Four ways we can use our collective imagination to improve how society works

Professor Geoff Mulgan on why it’s so important that we paint plausible and desirable pictures of where our society might be a generation or two from now. If we don’t, our pessimism could become self-fulfilling.

In the first months of the pandemic there was evidence of a strong desire for transformational change in many countries. People wanted to use the crisis to deal with the big unresolved problems of climate change inequality and much more, encouraged, for example, by the very obvious truth that the most essential jobs were often amongst the lowest paid and lowest status. That everyone was affected by the pandemic seemed likely to fuel a more collective spirit, a recognition of how much our lives are intertwined with those of millions of strangers.

Now much of that energy has gone. People are exhausted, expectations have fallen and a return to normality looks acceptable, however inadequate that normality might have been. War in Ukraine has reminded us just how easily the world can go into retreat and that basic values remain under threat. My hope, though, is that as the pandemic fades from view we will return to our shared need for radical imagination about the future, and the transformations ahead.

I have long believed that we have a major problem with imagination: that we can more easily imagine ecological apocalypse or technological advances than improvements in how our society works: better options for health, welfare or neighbourhoods a generation or two from now.

Some of the reasons for this problem are objective. The majority of people no longer expect their children to be better off than them. They have good reasons for their pessimism: stagnant incomes for much of the population, particularly since the financial crisis. But the causes of this pessimism also lie with institutions – our universities have become better at commenting on or analysing the present than designing the future. Our political parties have largely given up on long-term thinking, while our social movements are generally better at arguing against things than proposing. Amazingly, there are now no media outlets that promote new ideas: magazines and newspapers focus instead on commentary.

One symptom of this is how much public debate, even in its progressive forms, is dominated by quite old ideas. Take, for example, the circular economy. The main ideas were first proposed in the 1980s. They guided many projects (including ones I worked on) in the 1990s, got the backing of the Chinese Communist party nearly twenty years ago, and were then ably evangelized by people like Ellen McArthur. Yet they’re still not wholly mainstream.

Or take basic income. The idea has been around for at least half a century (advocated by figures on the right like Milton Friedman as well as many on the left). It’s now being taken more seriously with a proliferation of pilots in nations and cities, such as Wales’ announcement in February of a pilot offering basic income to care leavers. Belatedly, thinking about it is becoming more sophisticated and nuanced (and my guess is that few will end up with the original idea of a universal basic income, which is the ultimate ‘one size fits all’ solution to very varied needs).

But, again, what’s striking is how slow these ideas are to spread and to thicken. There seem to be fewer novel, fresh ideas around and it’s easier to get funding for familiar old ones than new ones, a recycling that mirrors what Hollywood does, with the great majority of the most successful films being remakes or retreads.

So what can be done? Imagination is a very natural human activity. We all know how to sing or draw. But it takes time to do these well. So we need to cultivate the habits and methods of imagining in ways that are compelling and useful. Here I suggest four ways to make that happen:

  • First, we need good methods to picture what might be possible a generation from now and then to link that to what’s practical today. Luckily there are many methods out there that help groups or communities to think expansively – my preference is for a simple set of prompts that help a group to extend, invert, integrate, add or subtract to generate a wider set of options. These can be particularly useful for opening up the thought patterns of people who are too embedded in the details of the present – like many academics, think-tankers and policy makers.

But there are many other tools available too, some using fiction and stories (the writer Ursula LeGuin called science fiction a vital training for the imagination). Others using visualisations help us to grasp ideas more easily than prose. All of these can help us to describe possible future states – and then prompt us to think through the links between present and future – using other methods that make this easer, such as the ‘three horizons framework’ which asks groups to link the first horizon of immediate possibilities to a third horizon of radical change.

  • Second, we need ways of doing imagination that are capacious and inclusive. Sometimes this means taking a global perspective and not being too influenced by pictures of the future dominated by US and California and engaging with the distinct takes from Africa, where there’s a booming sci-fi scene, or China which is attempting a very different picture of technology futures, albeit in a much harsher intellectual climate. That need for diversity also applies within the UK. The view of the future from Totnes is bound to be quite different to my hometown of Luton, and Brighton sees the world in a different way from Belfast.

In this work there is always a serious risk of echo chambers. Working in a university I am often struck how little people engage with views other than those of their peers, the Guardian and BBC, and so are often surprised by what happens in the world, and moments like the Brexit referendum. The US serves as a dire warning of how easily societies can become polarized into self-contained camps, and if nothing else we surely want to imagine a future where there is more, not less, understanding and empathy, including for people who disagree with us.

  • Third, imagination needs to connect to politics. There’s plenty of lively grass-roots exploration and imagination across the UK. But the problem is if this doesn’t connect to formal politics and national debates it risks not having much impact. So it’s vital to talk to people who stand for election – councillors and MPs – and to the mainstream media. Ultimately most fundamental social change – from gay marriage to carbon taxes, equality laws to welfare reform – has to pass through parliament and government.
  • Finally, there is a challenge of seeing how things connect but not being disabled by that. There are many links, for example, between climate change and social justice. Being knowledgeable about the world means seeing how the pieces fit together – how for example the crisis in Ukraine links to dependence on fossil fuel supplies, and then to issues of affordability. Many clever writers like presenting the world as a coherent whole: how everything connects to everything else.

But seeing things as connected can also become a trap. It may imply that the system can only be changed all at once, or it may prompt feelings of powerlessness. My experience is that the world is looser than that. Parts can be changed radically without waiting for the whole to shift. And so it makes sense to reimagine the parts as well as the whole – how our parks, libraries, schools, healthcare could be better and different a generation into the future.

Imagination is in short supply right now. The cultures of many of our most powerful institutions have squeezed it out. Apparently rational pessimism can be found all around us. That’s why it’s so important that the freer money of philanthropy now helps to fill the gap, and helps us paint plausible and desirable pictures of where our society might be a generation or two from now. If we don’t, our pessimism risks becoming self-fulfilling.

This blog is part of a series on the role of imagination in building alternative futures - you can read the other blogs in the series.

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