Cultivating Everyday Imagination

What have we learned from helping people cultivate everyday imagination? Here are some reflections from the talk I gave at the Transition Towns Bounce Forward Summit in March 2021.

“Imagination is often referred to as a sort of solo activity — authors, artists — but what we’ve found is really key to creatitivty is that it’s a collective imagination process. It’s the magic of creating together.”

Moral Imaginations: Who are we and what do we do

I am part of a project called Moral Imaginations, and we are building the case for civic imagination, community imagination to be able to think about and imagine and feel into more moral futures.

This term “moral imagination” often piques people’s curiosity. It contains imagination: meaning creativity, play, this unbounded capacity we have as human beings, combined with the power of the moral — which is of course different to everyone — and it’s what we know to be important, non-negotiable and what ignites the fire in our bellies for a more just, sustainable, equitable world.

The word “moral” has a lot of baggage, for different people it means very different things. But what we’re wanting to do is to reclaim this word “moral”. What does moral mean to us? What does moral mean to communities? What do people want the future to look like?

As part of this project we have been developing imagination exercises and frameworks that bridge collective imagination to moral futures. We’ve been working with groups and organisations and communities over the last 2 years, but particularly over the last year since the Covid-19 lockdown. When the lockdown happened, we created and published a story called The Impossible Train Story.

It was an invitation to imagine a metaphor of a train that never stops and it cannot stop, but then suddenly there’s a fire in one of the carriages of the train, and then the train stops for the first time ever and people get off this train, and suddenly they can hear birds chirping and they stat to hear sounds of nature they’ve never heard before. Then when they look ahead of the train they see a canyon, and they see the train was actually heading towards a cliff edge.

Image by Reilly Dow — The Impossible Train Story — © Moral Imaginations 2020

This was an invitation to explore a shared metaphor and story for the pandemic and the shared moment we found ourselves in. It was a shared moment but one we were all living in different ways, it was not equal. That plurality of perspectives is what was possible to explore with a shared story and metaphor. Stories and metaphors preserve complexity, and allow people to explore different perspectives within that complexity.

People gathered online to individually and collectively imagine the end to this story. They were asked questions such as, should we start the train again? What do we do now the train has stopped? Were we all travelling on the same train, or were these different trains? Have we even truly gotten off the train?

This is what Moral Imaginations is doing. We develop and use metaphor, story and immersive collective imagination practice to bring people together and explore alternative worlds and new ways forward.

In March 2021, at the time of this presentation, we finished our first ever intensive 4-day ‘Imagination Lab’ with the Watchet community from Somerset with the wonderful social enterprise, the Onion Collective. The Imagination Lab, named the “Watchet Imagines Lab” for the Watchet context, involved working with a group of 25 community members to practice imagining and do this kind of imagination together and dream up a new story of a new economy in Watchet. In the talk I gave, I displayed artwork that was created in the Imagination Lab by artist Reilly Dow who joined us for the 4 days and through deep listening and an iterative process created images that reflected a summary of the group’s process.

Learnings from Cultivating Everyday Imagination

“So next I’m going to talk through a couple of things on how you can cultivate your imagination. Rob mentioned that he’s looking for a couple of points on how we can cultivate the “everyday imagination”. I’m going to call on some of the things we do in Moral Imaginations, and while I speak there will images that were created by artist Reilly Dow, who is part of the Moral Imaginations collective, in our 5 day Lab, so you can get a sense of the imagery, poetry and art that came out of this 5 day experience.

1 — Imagination Uses Feeling and Thinking

The first thing I wanted to mention is that we often think about imagining as a “thinking” thing. We talk about “rethinking” and “thinking” about the future. But what we found is that our imagination practices and labs really focus a lot on the feeling. And actually we need to start cultivating a new feeling of the future, feeling into what the future can be like.

Image by Reilly Dow — Watchet Imagines Lab hosted by Moral Imaginations and Onion Collective 2021

We find that creating a space for developing that kind of intuition and cultivating a space for the subconscious, and really creating a safe space for people to reconnect with their emotions and feelings, especially when talking about the future. The future can bring up some very difficult feelings, because when we reflect on the future we end up reflecting back on ourselves.

One of the Moral Imaginations exercises walks people through imagining that they’re waking up on their 90th birthday, and they’re speaking with their grandchild. And that grandchild asks “Granny, what was it like to be alive in the Great Pandemic? What happened? What did you and your friends do? What did you do and how did it lead us to be in the world we’re in today?” In the lab 2 weeks ago some of the community members reflected back to me and the team that this is bringing up a lot of very difficult emotions, feelings of guilt, feelings of shame — like I should have done more. We talk a lot about thinking when we talk about imagination, but we have found it is a very heart based, emotional process.

So this is one part of cultivating everyday imagination — is to create these spaces to reconnect with their feelings and safe spaces and also reconnect with their intuition.

The Empathy River — Watchet Imagines Lab

Image by Reilly Dow — Watchet Imagines Lab hosted by Moral Imaginations and Onion Collective 2021

This was one of the images that came out of the Watchet Imagination Lab, of an “Empathy River”. The community was imagining we need to rise up as a river of empathy and flood out the sticks in the mud, the sticks who are saying “it will never work, who cares!” I loved this image and this big flood of creativity and imagination which will just flood out all of the things that are resisting the change that communities want to see.

I wanted to read this quote by Kim Stanley Robinson:

The virus is rewriting our imaginations. What felt impossible has become thinkable. We’re getting a different sense of our place in history. We know we’re entering a new world, a new era. And we seem to be learning our way into a new structure of feeling.

I’m really interested in what that is — that new structure of feeling.

2 — Portals Help People Access Imagination

This image is from one of the Moral Imaginations practices where participants, community members, enter a “portal” — using an image of a portal in order to access the imagination.

Image by Reilly Dow — Watchet Imagines Lab hosted by Moral Imaginations and Onion Collective 2021

Although you can’t guarantee magic, you can create the conditions for magic. So within the Moral Imaginations Lab, we guide participants to set up their imagination space, bringing items that remind them of imaginative times, of magical places from their childhood… All of these little rituals that can help create the conditions to access that place of dreamlike imaginary quality.

We talk a lot about “serious play” in Moral Imaginations. We like to think that imagination has to be playful and unbounded. But we have to take it seriously again. We actually really need to take it seriously and make space in our lives for that. So, taking walks, reconnecting with a sense of dreamlike quality, recording our dreams. These practices can help cultivate that sense of imagination.

Artwork can create a portal

This is a digital artwork by Sara Summers, a Watchet community member, who created pages and pages of poetry and art in the Imagination Lab. People found their own ways of accessing the place where reality and magic blurs. Where can we find these portals in everyday life or when we think back into the past. This image brings that feeling of magical realism and dreamlike quality.

3 Imagination is a Force that can Change the World

Imagination is a powerful force and really quite a sacred thing. The biggest changes changes in the world, the biggest shifts in our society all started in the place of imagination. What’s more is that there’s something really exciting about the idea of collective imagining. So we can share an image and make imagination become real.

Image by Reilly Dow — Watchet Imagines Lab hosted by Moral Imaginations and Onion Collective 2021

As part of the Watchet Imagines Lab, we spent time exploring what a new economic system could look like — and explored this through visioning, metaphor, poetry, art and theatre. These different modalities brought the reality of people’s lived experience and stories together with their visioning and conception of a new economic system.

The perspective Moral Imaginations brings is the perspective of future generations, the perspective from past ancestors and the perspective of non-human beings including the land and place — so these different lenses also allowed people to zoom out and explore the future of Watchet from these different angles, allowing them to connect with what truly matters to them.

4— Imagining Together — Collective Imagination

Imagination is often referred to as a solo activity. In our Western society we think of the people who really imagine are authors, artists, writers… And often that can be quite a solitary thing. What we have found in our Imagination Labs is that the real key to the creativity that comes out of these sessions.

Our methodology uses a collective place to capture thoughts and creativity during the 4 days of the Imagination Lab. We were expecting around 20–30 pages, but we have 156 pages of poetry, artwork, imagery, all sorts of things that are extraordinary. When we reflected on it and asked “how did this happen?” and “where did this come from?” We think it’s because it’s a collective imagination process.

Image by Reilly Dow — Watchet Imagines Lab hosted by Moral Imaginations and Onion Collective 2021

We think it’s down to the way we do the imagination process in the sessions is that it’s not about Sara or Rob or Brendan, and us as individuals. This is very important and comes from the field of systems design. It’s that we’re creating together, and it’s that process of creating together that takes the pressure off. And then the creations are so much bigger than what we could have expected for any one of us alone.

5 — Imagination Leads to Action

Image by Reilly Dow — Watchet Imagines Lab hosted by Moral Imaginations and Onion Collective 2021

Lastly, what our work centres on is bridging imagination with action. The power is in supporting people to expand their imaginations, to explore them, to access their feelings and thoughts and complex decision-making in imagined states, and then bridge what is understood and learned with the present-day world make meaningful changes.

Of course, when people see things differently and discover new aspects of themselves, their actions in everyday life also change. These changes may be subtle, like choosing to take a greener route in an everyday commute, or shifting the way a father speaks to their baby daughter when she’s misbehaved. They can also look like concrete new projects that emerge from the collective imagination space.

In the Watchet Imagines Lab, people dreamed up events (like a spoken word event, a family nature connection event), a continued collective imagination community of practice with weekly online sessions where anyone could host an exercise, and (pictured above) a “No Judge Club”, a concept created by Kate Kennedy which is an in-person regular gathering where people from the Watchet community can come together and talk and connect in an intentionally judgement-free space.

Imagination is powerful because it can lead to changes in how we think, feel and act. Hopefully the above has given you a taste of the work we are doing, some of the different aspects of how that work leads to real world change, and what we’ve been learning about how to support people to cultivate everyday imagination.

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Thanks for reading!

Phoebe Tickell — Narratives, complexity, systems. Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on complexity approaches, systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development.



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Phoebe Tickell

Cares about the common good. Building capacity for deep systems change. Complexity & ecosystems obsessive. Experiments for everything. 10 yrs #systemsthinking.