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Five Reflections: Letting The Imagination Bloom for Design-Driven Missions

21. Feb 2024

This article explores a handful of practical lessons we’ve learned through our work trying to envision an actionable way out of collapse. How can we let the imagination flourish in a time of creative drought?

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George Orwell once said, “The imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity.” One might wonder, then, what it does to the imagination to exist in a biosphere on the brink of collapse with only about 4 percent of all mammal biomass left living in the wild.

It is becoming evident to most that we can’t solve the complex societal challenges we attempt to tackle through missions simply by technical means. They also require radical, widespread social change as well. Change in ourselves as people. Change in our practices. Changes in our interactions and the rest of the socio-technical systems we’re part of. We need change to mitigate the negative consequences, and we need change to uncover new, meaningful, caring, and just ways to live. 

If we try, we might still reframe abundance in a way that is much less extractive of people and the planet, more joyous, and more fair. While we might all agree on the urgent need for change, many of us still struggle with imagining what that change could — to not even mention should — look like.

To help these necessary changes along, over the last handful of years, we’ve found it fruitful to lean increasingly into various forms of collaborative, playful, creative practices. Exploring how we might design, dream, write, explore, and imagine alternative and better ways for things to be — together. 

Creative practices have many ways of creating value, as illustrated by the “Nine dimensions for evaluating creative practices” designed by the phenomenal EU-backed CreaTures project. The framework highlights how creative practices stimulate changes in meanings (by embodying, learning, and imagining), connections (by caring, organizing, and inspiring), and power (by co-creating, empowering, and subverting). 

We believe design-driven missions must intentionally engage with (all nine dimensions of) designerly, artistic, and playful creative practices to reignite the imagination that fuels our capacity to envision how things could be. Not just slightly better and prepopulated with seemingly inescapable aspects of the present, but radically different. The urgency of the situation demands it. 

To deliver on that, we must focus on fostering new types of situations, processes, and practices that prompt us to not just dip our toes in what could be with a bunch of post-its in a workshop but embrace that the work requires us to fully immerse ourselves in it.

Imagining, envisioning, and negotiating a shared story about a brighter tomorrow is hard work. You might even argue that we must unlearn being socialized into disregarding play and make-believe as childish or unprofessional. As such, being imaginative is laborious and inaccessible to many, and our imagination becomes, in some ways, like a rarely used and quickly forgotten muscle; a muscle that requires you to do silly poses if you were to exercise it — which might explain why we don’t do it enough. 

It has reached a point where we seem to be so severely limited in terms of our ability to imagine how things could be different that some refer to it as if we’re living through an imagination crisis: A drought of creativity that is severely hindering our ability to act on all the big problems we’re facing because we simply struggle with coming up with alternatives.

Over the last few years of experimentation with launching design-driven missions, we’ve found it critical to intentionally tackle this fundamental problem by holding and actively facilitating spaces that foster radical, hopeful, and inspiring imaginaries.

1. Missions (don’t) need destinations

The archetypical example of a mission stems from JFK’s ambition of putting a man on the moon within a decade: It was ambitious, time-bound, and measurable, and in clear weather, everyone could look up at night and see the destination. That is not always the case, though. When we set out to start our mission-oriented work, e.g., towards thriving youth or a circular economy, the destination was often considered the absence of a problem (e.g., mental health issues or waste) rather than the presence of something new. Looking up, the night sky was always overcast.

The status quo seemed inescapable, and while design does have an often overlooked role to play in designing away things (which we’re also currently pondering), we saw — and still see — plenty of discussion about the characteristics of the problems we’re facing yet few propositions for what could be instead. As such, we must explore possible destinations and make them come alive, like launching probes through the thick shroud of clouds covering the night sky, trying to understand what might lie beyond.

We crave images of hope. Yet, it is crucial not to confuse the deep longing for proof of better worlds being possible with having to provide all the answers. The transition will not be smooth or linear. It cannot be prescribed or mapped onto a step-by-step roadmap, and trying to do so isn’t just impossible; it’s also inhibiting. We need unknowns to create space for creativity, curiosity, and wonder to flourish. It is a trap to think that we could potentially masterplan a perfect future and implementation plan if we just had enough time and resources.

Considering this, we approach it as a balancing act between collectively prompting questions and proposing answers, momentary fragments of possible realities rather than complete mappings thereof. We convene people around imagining to stimulate the collective imagination of the systems we engage with. We help new hopeful, radical, and relatable stories, often as small glimpses or vignettes from everyday life, manifest through creative practices such as writing, playing, or designing. 

Yet, we avoid treating these visions as goals to reach but for instigating new actions or experiments in the present by using them as jumping-off points for backcasting. They are temporary ideas. They are meant to be living — maybe even feral. They are possible worlds we collectively carry that grow, inspire, expire, and provide nourishment for new visions to appear as the transition happens in and around us. In our experience, we’ve ultimately found telling stories about what could be, to be more motivating, persuasive, and mobilizing to our stakeholders than pointing to the crises we’re facing. We used the method in our project, New Days, developing the toolkit, New Days: Future Kit, in our project Future Now (check out the scenario toolkit, Living Futures, here), and co-creating our resource Vorby

This article is part of our Mission Playbook.

Read the other articles here.

Based on model by Joost Vervoort

2. Playful is serious

Much of this work, then, in practice, becomes about bringing people together, breaking down our preconfigured ideas about the future, and holding space for something new to appear. For that to work, we’ve found it essential to challenge the notions of professionalism, seriousness, and what generally goes in a work context: Why is a slide deck, meeting, or spreadsheet considered more serious than a game, performance, or short story? Why are seriousness and playfulness considered opposites when they should instead be seen as closely linked, as Joost Vervoort so elegantly illustrates it? 

Playfulness should be considered a natural way of staying with and exploring the complexity of our challenges. When children play and say things like “and then we said that (this or that thing happened/was true),” they are collaboratively simulating possible situations and exploring different paths and outcomes. We try to support this in our activities e.g., by inviting participants in our projects to actively engage in creative practices like designing speculative artifacts, curating exhibitions, writing fiction, playing games, or role-playing situations together. 

Sometimes, people are hesitant, uncomfortable, or even actively resisting going into it, but it tends to dissipate and become an uplifting, creative, and empowering experience for most. Unlearning those rigid definitions of “serious” or “professional” is often mentioned as one of the most important outcomes for people participating in our projects and programs.

If you want to learn more about this, sign up and be notified when we have the dates for our next, Designing Narratives & Evoking Change course.

3. Engage people as actual people

One of the significant advantages of incorporating more creative practices in mission work is that it allows more people to participate. While many will feel unequipped to discuss a white paper, a scientific article, or a new study, everyone will have a valid interpretation of a story or experience. We find that by framing the conversation around the future as a narrative to be explored and interpreted, it becomes accessible to just about everyone. 

It can be fictional testimonies, speculative artifacts, films, music, installations, images, games, spaces, simulations, performances, or whatever format that might convey a story. It might feel unnerving and challenging, but everyone will have some human, emotional, intuitive response to what they just experienced that lets them join in on the conversation.

We find this democratization of the future important for missions, as they are dependent on buy-in from often very diverse groups of stakeholders. Many different people need to be able to see (themselves in) what the mission is pointing towards. Factory workers, high school students, and politicians all need to not only understand the need for a circular society without waste but also be able to imagine how it can enable a meaningful life.

4. Consider both the alternative and the preferential

There is talk in circles around fields such as strategic foresight, speculative design, transition design, design futures, and design fiction as to what sort of futures are worth exploring: Is it the alternative futures, is it the preferred futures, is it the probable or plausible futures, or is it most effective to present the consequences of inaction?

Some will claim focusing the energy on the preferential conveniently ignores the problems of the present and the massive challenges of getting there. It is wishful thinking at best, and erasure of all the people already experiencing the consequences of, e.g., climate change and economic inequality at worst. On the other hand, others will claim we desperately need the hope and radical ideas of the preferential in order to escape the grasp of the slowly collapsing status quo.

While it can sound like an irksome, middling answer, we’ve found that working with both alternative and preferential futures in combination yield the best results for the type of work we’re doing, if also coupled with thorough backcasting, an attention to non-linear transition pathways, and a focus on immediate action and experimentation. We’ve found that designing our processes to include a collective exploration of various plausible, possible, and almost impossible futures and a shared convergence around the preferential allows space for both the critical, the radical, the wildly imaginative, and the hopeful.

5. Bring it back to action

The shared vision is important in our work, as it engenders the mission with an element of story, life, and propositionality, rather than ‘just’ being another problem to fix or a dry societal KPI (though we might also need that) to steer after. The work doesn’t stop there, however. As trite as it might sound, the vision is only the beginning.

Backcasting, a core part of strategic foresight, is the practice of exploring possible pathways starting from the future and moving backwards towards the present, thinking through which major changes would be necessary, is in our experience critical for operationalizing the vision. 

It too, like visioning, is hard, though (and easily a topic for an article on its own). Without going into details, we’ve found it helpful to draw inspiration from Transition Design and incorporate thinking from, e.g., Multi-Level Perspective on transitions in socio-technical systems (i.e., Geels) and the concept of Transition pathways in our backcasting to better capture the different levels and interactions of systemic change needed. To support a more non-linear way of thinking about change, we’ve also had good results using the Three Horizons framework as a backdrop.

Besides backcasting, much can also be done to design the vision in a way that makes it more actionable. As an example, in our work co-creating Vorby, a fictional town where young people thrive, with 150+ people from across the youth and child sector, one of the things that emerged as the town was coming to life was a set of seven principles:

  1. Well-being is a shared responsibility and not just the responsibility of the individual.
  2. All life has a right to thrive — not just humans.
  3. The concept of family includes far more than the industrial idea of the nuclear family.
  4. Politics is to be inclusive and focus on fostering collective well-being.
  5. Education should happen throughout life and not only in particular places or phases of life.
  6. Everyone can contribute in their own way.
  7. The emphasis in society is on creating structures that promote well-being rather than only treating distress. 

While the principles were designed together to help guide the development of Vorby as a resource and a fictional place to explore and discuss, they also direct attention to particular potential shifts in society that — if realized — could lead to greater well-being. Each shift can prompt immediate questions, ideas, and experiments in the present.

Infrastructuring the imagination

This sort of work requires time and resources, to a degree where it is inhibiting many from initiating it — especially on their own. This is obviously a problem. Fortunately, we are seeing an increasing interest from funders, as some frontrunner philanthropies are showing interest in more experimental ways of working with possible futures. However, we need more attention directed toward nourishing the soil of the collective imagination and the connective tissue that binds and supports it — what Cassie Robinson have perfectly dubbed as “Imagination Infrastructure

Much of this is only possible if the invisible “dark matter” (that e.g. organizations like Dark Matter Labs are working on) also changes: We need to explore entirely new ways of funding transformative work, new policies, new governance models, and new organizations

This work can also be very valuable on a smaller, organizational scale. One current area of attention for us is how we can help nourish imaginative and experimental cultures, and build capacity for transformational, yet tangible, stakeholder-led, change within organizations. So far, we are seeing a lot of great developments from applying similar approaches to organizational change; letting long term visions guide concrete change initiatives in the present.

No matter the scale, feel free to reach out if you have ideas, questions, or proposals. We’re always willing to learn (and dream).

Oskar Stokholm Østergaard

Design & Futures Lead

Phone +45 4027 1823
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