Answering some questions about Imagination Infrastructures.
Earlier this week I did a session on Imagination Infrastructures for a few different communities that came together for one event: the Wasan Network, Transition Innovation Group and the Social Innovation Exchange — all of which are global networks.
- The Wasan Network organises monthly calls to learn with and from each other about the question: How do we successfully apply collaborative approaches (communities, networks, ecosystems, alliances, field building) in our work for systemic social change?
- The Transition Innovation Group — is a group that connects bi-weekly to explore reimagining an equitable and integrated view of the infrastructures needed for long-term societal transition and for future generations to come.
- The Social Innovation Exchange is a global network that has been growing the field of social innovation for over 15 years.
I shared briefly about my current transitions practice and then, as requested, focussed most of the talk on Imagination Infrastructures. These were my slides.
What’s not in the slides?
There are a few things that sharing the slides doesn’t cover -
Why does this idea of collective, social or public imagination even matter? Read this blog, which also links to many others.
At the start of the session I invited people to step into an imaginal place and I tried something new, drawing on the geology of a place and deep time, nature-as-imagination-infrastructure, and collective heart-tuning (something that Vanessa Andreotti talks about — co-sensing and scaling the heart to the collective level). I’m starting to really enjoy doing this kind of journeying with people and hope to experiment with it more in our practice space at the The Centre for Collective Imagination.
There were also many great questions in the session, some of which I answered and some there just wasn’t time for, so I said I’d put them all into a blog (and I have grouped a few together).
1. I’m interested in what kinds of skills/capacities you think are necessary preconditions to step into collective imagination work? What sort of scaffolding must be in place? What are you requiring from the people whom you invite into these discourses & projects, especially when it’s place-based?
In the 52 Emerging Futures grants we did across the UK back in 2020, we definitely learnt a lot about skills, capacities and preconditions.
Obviously people had come together to apply for the grant, so they wanted to do the work. It wasn’t being imposed on them. There was already a commitment and an impetus to do it. However, some of the founding groups for the work (those that put in the grant applications) wanted to expand the group and bring in more people over time and a greater diversity. Those that did this well had skills in organising, movement-building and social campaigning. They also thought carefully about the design of the invitation. New Constellations is a great example, where they brought together a really diverse group in the community of Barrow through multiple channels of engagement — a hotline number, a series of billboards, posters all over the town in bus stops, corner shops etc, adverts on the local radio station and so forth. People ‘applied’ to become part of the New Constellations journey and this created a real energy and interest in the work. It also meant that there was a wider group of people invested in it who could take part in other ways.
The kinds of skills that we saw people bring into the work included -
- Embodied and somatic practices — ways that meant people could access new and different perspectives through other kinds of intelligences, and also to do healing and processing work as a foundation to this.
- Creativity — designing ways for people’s creativity to come to life through making available different kinds of materials and encouraging experimentation and play.
- Immersive environments — some people used sound as a way to create visceral experiences that transported people to different times and places and others built speculative environments as a way to create concrete experiences of potential futures.
- Hosting and facilitation — for not only holding the practice spaces for this work, but especially the space for collective sensemaking — a vital aspect of what makes this a collective endeavour — the interpretations of what the collective imagines.
- Design and visualisation (that honours complexity)— which includes not only the design of the whole journey that people might go on (experience design and process design), the design of any artefacts or prompts to support speculative activity or immersion, but also the design and visualisation of people’s collective imaginings as they are happening, as they are being interpreted and as they build up over time.
What this isn’t is just taking some art materials into a community space and sitting together with the question — what’s our shared vision of the future. There are practices and skills involved in this work. There is a rigour and a craft as Superflux describes about their own practice of creating high-fidelity futures — “truly high fidelity — not merely on a surface level, but deeply considered with nuance, granularity, experience, and insight.”
There is a tension in this work between building it as a capacity in communities — so that over time, with practice, communities can do this work largely by themselves, and also knowing that the skill and craft isn’t necessarily something that everyone has. Another tension is between the resource costs of some of this work versus the desire to spread it where you may make a trade-off between spreading capacity, but losing some of that ‘high-fidelity’ that Superflux speaks of. There are people exploring these tensions and experimenting with these trade-offs.
Regardless of where different projects sit, they all need to be resourced to have time, space and be able to bring in those additional skills where needed. They also need to be directly connected to and working with resource holders and decision-makers. And this is why some of the work I’m doing is about trying to bring more resources into this space. As one group commented — and I hear this a lot — “funding is usually very limited for those trying to imagine futures because a lot of resources are responsive to the ongoing emergencies.” Of course we need funding to go to immediate need, but not all funding, and the proportions are way out of balance right now.
2. I’m curious about the before and after. How is trust built to invite people in? How are seeds planted in these containers nurtured afterwards?
Some of this relates to the question above — about the invitation and plural ways to participate, but there are three other aspects to this work that are important in the trust-building.
- The first is that the invitation to take part feels different when you are asking people about their hopes and dreams as Donella Meadows said “We talk easily and endlessly about our frustrations, doubts, and complaints, but we speak only rarely, and sometimes with embarrassment, about our dreams and values.” So many people in the Emerging Futures Fund spoke of how rarely they are asked about their hopes and dreams, and then also supported to know how to answer that in a way that feels much more resonant, lasting and meaningful than happens in a simple consultation. “The length of time and the pace of the work felt like an ongoing, shared deep listening and embodied enquiry process, not an extractive consultation process” is how one participant described the work in Barrow.
- We also heard how people felt like this was work that was contributing to their community, as well as to future generations. “We dream not just for ourselves, but as a part of, and for, the wider communities in which we live or will leave behind.”
- The other is that the work is nurtured through resources and feedback loops. People stayed connected to the work and to each other because they were invested in the relationships that had been created and what felt like shared dreams, but they could also very practically see how those dreams were being heard by decision-makers. In Hastings these dreams were fed into the Local Council’s plans and in Barrow, where the Local Council had been a partner all the way through, the dreams became policies — making up a future manifesto for the town.
3. What types of sites of practice seem to best support functioning as vehicles for collective imagination?
I think this relates to the slide that shows the different types of infrastructures that are drawn on in the work. From the 2020 Emerging Futures Fund grants and how I’ve seen some of those initiatives develop, I’d say the most common sites that have best supported the work are those that have had a local space like a community centre that they have been able to use over time — spaces that have become an ‘Imagination Lab’ or an ‘Imaginarium.’ Other groups have spent time out in the natural world, very much using sites to connect to the more-than-human world and a wilderness that has been useful for taking people outside of the familiar. In some of the place-based initiatives historical and symbolic sites in those places were also visited as a way of connecting to a shared sense of deep-time, pride, belonging and ancestry (both past and future).
4. Is there a place (or places) where there is a repository, or sample, of practices for this work?
There is a link here to a ‘play book’ and also a list of practitioners (this is very UK-centric). Also lots of great resources and links on this website and in this blog post.
Then there were a few comments and questions that have really stayed with me -
Brian made a great comment about a challenge he’s noticed that can come with an invitation to collective imagination “when individuals are comfortable/skillful at different scales (some people thrive dreaming about a house, others a neighbourhood, others a city, others a country, etc.)” which related to Darcy’s question about how much is this about the local and a place, versus something more global. I think some of this is about playing with different practices that zoom in and out in terms of time (ancestors and future generations like the Long Time Project encourages), or place (from neighbourhood to cosmos which Civic Square does really well in the Dept. of Dreams) — and there will be other scales to work with. And then I think there are other practices that connect us to a sense of the universe or way beyond our local places — with practices that draw on the materiality of places — where have things been made, where have the materials come from — all of this provenance is important to connect our imaginations into the memories of who we are, how we are all entangled. There are also a group of us exploring how imagination infrastructures align with the work of planetary governance and the global commons. This is super exciting!
I’ll end on something one of the group shared back in the chat after their group discussion — “We talked about how investing in making collective imagination a field might help it connect to resources that lift it onwards into practice / policy / reality.” Yes! And this is the work we are trying to do here in the UK, and I’d love to connect with others as we try to grow this field across other geographies or link up with others doing the same in other places.
These are some of the links that people shared that I found especially inspiring -
To connect with Wasan Network, check out their Google Group for upcoming events
To connect with Transition Innovation Group (TIG) contact Michelle Baldwin, TIG Facilitator, email@example.com