better and we should live in houses that fit into one parking space, on streets lined with closed-circuit TV cameras and public transit stations, eating vegetables and using condoms.

Others want something better. When moviemakers envision an ideal community, they might choose Italy’s Lake Como. It was the filming location for home planet Naboo in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. Casino Royale was also filmed there. In ancient times, Roman generals vacationed in lakeside villas to escape the heat of the capital.

Lake Como has esthetics and opulence. Nature carved the lake amid towering mountains and people did the rest. But not all communities have the benefits of Italian lakes and mountains, and visionaries are needed to create those environments -- the pipes and fiber-optics, the wire, the roads and power plants, landscaping, schools and markets, the homes where people will live, the parks where kids can play.

There are too many obstacles for the fragile constitution of a daydreamer. They sit back on the couch, tune in to Dr. Oz and worry about blood pressure. Someone else will build their future.

Visionaries built the Interstate Highway System, dug the Panama Canal and put men on the moon. Visionaries have already imagined a bridge between the United States and Russia across the Bering Sea, and a space elevator made of nanofibers. Some visionary likely will land a person on Mars, and maybe, just maybe, some visionary will finally put a high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The filmmaker George Lucas, in an interview, said that he envisioned the entire Star Wars series all at once. He brought those stories to film and changed our lives. So here’s to visionaries: The Force is with them.

At Issue: What is a visionary, and who would you nominate?

Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.