Summary 

The paper by Canon, Jones, and Weiss, aptly titled 'Imagination,' discusses the epidemic and social crisis sweeping across the United States during the last weeks. Although the temporal dimension of both crises differs — the first being episodic, the latter historical — the authors discuss a crisis of imagination as central to our shortcomings in anticipating and challenging the dynamics that support the governments, organizations, and institutions that now stand at trial for failing to provide safety, in all its dimensions, to the people these structures are in place to protect. Imagination, resilience, and hope — in the context of chaos, uncertainty, and temporality — will be examined in this response.

Ignacio Garnham

Founder, Abiotchs; Consultant; Social Entrepreneur

Response

In a society that organizes through order, rather than ordering through organization, [1] change is bound to happen at the edge of chaos. While I agree with the authors that the momentum that social movements are experiencing emerges from "a sense of agency and responsibility,” it also arises out of despair, anger, and frustration. And rightly so. The crisis of imagination that the authors examine has roots not only in the oppressive restraints for those who dare to imagine, but in the scant efforts to democratize the right to imagine. In the ‘land of the free,’ not everyone is free to imagine.

 

Making plans and anticipating the future with a high degree of success comes with privilege; it requires reliable information and knowledge of how multiple systems inform and shape each other. The authors quote President Obama in saying that hope is a hammer. To this, I add: Imagination is the hand that wields. But when imagination becomes a privilege, hope becomes a luxury.

 

How far we can imagine into the future matters. Yet, thinking about the future comes with a price; temporality is a commodity, and many cannot afford it. For a vast number of the population, the limits to how far they can imagine are becoming more apparent than ever — others, as the economy crumbles and the health service collapses, are experiencing the temporal cost of imagination for the first time. An elder infected with Covid-19 can only envision a future as far as the next available bed. A woman marching for her rights can only plan for as far as the line of armed police stands. A man being choked can only hope for another breath.

 

How we think about possible futures matters; it reflects on our (perceived) agency to change the future. To imagine, to envision, to daydream, to plan for; all subject to your place in culture and society. Certainty is a privilege.

In the context of distributing access to imagination, we must intentionally discuss imagination as a human right rather than an ability to be bought. As the authors reflect in their epilogue, it is important to ask: futures for who? The practice of futurists, speculative designers, and foresight consultants often puts them in a position to decide who gets to imagine futures, whose futures are being imagined for, and which futures are being stopped from being imagined. As designers exponentially engage in future-oriented interventions, it is essential to acknowledge that the 'imagination battle’ is also a battle to decolonize collective imagination. 

To this end, the authors reflect in the dire need to come together as a society to rewire the muscle memory of imagination. Humans imagine futures using their memories. It is undeniable, therefore, that digging deeper into issues of collective memory will shed light on pervasive practices deeply buried in procedural memory. Yes, the past can be re-told, but as Eyal Weizman,[2] Fred Martins [3], and others [4] have shown, it can also be re-designed. Insofar as temporality is a commodity, being strategic in re-imagining how we speak about the past can provide currency to swim ahead in the tides of temporality: HeLa, the mother of modern medicine or Henrietta Lacks, the black woman stripped from her cell line? Rosa Parks, the fragile old lady on the wrong side of the bus, or Rosa Parks, the determined activist? How we communicate past events that fuel future change matters.

Which brings me to my final thought. Resilience. An admirable trait of nature, yet a dangerous metaphor for society. In nature, resiliency is an adaptive mechanism for change in the environment. A resilient organism adapts but doesn't change the conditions that called for adaptation. To be resilient is to survive even if that means leaving traits behind, or surviving at the expense of other organisms. In nature, resilience can be ruthless, but there is no bias in the processes of adaptation.

 

The same cannot be said of structures that adapt to change following an agenda. Pervasive structures of power, the very same we now fight to hold accountable, are prime examples of resilience; for many in a position of authority, resilience is a zero-sum game.

 

Social movements don't adapt to change; they are the change. Metaphors matter. 

To conclude:

The crisis of imagination needs to be dissected from a systems perspective. It is easy to identify those who can't afford to imagine and those who can indulge in daydreaming, but an isometric analysis won't disclose the forces that keep the crisis in place — the ideologies, doctrines, behaviors, biases, and myriad social constructs that put a price to the temporal dimension of our imaginations, choking the words, ideas, and visions that construct them.

 

As the authors allude throughout their reflection, re-imagining imagination is an ontological endeavor rooted in empathy, adaptability, hope, and a systems view

of the world.

Moving Forward:

If hope is the hammer, and imagination the hand that wields; information is the grip that holds.  For design practice to continue becoming a force for positive change, and amidst the renewed interest of the design field in systems science and complexity, designers must: 

Commit to understanding the coevolutionary dynamics of information and physical systems.

Acknowledge the extent to which design mobilizes information.

Become accountable for the consequences that arise from the information that becomes socialized through the outcomes
of their practice.

[1] Morin, E., 1992. From the concept of system to the paradigm of complexity. Journal of social
and evolutionary systems, 15(4), pp.371-385.

[2] Bois, Y.A., Feher, M., Foster, H. and Weizman, E., 2016. On forensic architecture: A conversation with Eyal Weizman. October, pp.116-140.

[3] Design Indaba. 2017. Black History Month: Honouring past heroes. [Accessed 13 June 2020].

 

[4] Soro, A., Taylor, J.L. and Brereton, M., 2019, May. Designing the past. In Extended Abstracts
of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems
(pp. 1-10).

How we think about possible futures matters; it reflects on our (perceived) agency to change the future. To imagine, to envision, to daydream, to plan for; all subject to your place in culture and society. Certainty is a privilege.