During recent talks in Oslo and Malmö, I’ve been showing how a simple shift in thinking can open awareness and generate new possibilities. My goal in that specific part of the presentation is to get audiences to expand their thinking about how existing urban assets could be used in different ways, but the “conditional thinking” approach is an inspiring mindset to have when approaching anything, so I wanted to expand on it here.


Look at the image above and say to yourself “This could be a rubber band.” For some, this might seem a ridiculous statement. “It obviously is a rubber band”, comes the reply. Which is exactly the mindset we’re trying to move beyond. By using a conditional description of the object, we open a channel of awareness in our minds; if this “could be” one thing, then it could be other things as well.

This is more than one of the many ideas that come to me at 35,000 feet while flying on my way to a talk; there’s solid research behind it.

Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer performed an experiment showing how conditional thinking expands our awareness of possibilities. Two groups of participants performed an exercise in which they made errors while using a pencil. One group was given a rubber band and told “This is a rubber band.” In that group, 3% realized that the rubber band could also be used as an eraser.

The other group, having also made errors with a pencil, were given a rubber band, but in this group, it was introduced with the statement “This could be a rubber band.” Of that group, 40% realized that it could also be used to erase their mistakes.

As Langer and her co-author Alison Piper summarize, by using “a simple linguistic variation” [this could be instead of this is] “a different need was then generated for which the object in question was not explicitly suited but could fulfill.”

Imagine the possibilities if the mindset were applied to all the existing structures, surfaces and systems that make up the city, or for that matter, any of the objects and assets we come in contact with every day. That’s what my current initiative, Reprogramming the City, is all about, and is pretty much the foundation for all the work I’ve done around the world: doing more with what we already have by expanding awareness of the tremendous possibilities inherent in the every day.

For example, most cities look at billboards and say “This is a billboard. This is a source of revenue.”


But in areas of Lima, Peru in desperate need of fresh drinking water, an agency looked at a billboard and said “This could be a structure to harvest and provide fresh drinking water for citizens.”

UTEC Water Billboard
UTEC Water Billboard, Lima, Peru

It all begins by simply introducing ourselves to things with a conditional mindset: “This could be…”

There has never been a more important time for “This could…”

The opportunity and possibility unlocked by these words creates hope for a sustainable and resourceful future.

We all once had this outlook as children – any thing could be anything in the rich imagination we possessed at one time. For most, the power of that imagination gets pushed deep down and is sometimes lost as we grow and learn. I’m a firm believer that it is still there in all of us, and sometimes it takes nothing more than allowing us to approach the world with a “this could be…” mindset.

“When subjects were asked explicitly to generate novel uses for the target items, they had no difficulty doing so. However, given the way we are traditionally taught, it simply does not occur to us to think creatively unless explicitly instructed to do so.” – Langer and Piper

A lot of generation and fulfillment can be unleashed by conditional thinking. Accessing these different needs and generating new ideas is within reach of everyone. The first step is to make room by removing preconceived notions. That’s why recently I’ve begun my talks with a quote from Miyamoto Musashi, a 16th century swordsman:

“The purpose of today’s training is to defeat yesterday’s understanding.”

A useful mental exercise for doing this comes via a parable known as “The Teacup Story.” The story has been told for centuries in many versions. The story is about is about a man seeking wisdom from a Zen master. It is a great parable about making room for new approaches. Here’s one version:

Once, a long time ago, there was a wise Zen master. People from far and near would seek his counsel and ask for his wisdom. Many would come and ask him to teach them, enlighten them in the way of Zen. He seldom turned any away.

One day an important man, a man used to command and obedience came to visit the master. “I have come today to ask you to teach me about Zen. Open my mind to enlightenment.” The tone of the important man’s voice was one used to getting his own way.

The Zen master smiled and said that they should discuss the matter over a cup of tea. When the tea was served the master poured his visitor a cup. He poured and he poured and the tea rose to the rim and began to spill over the table and finally onto the robes of the wealthy man. Finally the visitor shouted, “Enough. You are spilling the tea all over. Can’t you see the cup is full?”

The master stopped pouring and smiled at his guest. “You are like this tea cup, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back to me when the cup is empty. Come back to me with an empty mind.”

There is infinite potential when you let go of what something IS and allow yourself to consider what something COULD BE. The potential that all Reprogramming the City projects have revealed depends entirely upon being able to do this. All you have to do is begin with an empty tea cup.

If you’d like to have Reprogramming the City’s Scott Burnham give his full talk on the power of conditional thinking, get in touch!

“You are like this tea cup, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back to me when the cup is empty. Come back to me with an empty mind.”
“You are like this tea cup, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back to me when the cup is empty. Come back to me with an empty mind.”