The Imaginary Crisis (and how we might quicken social and public imagination)

We are in the midst of a very urgent, real, global and deadly crisis. But as the Covid-19 crisis hopefully comes slowly under control, we ought to attend to a very different kind of crisis, and one which is scarcely visible: the deteriorating state of our shared social imagination. That is the subject of this paper.

The world faces a deficit of social imagination. We find it easy to imagine apocalypse and disaster; or to imagine new generations of technology. But we find it much harder than in the past to imagine a better society a generation or more into 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.

There are many possible reasons for this decline; loss of confidence in progress and grand narratives; declining imaginative capacity; slowing down of innovation. Key institutions – universities, political parties and thinktanks – have for different reasons vacated this space. The decline of imagination matters because societies need a wide range of ideas and options to help them adjust, particularly to big challenges like climate change and ageing.

Making sense of social imagination

Social imagination has a long and fascinating history, from utopias to political programmes, model communities to generative ideas and fictions which fuelled our ability to understand and then shape human progress.

There are many methods available which can be used to stimulate imagination – sparking creativity or cultivating estrangement from dominant beliefs. The most interesting social imagination is often dialectical in that it simultaneously goes with, and against, the grain of historical trends.

To fuel social imagination we need to engage the many institutions that could be supporting it, but don’t now: research funders; foundations; universities and governments. And we need to remember the promise of reviving shared social imagination: that communities can once again become heroes in their own history rather than only observers.

So what can be done to address this gap? This is a huge task, involving many people, organisations and methods. In this paper, Demos Helsinki Fellow Geoff Mulgan sets out thoughts on the what, the how and the who.

Spark your social imagination and download the full paper

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