Change happens if our collective imagination changes.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Light Coming on the Plains, III, 1917

Sophia shared a few weeks back about the work I’ll be doing with JRF and with a growing group of partners. I’m really glad that a foundation like JRF is investing in this field and especially at this time.

My journey to this work

I was thinking back to where this work started for me and it had been brewing for a while. In early 2019, a year before the pandemic began, I’d been planning some work with Dan Sutch and Catalyst, keen that the ‘digital’ field-building they were doing was using some kind of gravitational pull away from only a service/user-centred lens. We were chatting with Bill Sharpe about some workshops with civil society leaders with the aim of creating a shared compass — imagining other possibilities that would ensure Catalyst’s support took them beyond just making the existing system better. I felt like every civil society meeting I had been in over a few years had been dominated by a view that civil society was there only to deliver services. I felt like we had forgotten, or were failing to imagine, who we could be together.

The reduction of civil society to service delivery was being closely followed by a growing focus on data. I am a fan of data and recognise that swathes of civil society need to build greater competence and capacity in how they consider and work with data. However, as Genevieve Bell says “A data is what has been, not what could be, and therefore is always conservative and constrained.” The nuance needed in conversations about data didn’t seem to be there and it felt (and still does) that the push towards data-driven-evidence-everything was another way in which spaces to imagine other possibilities were being stripped away.

“Designing policy or strategy without an imaginative sense of where you are going means your best efforts will land you toward the front of the status quo, but not ahead of it. Imagination enlightens strategy, policy and programming and helps you break free of institutional thinking that leads you to piecemeal reform.” — Al Etmanski

Back in 2019 I’d also been an ‘expert speaker’ at a citizen assembly with the RSA and DeepMind, engaging the public in trade-off conversations about AI. I do think citizen assemblies have an important role to play but my experience of participating in this process and having been on the advisory board of the Government’s Innovation In Democracy programme it highlighted a few important things for me.

There are limitations to only engaging people to think about the future in an analytical and rational way. We need something to pull us away from the status quo — this comes from feeling and experiencing what else is possible. And deliberative democracy processes can hem things in by only offering choices against a narrow prescribed set of options. If one definition of wisdom is the depth and breadth of context you are willing to take into account in your decision-making, then I would suggest that these methods are not bringing the greatest wisdom possible to what is at stake for our futures.

Which links to another area where I felt like there was a blind spot. So many co-design and participatory approaches never account for the unknown, unknowns — the fact that communities don’t know what they don’t know, or can’t imagine. This sounds really obvious, and it’s certainly something I have repeated 100’s of times the last few years, but it really isn’t very present in the stories people articulate about how they believe things will change. Never have I seen this more starkly than when the ‘communities know best’ mantra seemed to replace a need for more critical or imaginative thinking.

Lastly, after Geoff Mulgan published Big Mind I’d been exploring other aspects of collective intelligence beyond cognition — embodied knowing, public feeling. As Geoff highlighted that collective intelligence brought forth what the collective knows that an individual never can, I wondered what can the collective imagine — or what’s in the collective imagination — that an individual never can, or can access? In Spring 2019 I pitched to TNLCF that we use the Lottery’s 25th Birthday celebrations as an experiment in mass public imagination. They didn’t go for it, but a year later the pandemic forced many of us to reckon with our need to imagine anew.

In Spring 2019 this Tweet led to connecting with a whole group of people exploring social/public/collective imagination. A year later many of them became part of the Emerging Futures Fund when we launched that.

Why the work is important

I don’t need to go in-depth about why this work of collective imagination is important at this time. Sophia covered that in her blog post and it’s also been well documented in the introduction to the Emerging Futures Fund, by Rob Hopkins in his book What If.., the Dept.of Dreams crew, by Geoff Mulgan in his paper on The Imaginary Crisis and more recently in this interview where he talks about imagination being a missing piece in theories of change. I personally believe we are in the shallows, and soon to be depths of, era-defining change.

The pandemic has opened up and widened the cracks in our systems, our belief structures, and our ways of seeing and understanding the world for all to see. It has shown us their precarity and fragility, but it has also shown us that there is hope and possibility in making these systems anew. Ben Okri writes that “there is a time for hope and there is a time for realism. But what is needed now is beyond hope and realism. This is a time when we ought to dedicate ourselves to bringing about the greatest shift in human consciousness and in the way we live.”

The kind of discontinuity that’s happening across multiple systems and ways of living — which feels much more apt a description than ‘disruption’ — is when, as Brain research shows, collective imagination can offer orientation. The task, ultimately, is to understand that these visions are not utopian, as Lola Olufemi puts it, but achievable, and that “we must rise to the challenge with a revolutionary and collective sense of determination; knowing that if we do not see this world, someone else will.” Or to put it even more starkly

“Imagination is a crucial component for collective agency and our broader capacity for long-term survival and thriving as a species.”

What the work will be

Over the next few months I’ll be running a series of workshops and doing further research with a view to taking a proposal to the JRF Trustees in March for a 2 year programme of work. This proposal will be informed by the workshops and co-developed with a field of practitioners and partners that we’ve been in relationship with for some time, as well as those who’ve newly reached out to us.

Of course we are looking to build on and support what already exists — much of which Sophia shared in her blog, and that was established through things like the Imagination Infrastructure event and the community involved in that. There are some things we already know to do, like re-establishing the Community of Practice which MAIA are going to host, initiating a learning programme across work already being done in places and designing a funding programme for experiments in the field.

My specific role is on field-building which includes bringing in new opportunities and partnerships, facilitating collective sense-making, assembling and sharing knowledge, shaping narratives and advancing policy.

We’ll be making more materials like this — to re-socialise our collective imaginations. Thank you to Rubber Republic.

It also means directing funding to the field, unlocking its potential and building capacity across the ecosystem to ensure momentum and collective power. I think of the work of field-building as necessary for creating infrastructure — slow, deep capacity building to support conditions of long-term uncertainty. As Deb Chacha writes, infrastructural systems are by their nature, collective and require long-term investment. I loved Superflux’s idea of scaffolding public imagination as a public service.

From a Superflux slide in early 2020.

I’ll also be doing more research and am very grateful for this resource that Eirini shared with me, which includes papers on Towards a sociology of imagination how imagination allows individuals and groups to coordinate identities, actions, and futures and the Embodied Dimension of Imagination.

Particular areas of focus

Messing things up

If we believe we need some new thinking (and the slides below by Dan Lockton really emphasise why that might the case) then we need to find ways to perceive things differently or anew. In his essay on Planetary Thinking Philosopher Yuk Hui says that “in order to regain the future we must nurture our relationship to the unknown.” A coming back to life. Imagination is an important way for us to experience novelty and impossibility, which in turn enables us to expand the horizons of what we thought possible.

Dan Lockton’s slide showing our blind spots and stuck-ness.

It’s a practice

Just like with narrative work, advocacy or campaigning, or policy — collective imagination is a craft and a practice in its own right. It is “not a dream or ideology.” It isn’t deliberative democracy, nor is it another word for citizen assemblies. It is “a practice that starts by reframing the world around us in radically new ways,” as with Sascha Haselmayer’s explanation of social imagination. This is why investing in MAIA to host and grow the Community of Practice is important.

It’s also important as a practice for funders, to know how to ask different questions that can best encourage new and different thinking. And how to grow it as capacity among many more diverse people to explore and articulate their alternative and desirable visions of the future.

The collective is the starting point

For us, the work of imagination is not about individual creativity, nor can the imaginary crisis be solved by merely teaching more art in schools. Instead, it requires a recognition of the power of shared dreaming, collective sensemaking and together imagining what is possible. Design and other disciplines are beginning to recognise this limitation of the unit of the individual — with system shifting design recognising the collective as a fundamental unit, with its own design needs. As mentioned earlier, in his work on collective intelligence, Geoff Mulgan discusses what the collective can know that an individual never can and for this work we want to keep asking what the collective can imagine that an individual never can. What can we access in our shared imaginary that we can’t individually?

Learning, measurement and evidence

One of the many reasons I’m glad that JRF are investing in this work is because of the additional expertise they can bring in policy, research and evidence. We’ll be exploring ways we can understand the value of this work, recognising that this will be a challenge! We’ll look at how we can make use of the framework Nesta created for evaluating participatory futures as well as drawing on other academic work.

Some of the questions we have are —

  • How can we evidence that doing this work has a measurable difference on the kinds of ideas communities have? (in comparison to the limitations of deliberative democracy for example)
  • What are the most effective conditions for this work to emerge from? And most effective containers for this work to be practiced within?
  • How can we connect community-generated futures most effectively into decision-making?
  • What happens over time? If imagination is a practice what are the cumulative effects of having a more imaginative society?
  • How can we use our funding to do more systematic experimentation of practices in communities and the change or progress they contribute to?
  • How can we build the imaginative capacity of places, keeping the work locally grounded and engaging those communities most affected by economic inequality, climate change, and other crises?
  • Can we show how work with our collective imaginations helps overcome anxiety about the future, leads to communities having a greater sense of agency, as well as more pro-social behaviour?
  • How can we best maintain imagined alternatives?
  • If imagination builds power” can we demonstrate how this work is essential for community power? For futures that are more challenged, nuanced and reflective of the needs of vibrant communities.

A lot is hard right now. Whilst writing this I was reading about bed poverty — children in the UK who have no bed to sleep in, about Martin Lewis being near tears on his show whilst talking with a single mum who lost her partner in Covid and now unable to afford her energy bills. However we imagine together won’t address some of those immediate needs — though I do believe it was a failure in our collective imaginations that people are now living in such conditions. And as funders, we need to make sure we’re doing work now that not only alleviates what’s happening in the present, but prevents these kinds of inequities being present in our futures.

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Working with Joseph Rowntree Foundation, EarthPercent, P4NE, Policy Fellow IIPP, Co-founder Point People, Founder Stewarding Loss, International Futures Forum.

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Cassie Robinson.

Cassie Robinson.

Working with Joseph Rowntree Foundation, EarthPercent, P4NE, Policy Fellow IIPP, Co-founder Point People, Founder Stewarding Loss, International Futures Forum.

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