The Power of ‘What if?’

“You see, the what ifs are as boundless as the stars.”
― Sally Gardner

Every once in a while, it is worthwhile to raise some ‘what if’ questions. Often, these are the ones with the greatest rewards in terms of opening up new perspectives and new lines of thought. Imagining – alone or in a team – a reality that does not (yet) exist, is a way of stretching the boundaries of (y)our understanding. Phrased like this – to imagine a yet non-existent reality – it is a perfect definition of ‘designing’. What else does a designer do, than synthesize a range of rational, emotional, intellectual and intuitive pieces of ‘information’  into an imaginary reality. The power of this specific kind of imagination – to design – is closely related to the ability to continuously raise the ‘what if’ question, whether appropriate or not. What if we make our highways more responsive to climatic conditions and to its users; what if we use fluorescent (glow in the dark) paint to light the roads and save energy and increase road safety, what if we use those immense surfaces of black asphalt to generate and store energy? Those must have been the kind of questions that Dutch artist/engineer Daan Roosegaarde must have been asking himself while working on the Smart Highway project ( And in a practice like he has they must be encountering such fascinating challenges almost on a daily basis, operating the ‘what if’ question as a modus operandi to unleash the creative potential of interdisciplinary teams.

Another explicit and very fascinating ‘What If’ question I stumbled upon quite recently was the question that American scholar Benjamin Barber asked himself, while working on his most recent book: “If Mayors Ruled the World” ( (What) if, Mayor ruled the world, … instead of presidents, kings, prime-ministers or other heads of state. This is a fascinating question and a critique on the role of the nation state. The revealing subtitle of the book is: “Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities.” Barber argues, convincingly and very elegant, that many of todays most pressing global challenges (like climate change, unemployment, democracy) are in fact much better targeted at the level of cities rather than by nation states or international institutions of nation states. The ideology and resentment, locked-in in a dialogue between nation states, is surprisingly absent at the level of city government which, by nature and necessity is much more pragmatic. Mayors have to make things work, for their citizens and constituency. If air pollution is bad, then citizens will complain directly to their cities governors. And if citizens are dissatisfied, ultimately they either vote with their feet (i.e., leave) or they use their voting rights at the ballot and make sure that their discontent gets prioritized. A good example is the ad-hoc but effective policy of traffic regulation in Paris recently, due to the alarming rise of air pollution. No nation state could ever have implemented such measures the way that the city did. In our globalized world it is an intriguing  mind-game to imagine that in fact cities would be the executive level of our governments. Already, cities collaborate in initiatives such as the C40 to outperform their respective nation states to meet or surpass environmental standards such as agreed upon (but hopelessly failed to meet) in the Kyoto protocol. There are many more examples in which cities are much more effective to face the challenges of modern society than nation states could ever be. Clearly, Barbers reasoning, in some ways resembles a ‘design’, an imaginary reality, constituted by creative reasoning and the courage to raise surprising and sometimes uncomfortable ‘what if’ questions.

I truly look forward to visit Benjamin Barbers lecture next week in the ‘Forward Thinkers’ series, initiated by Brabant Kennis ( ) I promise to be back and write a blog about his speech and the (What if) questions that he will raise. Image


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