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  • Geoff Mulgan

The imaginary crisis - and how we might quicken social and public imagination

Updated: Apr 13

I've been working recently on the topic of social imagination: what is it, why is it so difficult now, and how can it be encouraged. Demos Helsinki and UCL/STEaPP have just published by first overview paper on the topic, which will feed into Demos Helsinki's UNTITLED programme which links dozens of organisations interested in more imaginative thinking about the future. You can see the full paper here. It's also prompted a lot of responses, including a plug in the Times on Good Friday. This is the intro ...


'We are in the midst of a very urgent, real, global and deadly crisis. But as that crisis hopefully comes slowly under control, some at least will need to attend to a very different kind of crisis, and one which is scarcely visible.


This ‘imaginary crisis’ is the result of a deficit of social imagination. Many people find it hard to picture a plausible and desirable society a generation or two in the future.

Some fields are good at thinking far into the future – business invests heavily in visions of future smart homes, smart cities or health. Fiction is adept at exploring the future boundaries of humans and technology. Mainstream culture finds it easy to imagine apocalypses – what would happen if temperatures rose 4 or 5 degrees or AI enslaved humans or even worse pandemics became the norm?


But we struggle to imagine positive alternatives: what our care or education systems, welfare, workplaces, democracy or neighbourhoods might be like in 30-40 years. And we appear to be worse at doing this than in the past.


This lack of desirable but plausible futures may be contributing to the malaise that can be found across much of the world. It’s certainly linked to a sense of lost agency and a deepening fear of the future.


The institutions which in the past supported practical social imagination have largely dropped out of this role. In universities social science frowns on futurism. You’re much more likely to succeed in your career if you focus on the past and present than the future. Political parties have generally been hollowed out and lack the central teams which at one point tried to articulate imaginative futures to shape their programmes. Think-tanks have been pulled back to the present, feeding into comment and news cycles.


So although there are fascinating pockets of creative social imagination – for example around the idea of the commons, zero carbon living, radical new forms of democracy, new monies, food systems or ways of organising time - they tend to be weakly organised, lacking the critical mass or connections to grow and influence the mainstream. The World Social Forum used the powerful slogan: ‘another world is possible’. But the fate of the WSF – now only a pale shadow of what it was 15 years ago - is symptomatic of what’s gone wrong.

As a result, the space these ideas might fill is instead filled either with reaction and the search for a better past, with narrowly technological visions of the future or with fearful defence of the present.


So what can be done to address this gap? This is a huge task, involving many people and methods. In this paper I set out a few thoughts on the what, the how and the who.


First (I), I look at the current position: is there a decline of imagination, and if so why, and does it matter?


Second (II), I look at the history of social imagination, and the past role of utopias, new concepts, pre-figurative communities, simulations and fictions.


Third (III), I look at the many methods that can be used to amplify or quicken imagination and make the case for a dialectical approach that simultaneously goes with, and against, the grain of historical trends.


Fourth (IV), I look at some of the patterns and hypotheses to test and examine.


Fifth (V), I show how we might think about the specifics of imagination in the next few decades, with ideas that may be relevant to the future of fields like care and health, democracy and property, including cross-cutting conceptual ideas that may have a wide influence (I also touch on the potential effects of Coronavirus in accelerating new ideas about social organisation).


Finally (VI), I suggest some theoretical perspectives, in particular suggesting an ‘idealist’ view of how imagination influences social change; an account of its interaction with evolving forms of consciousness, and ideas on how communities can once again become heroes in their own history.


All of these are offered as suggestions, to elicit critique and argument, in the face of the ‘imaginary crisis’. I hope they will encourage a more systematic approach for exploring possible social futures, feeding into the Untitled programme, and in time into the work of political parties, civil society, media organisations and others, and expanding their sense of what might be achievable.


I hope that it will help us to grow ideas that can be seen, grasped, played with, adapted, drawing on, and harnessing the huge latent fertility of popular imagination.'