Working with social imagination: learning from Shirebrook
From the structures that shape our lives (language, companies, countries, welfare and immigration policies) to even our intimate relationships, the world we know and the lives we live are shaped by unseen acts of social imagination.
I’d like to share a personal story of waking up to social imagination to explain why I think it holds deep potential for hopeful futures.
For several years I worked in Shirebrook, a former coal mining town in Derbyshire*. Since the pits closed in 1993, the town suffered and making a living has been tough. More recently, on the outskirts of town, infamous employer Sports Direct opened one of the largest sorting warehouses in the country offering low-paid, zero-hours contracts. Half the people I met there told me the town’s nickname - ‘Shitbrook’, sticking the knife in first, before anyone else could. In the imagination of its residents, the town was depressed.
In Shirebrook, we heard racism from market traders, apathy from young people on the swings, and despair from council officers. Back then in 2016, much as now, the world felt a hopeless place (Trump election, Brexit, police killings, wildfires); feeling despondent, me and my team started asking people: where can we find hope?
As we did this, something changed. People talked about wonderful relationships of deep care and introduced us to others taking hopeful, creative action. There was the nurse looking after chickens on the community farm on her road to recovery from addiction; the boxing club run by former miners where many young people were forging a sense of identity; the council policy officers spending a day at the community centre, drinking tea and deeply listening to residents.
Through these conversations, the image of the place as depressed fell away and a host of new ideas and possibilities came to the surface. We became more curious about how the town imagined itself and how that affected the possibility of renewal. Over the next few years we talked with local people about the limits of hope, dreams and possibility; and arrived at a concept we’ve been working with ever since: social imagination.
While imagination is often presented as something extra to the status quo, many great thinkers and artists have shown us that the status quo also is itself a specific imagination**. We could say that it is the imaginations that are in power that shape our lives. This is starkly revealed when we look at how acts of imagination shaped our history: no votes for women, slavery of Black people, exploitation of the ecosystem. Those things happened (and continue to happen) because they were ‘sensible’ in the imaginations of powerful people. Through the creation of social structures those patterns were baked into everyday life; they became ‘real’ or ‘natural’ in people’s imaginations. Looking back we can see them for what they are, oppressive, ‘nonsensical’, and in no way inevitable; the outward workings of a handful of powerful imaginations (often white, male and European) that the rest of us are co-opted into imagining within.
Our conclusion is that unless we’re able to work on the underlying social imagination currently in power, even well-meaning attempts to create positive change are destined to reproduce the patterns they aim to escape.
The structure of social imagination
To be able to work with social imagination, we realised that we needed to understand more of its structure. In Shirebrook, three concepts emerged that helped us start getting to grips with it: boundaries, channels and catalysts.
- Boundaries are the limits we can’t imagine beyond. For example, many people trapped in cycles of addiction created boundaries to imagining a flourishing future for the town. Holly the local librarian summed it up:
If we can’t imagine it together, how are we going to make it happen? … But there are so many invisible boundaries on what we can imagine, so how do we grow our shared imagination beyond them?
- Channels are where the underlying social imagination directs our energy. At the council, conversations about hope were repeatedly hijacked by well-worn conversations about risk and procedure. These more familiar topics in the imagination of the council had become channels that would drain energy away from the possibility of change.
- Catalysts are the life-giving things we can do, in our communities and organisations, that transform the boundaries and the channels. Working with Holly and others, we saw that despite powerful external forces (economy, politics, media), the landscape of social imagination in Shirebrook was not fixed. Instead, through local action, it could either harden and strengthen or soften, flex and flip. For example, at Rhubarb Farm the boundaries maintained by addiction were being remoulded by the possibility of reimagining identity, purpose and connection through care, growth and renewal - looking after chickens, growing food, making decisions together. This shift wasn’t just for one individual. The presence of a working alternative seemed to expand the imagination of the whole town.
In the years that followed we went on to explore how catalysts could be energised, connected together, and what new catalysts community members wanted to create, eventually leading to the development of a prototype Shirebrook Film School.
Collective quest for a more nourishing social imagination
We set up Canopy because we wanted to grow a set of practical and collective ways of working to grow nourishing and equitable social imaginations. We’re part of a growing network of people and organisations in the UK and internationally exploring this from many different angles. Check out fellow practitioners New Constellations, Civic Square, Freedom & Balance, Moral Imaginations and MAIA, alongside the field building work of Cassie Robinson, Geoff Mulgan, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and National Lottery Community Fund to get you started. Indeed, people have been working to expand the boundaries of social imagination for thousands of years, this is just a way we’ve found helpful to describe it right now.
You might be asking yourself, ‘what now? How can I work with social imagination?’ I’ll be writing more about some of the frames and practices we use that you might also like to try, and you can find more on our website. For now though, perhaps it’s simply about making some space to explore some simple questions:
- How is social imagination showing up as a force in my life or my work?
- What are the boundaries we hit up against?
- What are the channels we get swept into?
- And what could be the catalysts for transforming the imagination that patterns our lives?
My main reason for writing is to ask, ‘who wants to go on this quest together?’ and ‘whose quests may be intertwined with ours?’ It would be wonderful to hear from you, to share ideas and grow the courage needed to do this work together.
* Thanks to the many people who were involved in this work in Shirebrook over the years, including our team: Jo Harrington, Milly Dray, Irit Pollak, Tee Byford; Mark Wakeling and everyone at Langwith Amateur Boxing Club; Chippie and everyone at the Old Bank Pub; Rhubarb Farm, Hanna from Sports Direct; young people and adults at Shirebrook Academy, Keeley and everyone at The Hole in the Wall Youth Club; the team at Derbyshire County Council: Sarah, Rob, Phil, Ian and Becky; Holly and everyone at Shirebrook Library; and many, many more people who talked with us in the market, in the park, at the police station and pretty much everywhere else.
**For example, the 1952 American novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison powerfully shows how the white imagination of a Black man changes the course of the Black protagonist's life. Indeed, much of the leading thinking on how imagination structures society comes from people suffering from the oppressive imaginations of other people.