Utopia challenges the reality we know

Utopia is often thought of as a literary genre. The typical view, posited by Thomas More and other classic authors and philosophers, views utopia as a place that does not exist. In the Utopia as a method project at the Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy, however, utopia is defined as a way of thinking that allows us to study an era without the restrictions of our current reality.

– In social scientific research, utopia could function as a method for thinking critically about society, Project Leader Olli-Pekka Moisio says.

The aim of the project is to formulate a new social scientific view of utopia as a method for understanding society.

– There have always been dreamers, who have been the ones to advance society and the world at large. In science, this type of thinking needs to have scientific grounds, Moisio says.

The utopian way of thinking is being tested in different spatial, temporal and functional contexts. The project studies how utopian thinking could be advanced through humour, city planning and architecture, for example. Utopia has broad potential applications in our society.

– You don’t often think to consider the political aspect of architecture, for instance. It regulates how people move in spaces and even determines how we come together. In cities and shopping malls, we are being led through certain routes even though we think that we’re the ones making the choices. There’s also a marketing aspect: stores and advertisements are placed in just the right spots, Moisio says.

When it comes to city planning, Moisio thinks that there is room for phenomenological thinking about what the factors are that force us to pay attention to our environment.

– If you allow your gaze to wander away from what you usually look at, you can suddenly notice something new in your surroundings, such as beautiful architectural shapes. In such a moment, a reorientation of thinking – a utopian moment – occurs, Moisio describes.

Utopia can be found through negatives

Moisio says that he appreciates the method of negative thinking: we can describe the negative aspects of our reality and yet highlight that they are actually rooted in positives, which should be embraced in order to develop society.


– For example, social media has been shown to cause psychological issues and even depression, but the positive side is that at least people are connecting with each other. That is its utopian aspect, Moisio explains.

The project also studies genuine utopian movements, in which people decide to act differently through forms of collaboration, such as networks that promote locally produced food. These collaborations aim to create a new way of organizing economy and human activity. The goal is to increase global justice, equality, equity and eco-friendliness. There is also a negative capitalist aspect to such arrangements, however.

– Even though local food networks are a positive thing in theory, they are still forms of consumption. Consuming has merely been ‘dressed up’, and at the same time, ethical consumption has become an activity that increases a person’s market value. I suppose that for some, it’s a way of buying a clean conscience and a certain status, Moisio ponders.

Inserting real utopia into education and politics

Moisio says that being utopian requires deeply critical thinking. The goal of such thinking is something other than advancing your own career or interests.

That is why Moisio wishes that education placed more focus on promoting thinking skills. Studies show that skills in utopian thinking and finding unusual solutions get weaker as a child gets more education, and this needs solving.

– How can we promote, through education, the kind of thinking that is both organized and fact-based, but also free and associative? This kind of thinking has great demand when it comes to matters like the challenges that come with artificial intelligence, Moisio notes.

Moisio is also worried about the way that politics has embraced utopian thinking. The goal there is not for people to become free to live according to their skills and to fully grow as people, but instead, utopian thinking is used to advance personal agendas.

– The modern era is full of utopian speech: we are looking for new school curricula, new forms of employment, and new innovations, all of which are inspired by the phrase ’think outside of the box’. Are these utopias that – thanks to the current political climate – turn more into dystopias that dissolve what’s left of our welfare state, Moisio asks.

Moisio does not believe that utopias fit well within pragmatic politics. In the age of austerity, utopias that wish to improve the state of humanity are getting drowned by the noise.

– Politicians probably think that they are the grown-ups, whereas utopian thinkers are seen as naive children, because children are able to think differently, Moisio says.

Utopia metodina (Utopia as a method) project.

  • Funding by: Koneen Säätiö (2017–2019)
  • Project website (in Finnish): https://utopiametodina.wordpress.com/
  • Project members: Olli-Pekka Moisio (Project Leader), Teppo Eskelinen, Jarno Hietalahti, Mikko Jakonen, Keijo Lakkala, Aleksi Lohtaja and Miikka Pyykkönen

Text and images: Sari Laapotti. Translation from Finnish to English: Katri Mustonen.