First steps towards imagining a future without poverty

As JRF starts a new programme of work dedicated to redesigning our economic and social models to reduce poverty, Cassie Robinson explains how she’ll be supporting our first steps.

Sophia Parker, JRF’s Director of Emerging Futures, outlined a new area of work that JRF is exploring in her recent blog, focussing on growing our collective ability to imagine a future free from poverty, to reshape economic and social models driving inequality.

It’s an area of work well documented by the Emerging Futures Fund, Rob Hopkins’ book What If.., Dept. of Dreams, Geoff Mulgan’s paper on The Imaginary Crisis 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.
Ben Okri

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.
Lola Olufemi

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.
Lola Olufemi

How JRF is joining this new area of work

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 two-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.

Areas of focus

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.

Messing things up

If we believe we need some new thinking to move us from, as Dan Lockton says, individual behaviour change to systemic and power structure change, then we need to find ways to perceive things differently. 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.
Yuk Hui

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.

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.