A time to replenish collective imagination

To make the most of the current energy and consensus for action on social, political, and environmental issues we must reinvest in long-term thinking and creativity.

Every generation tends to believe it is living through the most challenging of times. Some statistics may cast doubt on that at present. For example Stephen Pinker and the late Hans Rosling argue that in a great many respects the world has never been safer, healthier, wealthier and wiser than now. But those statistics which may or may not be looking at the ‘right’ kind of measures, do not match the mood and anxieties of the moment. We are living in an Era of Anxiety. Those anxieties about what the future holds are wide-ranging and deep-seated, from environmental and geo-political crises to social and economic imbalances.

There is now more consensus than ever that we are experiencing a climate emergency. In a recent RSA (royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce) public survey, two-thirds said the impact of climate change is already visible, with the significant majority believing this requires a radical change in how we live. The global pandemic has worsened pre-existing inequalities in outcomes and opportunities, placing further pressures on the most vulnerable. These pressures have been intensified by recent rises in the cost of living, fuelled by an economic model that rewards extraction over replenishment of the ecologies that sustain lives. And on top of this comes the Ukrainian crisis - a humanitarian tragedy, a geo-political crisis, but also an event likely to cause a lasting dislocation in the global economy.

Regenerating our systems

Though distinct, these challenges have common roots - an economic model that has focussed on extraction over regeneration, the short-term over the longer-run, and the individual over the collective. That has been clear for at least half a century in how we live our lives, run our companies and set our policies, creating deep imbalances across our systems. These imbalances have financed and fuelled the geo-political crisis now facing the planet.

In addressing these challenges - environmental, geo-political, economic, social - there is a responsibility on every generation to leave a positive legacy for the next generation - to regenerate, both people and planet, through collective action focussed on the long-term. These long-term, cross-generational values are found in religions, customs and traditions right around the world and across the millennia. Making good on these time-old objectives today requires us to rethink and rebuild economic and social systems that are resilient, rebalanced and regenerative.

Doing so will require more than a break from the past; it will require a leap of imagination. As Albert Einstein put it, ‘we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.’ This is easier said than done. For most of the past century, particularly in the western world, we have promoted mindsets valuing what we know over what we have the capacity to imagine. We have built education systems, businesses, economies and societies based on what we can measure, evidence, and rationalise, over what we can dream of, create, wonder, or hope for. Over time, this has resulted in a collective depletion in our innate capacity for imagination. The costs of this are now clearly in evidence.

Collective intelligence is crucial in reimagining our future

Leading psychologist Thomas Suddendorf provided the first definitive account of what makes human minds different from other animals. He identified two defining qualities. First, our individual ability to undertake open-ended acts of imagination; and second our insatiable drive, as social animals, to link our minds together to generate collective imagination or intelligence. As the only living things on the planet with the capacity for imagination, re-investing in these two attributes is crucial for re-imagining our future in the face of today’s challenges. Doing so also increases our resilience and creativity in the face of new and unexpected future shifts and shocks.

What practically is needed to make this cognitive shift? Innovation and imagination have been driving progress for as long as we have had humans. But the spaces for imagination have become constrained over time by the demands for immediate results and instant gratification: in schools, colleges and universities, in businesses and charities, amongst banks and other providers of finance, amongst governments and NGOs. All of the moving parts of our economies and societies need to lengthen their horizons and free their imaginations if we are to rise to today’s challenges, to say nothing of tomorrow’s.

What changes to institutions and infrastructures are needed to deliver this shift in mindsets, individually and collectively? Some of the elements might include:

  • Creativity in the curriculum: The existing structures of many school curriculums favour domain or disciplinary knowledge over cross-disciplinary imagination and creativity. They also favour knowing the right answers over asking the right questions, and starting from what we know over what we might imagine and realise. Fifteen years ago in the most-watched TED talk of all time, the late Ken Robinson announced, to wild applause, that our educational system teaches creativity out of children rather than into them. That remains no less true today. And what is true in our schools is equally true in our colleges and universities. Nothing short of a rethink and reorientation of the structure and content of our educational system and curriculum is needed to nurture the creativity and imagination innate in young people.
  • Harnessing the collective imagination: A single area of expertise or a group of like-minded people working in isolation is unlikely to be sufficient to respond to the complex, multi-disciplinary challenges we face today, from ecological to economic, to political. Marginalised communities are often the most vulnerable to climate crises and social and economic inequalities, yet their voices and lived experiences are too little heard, much less acted on, when shaping the future. This needs to change if we are to meet their needs. Through open and deliberative democratic methods and acts that safeguard future generations, the diverse perspectives of all stakeholders can be brought together to understand and ultimately tackle society’s key challenges for a better future. Doing so will require an investment in new democratic infrastructures, including embedding imagination in citizens’ assemblies and sortition methods, the like of which have been promoted by the RSA over many years.
  • Nurturing the long-term: Short-term decision-making is often built into the way policy is set, businesses are run, finance is provided - from the operation of electoral cycles to the design of company law, to the myopia of financial markets. We should seek institutional antidotes to this short-termism. For example, by government setting themselves multi-generational targets or missions which bridge electoral cycles, such as the commitment to net zero by 2050; by re-configuring law, custom and practice so as to build in long-term incentives and behaviour, such as by changing company law; and by altering private contracts to encourage long-duration investment and thinking, such as in financial markets. By changing contracts and constitutions, we can rekindle our duty as stewards of future generations.
  • Regenerative imagination: The past decade has embedded the idea that societies need to act in a sustainable way when it comes to people and the planet; this takes us so far but, given the challenges we face, not far enough. We need imagination in service of a genuinely regenerative future, one in which we seek not just to sustain but to replenish our social and natural capital of people and planet. This transformative idea is at the heart of the RSA’s Regenerative Futures programme. Success means fundamentally rethinking the ways companies, economies and societies function so that they more closely mirror nature’s adaptive cycles, cycles in which death helps generate new life, systems are circular and supportive and there is no loss from the system through waste or extraction.
  • Glocal imagination: ‘Glocal’ is a term coined by RSA Bicentenary Medallist Daniel Christian Wahl. Solving global problems does not simply involve the imagining of solutions and then their scaling up globally with uniformity. Without sensitivity to the uniqueness of place and culture, including bio-culturally, these solutions are doomed to fail. We need to support imagination practices that start from people and context, reconnecting with the inherent potential of people in that place to shape their futures and that of their community and place, while recognising and acting on their relationship to the global whole. This a ‘glocal’, or local to global, perspective.

Imagination is a uniquely human attribute, and human progress, uniquely, is defined by the collective imagination of humans which is then made real. To meet the pressing challenges and make the most of the energy and consensus for action we’re experiencing in this Era of Anxiety, we will need to reinvest in the infrastructures and institutions to nurture long-term thinking and creativity. Hope, creativity, imagination and a collective sense of the possible is precisely what the world needs if it is to rise to today’s challenges to shape tomorrow’s futures.

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.

To learn more about JRF’s Emerging Futures work, and connect with others interested in growing the seeds of the future in the present, join our open monthly conversations.