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Imagination infrastructures

Why is now the moment for social imagination?

Envisioning a society that works for all of us is a key part of making it happen. Austerity, stress and anxiety make that hard to do, but we must find a way.

Written by:
Rob Hopkins
Date published:
Reading time:
6 minutes

On my podcast, and in public talks that I give, I invite people to step into my Time Machine and to travel in their imagination to a 2030 that’s not Utopia, nor dystopia, but that is rather the result of our having done everything we possibly could have done in the intervening years. I suggest that those eight years were a time of remarkable and rapid transition which, admittedly, didn’t look too likely in 2022, but which built in cascades of change. I invite them to take a walk around in that world, and then describe it to me.

The responses are universal. “The birdsong is so much louder”. “The air smells amazing”. “There’s a real sense of shared purpose”. “There are far less cars”. They describe streets lined with fruit and nut trees, people working less, faces showing less stress and more smiles, streets full of children playing. No-one ever says “we’ve got this amazing new Ikea, it’s four times bigger than the one in 2022”. The more I’ve done that exercise, the more I’ve come to see it as being a powerful and deeply important thing to do. But why? The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released in March 2022 stated in its closing paragraph, “any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future”. What motivates the work I do is the idea that although that window is brief and rapidly closing, it still exists. Just. It is clear though that the idea that logic and rational reports will get us there is delusional. If that was all that was required, we’d have done it years ago. My own sense is that what stands a far better chance is that we all need to get an awful lot better at the cultivation of longing.

Harnessing art, culture and imagination

‘Longing’ is a vast, aching, yearning word. I’ve always felt that unless we are able to cultivate a deep and visceral longing for a low carbon future, we have no chance of ever creating it. It’s the question that obsesses me, how to cultivate a deep cultural longing for a post-carbon, more just, more equal world? I don’t have all the answers, but I know that it’s the 100-million-dollar question. I also know that, for starters, we can only do it by harnessing art, poetry, music, design, dance, storytelling and creativity. As the artist Cauleen Smith puts it, “we can’t have a revolution without the grounding of art and culture”.

And yet, as I set out in my book, 'From What Is to What If', I worry that we have created a culture, a kind of perfect storm of factors, that are profoundly ruinous to the human imagination at the worst possible time in history for that to be the case. We know that austerity, stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness are deeply damaging to our ability to see the world as if it could be otherwise. We know that economic inequality damages our collective imagination, as does exiling art and drama and creative writing from the school curriculum, closing libraries, defunding music and art programmes, and imposing testing in schools. We know that the highly addictive devices in our pockets devour the time in which we might connect to our imaginations. The CEO of Netflix recently noted that their biggest competitor wasn’t Apple or Amazon, but “sleep”.

Walidah Imarisha writes that we need to “build a future where the fantastic liberates the mundane”. What would movements that set that as their ambition look like? During the Black Lives Matter protests in the US in 2020 I saw a t-shirt which read ‘I’ve been to the future. We won’. I thought it was brilliant, it gave me goosebumps. I’ve been reading a lot about the jazz musician Sun Ra, who claimed to have been born on Saturn, and once said “I am not of this planet. I am another order of being. I can tell you things you won’t believe”. He was sometimes referred to as an ‘everyday Utopian’, dressing in crazy space costumes not as some kind of an act, but even when he went to do his laundry. His utopianism was just who he was, something he lived out in his performances, his music, everything he did. He set out to cultivate in his audience a longing for a future of space travel, a longing among people of colour for the idea that they could settle on distant planets, explore galaxies. He lived it.

My own work on social imagination increasingly focuses on the concept, started by Cassie Robinson and others, of an ‘imagination infrastructure’. For me that term is about asking what would it look like to put in place the ideal set of conditions to enable the collective imagination to flourish. To create the perfect conditions for everyone to be able to see things as if they could be otherwise? I’ve started researching a book about imagination infrastructure because it feels like one of the most important things I could be doing right now. I am immensely curious about it.

Helping people experience the future

In my other work I am part of projects in my town, such as Atmos Totnes, the UK’s most ambitious community-led development project, which set out to expand our sense of what’s possible, and the degree to which communities see themselves as capable of amazing things rather than just passive victims. I am working with an ambient music artist to make an album of ‘Field Recordings from the Future’, sounds of things that already exist in 2022 that by 2030 will be just how it is everywhere, rooftop farms, mushrooms being grown in car parks, Citizens Assemblies, and then to build immersive musical soundscapes around them. I want to make more animations based on my podcast guests’ reflections from 2030. I am supporting people to create an immersive street festival which takes people around their city but visiting it in 2030, in an immersive way with art, music and installations. While we all bring something different to the question that frames this series of blogs, these are my contributions.

The poet Rilke once wrote that “the future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens”. I wonder how different our activism would be if nurturing the social imagination took the form of giving people tastes of ‘pop-up tomorrows’, immersive, sensory tastes of what we could still create, and what it would taste like, smell like, feel like? What if we presented ourselves as if we were time travellers from a future that had made it? What would we say? What would we bring? What new words would we need for things we didn’t have a word for in 2022?

A low-carbon future could be bloody amazing. Don’t you ever forget it. And I know because I’ve been there. And yes, we won.

Volunteers tidying a school garden.

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