Building the Infrastructure of Possibility
Nurturing society’s capacity for deep, transformational change.
The challenges we face are ontological — they manifest from a particular way of being in the world, a way of relating with reality. In nearly every sector of life, the thread is unravelling, the narrative being slowly undone. It is the constant angst we feel lurking in the backdrop of our lives. A major shift is happening — our fundamental relationship with reality is ready to be transformed.
Many of us put our hopes on an external solution — some obscure technological advance that will repair the cracks in reality and set everything right, though many of us recognise that this time is asking more of us — it is an invitation to evolve. As Octavia Butler said, ‘the only lasting truth is Change’, and so we must learn how to be in ‘right relationship’ with it, how we can shape it, across its many depths and timelines. Deep, transformative change doesn’t happen overnight, and while there is much work to be done to redesign the current configuration of society — and many incredible people doing so, we must also be planting seeds of new futures, creating the conditions for the emergence of a new society, a new way of being, altogether. For this, we require a deeper understanding of change — exploring the imagination and venturing into the pluriverse.
Our capacity to imagine is the most fundamental tool of our species.
It is the way in which we participate with reality. Our imaginations enable us to experience it, to make sense and meaning of it. And more than this, collectively, our imagination forms an entirely new dimension altogether — a great realm of possibility — allowing for the creation of ‘worlds’.
Not to be confused with planets, these ‘worlds’ are complex clusters of narrative in which large groups of people can cooperate and coexist within a shared understanding of reality. Through the collective imagination, we create intricate systems of meaning that allow us to function together, though we remain largely unaware of its existence. Imagining worlds into being is a continuous, deeply embodied process, occurring far below the reach of everyday consciousness; the collective imagination and the various worlds we inhabit have been described as water to the fish.
It is quite likely that you reading this now, just like myself, are immersed in the world of Western modernity and its intricate systems that govern how we perceive and understand ourselves and the world around us, that form the contours of our experience of reality. This way of existing, of being, emerged from Europe and has now spread itself across the planet — with force — becoming the dominant (and dominating) world on the planet.
It is the fragility of modernity that we feel, imploding under the weight of its own ego. And while we recognise that deep foundational change is necessary, modernity has starved us of the sensibility and capacity to imagine a new world into being. Efforts to mitigate the ‘symptoms’ of modernity — global inequality and climate change, as two examples — are vital, and we need to work across all three horizons, but addressing the root causes must be approached with an entirely different system of thought.
Changing the way we fundamentally perceive and experience reality requires seismic shifts in the collective imagination; the difficulty being that our systems of sense-making are deeply entrenched within us, separating ourselves from them is, by definition, existential. Developing our capacity to hold the fear that comes with this, sitting with it for long enough for something new to emerge from it, is crucial. As Donella Meadows stated, the most effective place to effect change is at the level of the paradigm; or more specifically, in our ability to transcend paradigms. This requires us to rewrite our relationship with possibility, uncertainty, and Change itself — to decolonise our imaginations.
If modernity had an enemy, it would be possibility.
Possibility is the antithesis of control; it welcomes uncertainty, makes room for unpredictability, and opens the doors to Change. And, well, Change is simply bad for business.
What does this actually mean? Well at the foundational level, the ontological war against possibility manifests in the belief that there is no alternative, that there is just one reality, one world — a singular, external world that pre-exists, and is separate from, our interactions with it. There is the world and then there is us — a fictitious notion that masquerades within modernity as objective truth. We are blind to the pluriverse, or as the Zapatistas call it: ‘un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos’ (‘a world where many worlds fit’).
And with modernity’s ‘one-world view’ comes its de-facto claim to know the truth about this world. Herein lies the prerequisite for its inherent coloniality. Anybody else with a different interpretation of reality is wrong, inferior, and therefore deserving of subjugation and ridicule. As Arturo Escobar put it, this imperialistic notion supposes modernity’s self-entitled ‘right to be the world, to subject all other worlds to its rules, to diminish them to secondary status or to non-existence, often figuratively and materially’. Earlier I said that our ‘worlds’ are invisible to us, like water to the fish; well this can only be said of those who have not felt the weight of this colonial force. While those of us immersed in modernity must recognise it as an existential duty, those outside of it have long been experiencing it as an existential threat.
Modernity cannot respect other worlds, other societies, that it refuses to recognise as legitimate or ‘real’, and many indigenous communities across the planet are fighting desperately to preserve their way of being from marginalisation and erasure. While colonialism takes many forms, some brutal, some more subtle — our current systems of philanthropy and international aid, for example — they all serve one ultimate and sinister goal: the imposition of ontology — the enforcement of modernity’s particular way of being, seeing, and knowing the world. As Molefi Kete Asante wrote, modernity and its eurocentricity is a ‘superstructure that seeks to impose European consciousness onto other people’s consciousness’. Though often considered an event or time period, colonialism is the self-replicating, self-reinforcing practices that very much exist today, the mechanism by which modernity carves out its existence.
Hiding behind flawed notions of ‘progress’, modernity achieves its colonial success through limiting our sense of possibility. As Saidiya Hartman has said: “So much of the work of oppression is about policing the imagination.”
As we know, the imagination shapes our sociocultural experience through the creation of worlds; and modernity thrives by throwing tight constraints around our conception of possibility, degenerating our ability and capacity to imagine radically new futures into being. It is ‘defuturing’ — there are less futures available to us; or put another way, we are unable to hold the potentiality of meaningfully different futures within ourselves. Our understanding of reality is fixed and rigid.
While our systems of knowledge allow us to make sense of and interact with reality, they also form the limits of our interaction with it. Bayo Akumolafe put it well when he said: “The world is teeming with life, and we live within a pixel”. Even the alternative futures that we do envision often find themselves imbued with the same, harmful, way of relating to the world around us.
A new collective reimagination of society is needed, but modernity is an entangled web of systems; the ways in which it entraps the imagination are numerous and complex — oppressive forces that pervade minds, bodies, cultures, and structures: a modus operandi of control and its pyramidal governing systems that reduce us to basic instruments, where our imaginative capacity is syphoned for commercial gain, perpetuating an economy that thrives on generating unmet need — the adoption of which is primed within an education system that nurtures convergent over divergent thinking, that conditions us to seek out the one right answer that will find us favour within the system, instead of exploring the multitude of questions that help us to imagine and cultivate a life outside of it; a culture that neglects and devalues the imagination, placing greater emphasis on the mind over the body, on rational over ‘felt’ knowledge, and the systematic degradation of public spaces for philosophical and embodied speculation; fiduciary duty and debt that keep us invested in the status quo, the systemic precarity ensuring our participation in it, out of necessity to meet our basic needs; technology meticulously designed to capture our attentions, again for commercial gain; systemic trauma from lifetimes of oppression and an economy of psychological harm; and the mental and spiritual exhaustion of it all. Examples of the complex entanglements that entrap us within this particular way of being in the world, degenerating our imaginative capacity and broader sense of possibility. We remain locked into harmful relationships with ourselves, each other, and the planet, and on an ultimately destructive trajectory.
We must decolonise our imaginations in order to overcome this ontological rigidity and immunity to change. Our capacity for deep, transformative change is intrinsically tied to our relationship to possibility, but when modernity has a firm grip on our sense of possibility, expanding the collective imagination is no easy task. We must be brave enough to explore questions that do not have easy answers, to work in the knowledge that there are no neat, certain outcomes. We must let go of the known world, because only the unknown holds enough room for the evolution required of us.
The infrastructure of possibility allows us to develop the ontological fluidity necessary for our collective transformation. It is the spaces, conditions, practices, rituals, and language that reorient our imaginations towards a new way of being, and the networks of practitioners, communities, and organisations that nurture it.
This infrastructure of possibility destabilises our conventional ways of seeing and knowing the world, and invites us to experience the fullness of reality, beyond the colonial constraints of modernity and its narrow lens of sight and feeling. It offers us the opportunity to develop a new intimacy with ourselves, each other, and life itself — a continual process of becoming, of deep vulnerability, of remembering, of reclamation.
While modernity is defuturing, the infrastructure of possibility is futuring. The ‘future’ exists only as a theoretical concept; instead, life is a series of co-created, ever-unfurling presents, which we inextricably participate in bringing forth. Through developing the conditions (internally and externally) that allow us to cultivate a new sensibility and reimagination of the present, we are also creating new potentialities, new trajectories, for the future — creating space within ourselves for a new world to emerge.
By expanding our sense of possibility, we also begin to heal our non-relationship with plurality. As I earlier mentioned, there are many worlds; and many communities, living both within and outside of modernity, that have felt the bludgeoning end of modernity’s one-world view and the supposed superiority complex that comes with it. Only by detaching ourselves from this colonial ideology, can we begin to meaningfully repair the harm caused under its rule, and find the humility to listen to the wisdom and leadership that lies at the margins and on the other side of the divide.
Infrastructure is often thought of as static and material, but softening into the multidimensionality of the ‘now’, expanding our felt sense of reality, requires infrastructure that moves and breathes with us — facilitating across depths as well as temporalities. As modernity and its patterns of oppression pervade all layers of our being, to truly reimagine ourselves and our relationship to reality, the infrastructure must ‘speak’ to all parts of ourselves, awaking the neglected sides of dualisms that characterise modernity: the body, felt and intuitive knowledge, etc. Throughout society we are slowly seeing a resurgence in our understanding of their importance in creating meaningful change.
And the infrastructure of possibility must ultimately be self-conscious too. As Audre Lorde perfectly put it: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”; and when the master’s tools — the paradigms of separation and exclusion, are deeply entrenched, silently present in every decision we make, intentionality and self-reflection is absolutely critical. Working with the imagination in this capacity must be approached with deliberate nuance, responsibility, and skill; and written in a narrative of regeneration, equity, and justice — there is no other way, otherwise we are are only perpetuating the same unequal harm. To ensure that the future does not continue to be monopolised, the infrastructure of possibility must have the capacity to reflect on itself, continually reckoning with the question of who gets to imagine and shape the future?
The infrastructure, and those maintaining it, must also acknowledge and hold resistance and fear with compassion. Possibility makes uncertainty possible (or, certainty is achieved through the elimination of possibility). Uncertainty is our ally in this transition, but when life feels like it’s corroding around us, the tapestry unravelling, seeking certainty is an understandable psychological crutch (a phenomenon currently observable in the rise of mass-subscribed conspiracy theories — collective practices of sense-making, of a world that has stopped appearing to make sense). Modernity, and our entire understanding of the world around us, has been built around a central thesis of control and we have naturally assumed its deep disinclination, distrust, and outright fear of change — even those of us who would consider ourselves ‘progressive’; but life is transient by nature, forever in movement — permanence, certainty, and control are just further illusions that we must learn to let go of, in order to truly welcome new possibilities of the future. We must collectively become comfortable with the uncomfortable, to actively embrace the unknown — it is by grounding ourselves in something so infinitely immense that we can start to recognise our own infinite immensity.
This infrastructure can be found throughout all breadths and depths of society: in the personal and interpersonal, in the local and communal, within specific sectors and geographies, and society-wide. From an ontological perspective, each plays a significant and necessary role in transformative change. At the broadest level, for example, we have the potential to make policy changes that significantly increase the imaginative capacity for society; at the deepest, personal/interpersonal level, we can cultivate the intimacy needed for us to excavate ourselves from outdated beliefs and ideologies, and to find familiarity with different forms of knowing. And it’s in the in between, at the communal level, that a new language of liberation is written within society.
There are many incredible individuals, communities, and organisations dedicated to cultivating this fertile soil, nurturing the infrastructure of possibility across the many levels of society (though some may not recognise themselves or their work as such, nor use the language of the ‘imagination’ or ‘futures’). While this work sits largely on the third horizon and its true impact will reveal itself slowly over time, we are already seeing promising shifts in the collective psyche, small shoots of new futures taking root. We must continue to develop the infrastructure of imagination, supporting communities and networks of practice, if we are going to collectively bring a new world into bloom.
And Beyond is a ‘Playground for Collective Dreaming’, a participatory research lab that explores systemic change through the lens of the collective imagination. Through interrogating modernity and nurturing communities rooted in radical and embodied practices of liberation, we seek to cultivate new sensibilities, new ways of seeing, doing, and knowing that support the emergence of futures of wholeness, equity, care, and joy.
If this resonates with you, if you have ideas, practices, or other resources to contribute, please contact me at email@example.com. I look forward to it, and thanks for reading.