I encountered the term “practical visionary” while investigating the history of the Middlesex Fells Reservation recently in preparation for a local meeting involving public lands and open space. The Middlesex Fells is a plot of 2,575 acres of public land only 5 miles from Boston. It is a Mecca for mountain bikers, runners and hikers, cross country skiers, dog owners, picnickers and people just looking to enjoy nature close to home.
Practical visionaries in the public realm deserve the same recognition as our Pantheon of private entrepreneurs. We venerate Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and many others for forging value from their passionate visions. The visionary is the person who senses opportunities for what can be in the realities of what we can see today. The practical visionary is the person who can realize those visions.
We experience the new reality created by practical visionaries as we drive our cars (or ride our bikes, popularized by entrepreneur Albert Augustus Pope, who also became an effective campaigner in the Good Roads Movement, advocating for modern public ways before motorcars were invented) and use our computers. And we experience the new reality created by practical visionaries when we enjoy a public park or travel on a public way. Creating the Middlesex Fells, which I enjoy regularly, took dogged persistence and multiple innovations in organization and law before it came to fruition. Innovations included the first land trust gift, new powers of eminent domain, and new public organizations. As is often the case in the public realm, the campaign to create the Fells involved countless meetings.
“Practical Visionaries” are often successful across multiple realms. Elizur Wright, credited with first envisioning the Fells, was also known as "father of life insurance" for applying mathematical theory to real world insurance problems. He was an inventor and manufacturer and an editor in several fields as well a public official and campaigner for the abolition of slavery and for life insurance regulation.
Practical visionaries cannot be a “pure idealists” or ideologues. Ideologues see what they want to see. Ideologues are blind to certain elements of current reality or future possibility. Ideologues can only see and use facts that fit their world view. Practical visionaries are willing to “get their hands dirty.”
Your campaign team should include practical visionaries like the men and women who saw the potential for a public park in the rough and tumble outskirts of the rapidly expanding metropolitan area of Boston. You need team members who can grasp trends and creatively turn them in favorable directions, and who can really make things happen, on the ground.