AS chaotic as the world is, you have to at least be able to imagine a better future if there is to be any hope for one. It’s not always easy, but amid crisis you must maintain an eye for opportunity, for a way to take a bad situation and create a better one from it.

Take our high streets, for example. Stories about them these days are rarely positive; we’ve been hearing for years now of their decline, and we see the evidence in our town centres all over the country. It’s easy to fall into nostalgia and to pine for older days, but when change has become inevitable, it’s a futile exercise.

This week, the Scottish Retail Consortium warned of further decline in Scotland’s high streets, with 16,000 jobs lost between 2008 and 2015. It prompted business bigwigs to call for more action to try and revive our local shopping centres.

But while we may hear talk of business rates and investment and of the need for government to do more to support employment and local economies, there’s no denying that many of the problems we’re seeing are part of a bigger shift in the way society carries out its business.

All of this is often compressed into the easy catch-all of “automation”. But while we may instantly conjure up images of robots, artificial intelligence and self-driving cars, at the moment it refers to much more mundane things.

It’s the increasing number of self-service checkouts in your local supermarket (and let’s face it, the rise of these monster stores inflicted a lot of damage on our town centres before automation even came into play); it’s the online systems that allow you to shop until your heart’s content without ever having to encounter a human being. And while we may lament the loss of jobs and the dwindling rights for workers as a result, the truth is that we enjoy the ease of it.

This is already causing problems, but we’re moving towards a full-blown crisis. In Britain alone, a further loss of jobs in the years to come combined with a welfare system that isn’t equipped to cope with it is a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, when we have a five-year election cycle, it can be difficult to find politicians offering a genuine, thorough, costed, long-term vision. Instead, it’s often left to the “thinkers” in society to speculate about what all of this means, at both a practical and ideological level.

The lucky thing, if you choose to be an optimist like me, is that we’re living in the era where we have a choice. Capitalism has already endured a massive crisis, the crash of 2008, and many economists believe that the actions taken to “fix” it were not much more than sticking plasters. Furthermore, the rapid advance in technology simply seems incompatible with the system. Industries all over the world have suddenly lost their monetisation models and are scrambling to plug the gaps. Automation may be a way to cut staffing costs, but what’s the point if everybody’s unemployed and can’t afford to buy your product?

Automation could be a great thing if it’s done with good ideals. Earlier this year, the co-author of an IPPR report into automation, Mathew Lawrence, pointed out that ownership of technology really is the most crucial question when it comes to how automation will ultimately transform society: “If automation is to underpin a future of shared prosperity, we urgently need to develop new models of collective ownership. As automation grows, ‘Who owns the robots’ becomes a vital determinant of the distribution of prosperity.”

So while there is obviously a case for government and business to do all it can in the short term to deter the impact of much deeper economic changes, it would be a grave mistake to do any of it without thinking ahead to the long term.

Ideas for the future include the introduction of a universal basic income – a sum of money every citizen is entitled to in order to ensure a decent standard of living, and something that may be essential if jobs for the masses disappear on a gargantuan scale. It could enable people to pursue more creative or aspirational vocations in the gap left by the loss of traditional jobs.

The question of funding brings us back to the uncomfortable truth that the majority of the world’s wealth is held by very few people, and crisis after crisis shows us how untenable this situation is. The money exists, but much of it stashed away in tax havens.

The questions facing our high streets are part of something much bigger, and instead of wallowing in the misery of decline, we quickly need to move on to a more hopeful reimagining of how our local and global economies can work best and embrace the fact that technology could be a wonderful thing that, in the end, improves our lives immeasurably.

We need to get our thinking caps on and let out imaginations run wild. Our declining towns can be a source of remorse, or they can be a blank canvas.