Over the past few years there has been rising interest in the transformative power of social (sometimes referred to as collective or public) imagination and the idea that we urgently need to invest in imaginative practice if we are to see real and ambitious solutions to global problems like climate destruction.
Thinkers, like Geoff Mulgan, have argued that social imagination is in short supply across society today, partly due to key institutions like universities, political parties and think tanks no longer investing in the practice. Phoebe Tickell and the Moral Imaginations team have been running the first ever Imagination Activism training programme for staff at Camden Council, supporting them to build their imagination capacity and boldly step into new possibilities for the borough. Amahra Spence from MAIA has been asking powerful questions about whose imagination defines the status quo today and how we, as a society, can better be led by the imaginative wisdom of people with lived experience of oppression. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has embarked on a new programme of work called ‘Emerging Futures’ that seeks to support people and organisations working to reimagine the future.
I find the aforementioned projects and others like them really exciting, namely for their commitment to the collective and the idea that what we can dream together is so much more than what any one of us can dream alone. I’ve been left wondering how social imagination intersects with the work of Common Cause and our focus on cultural values, and the question which keeps popping up for me is to ask what we, as society, deem to be a desirable future.
Today, we live in a world dominated by institutions and narratives that foreground values such as wealth, power and public image (what we refer to as ‘extrinsic values’). From the advertising we see, to the fields we fill out on our LinkedIn profiles, to the reality of doing our weekly supermarket shop, many of the messages we interact with and the experiences we have subtly and subconsciously prime us to prioritise money, success and status – over and over again.
Against this backdrop, it is perhaps difficult for the majority of us to imagine alternative futures for ourselves and the living planet that don’t revolve around new, shiny technology, ever increasing economic growth and ‘innovation’, or the ‘environmental hero’ who swoops in and provides all the answers. But even with the support, time and enthusiasm to better flex our imagination muscle, will the specifics in the pictures we paint of possible futures be appealing to your everyday person?
When someone imagines a world where we can hear birdsong, breathe clean, nourishing air and enjoy the wonders of nature around us because car use has been drastically reduced, I say ‘sign me up!’, but many people – although they may ultimately hold the value of protecting the environment to be very important and deeply want a world where we are in greater harmony with nature – might not feel overjoyed at the idea of having to give up their car, for a whole range of understandable reasons. In the same way, I’m less enthused about a possible future in which there is no milk chocolate, despite my understanding that adopting a vegan diet would allow me to live in greater alignment with values I hold about being in unity with the more-than-human world.
The disadvantage of focusing on what the future itself looks like, describing the specific changes in our lived environment, is that ultimately we’re going to appeal to some people whilst putting others off. We could decide that our role (to borrow a phrase from Toni Cade Bambara) is to make the specifics of that future irresistible. But perhaps another way to connect with folks more immediately and on a deeper level is to speak about what the future might feel like – kinder, gentler, slower, local, creative etc. In the work of Common Cause, this is to speak about the cultural values which might come to imbue this new world.
It’s difficult to conceptualise what a world based on caring and regenerative values might be like when we currently exist in a cultural environment that reinforces the opposite so much of the time. Our ability to imagine what could be is always going to intersect with the values that are championed culturally in the present. We know that the majority of people place priority on intrinsic values (values such as equality, justice and unity with nature), but we also know that people, in public and commercial environments, are often not encouraged to exercise these values in practice and instead, are expected to champion the more extrinsic values which underpin the neoliberal capitalist paradigm. Indeed, what can be imagined at all is partly defined by the ideas and thought mechanisms we have available to us. Like a sculptor or chef, with different raw materials comes the opportunity to create something entirely new.
Currently, the majority of the values available to us and the ones about which we are so often reminded are the ones which sustain the world as it is. But if we were to invest together in the work necessary to bring other values into easy reach, we might find ourselves able to glimpse realities that at the moment are completely inaccessible to us, regardless of how effective our ability to imagine is.
Like Amahra writes in her article for JRF, there is much leadership to be found and honoured in communities who have experienced and continue to experience the oppression of our current systems. Although our mainstream culture might tell us repeatedly that happiness and purpose are found through commitment to the extrinsic values underpinning extractive capitalism and colonialism, we know that not all communities today are constructed in ways that place disproportionate importance on these values. Other futures are already alive and kicking in the world today.
To me, as well as investing in work that helps people to access and nurture their imagination in shared spaces of solidarity, we also need to see investment in the work to create the cultural conditions from which a sense of longing for a new way of living together will come. Excitingly, organisations and institutions do not have to have a specific social or environmental purpose to support this transition. What would it look like for a local authority to strengthen different values in its work today? Or how about a library or community centre? What about theatre or film-makers? Or football clubs and leisure centres? Anywhere where culture is made and accessed has a role to play in preconfiguring the values that we believe will be the foundation stones of the future, in the world today.
We need to push against the walls of the mainstream imagination we find ourselves inhabiting – an imagination which, at present, prefaces values of domination and extraction – and begin to seed a new cultural environment by celebrating and strengthening intrinsic values. In other words, we need to seed the values of the future in our experiences of the world today.
*Title from The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare