Thursday, January 14, 2010

Optimism: Say It's So

A public art project that links New York's subway system with the idea of "optimism" is bound to attract some cynicism, if not outright ridicule. That's because public transit everywhere in the world is one of the more popular targets for complaint, vitriol and even fist-shaking rage.

However, radical optimists seek out optimism in the hardest places - and where better than the subways of New York?

A campaign instigated by Manhattan designer Reed Seifer to distribute 14 million Metrocards emblazoned with the word "Optimism" to New York commuters kicked off in November last year under the MTA’s Arts in Transit program. He’s been an optimism promoter since the early 80s after an experience as a young boy with his father and a homeless man. He wrote a thesis on optimism and then started selling buttons. Now he’s reached exponential scale. The naysayers were quickly vocal - "I am optimistic that the MTA is mismanaged and the fares will continue to go up while service goes down", and the sarcastic sucker-punch: "I feel better already."

It’ll be interesting to see what effect the campaign has. Is simply putting a positive word out there into the atmosphere enough to cause social change? I’m a great believer in the power of language to change the entire conversation. This is how Lovemarks came about – I wanted to change the whole paradigm of brand management which had run out of juice. Love is the most provocative act of all, and people can get remarkably jumpy at the prospect of getting close to Love. One of the ways we started to propagate the idea of Lovemarks in Saatchi & Saatchi was to simply use the word a lot – in emails and conversations. Do it naturally, don’t overdo it – but just do it!

Whether Optimism is as compelling as Love is yet to be seen. I’ve called myself a Radical Optimist – not an everyday garden variety, but a committed evangelist. Reed Seifer is therefore a Radical Optimist, taking the notion beyond the “glass is half full” cliché.

Radical Optimism is not about seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses; it's about taking notice of the roses that are out there - and getting out there to plant some more. Negativity and pessimism is easy. As the MTA campaign reminds us, traveling through life with some optimism in our back pocket is a great idea for us and for those around us.

Oh and here's the thing - the New York transit system is a world-beater, and it deserves better than the relentless negativity that seems to be directed its way. Did you know that New York is one of the most sustainable cities on the planet - per capita greenhouse emissions are around a third of the rest of the USA - and that's largely thanks to the subway system, and the five million people who use it every day.