Camden Imagines
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Camden Imagines

Imagination is not day-dreaming

This is a blog by Joanna Brown and I making the case for why imagination is crucial for the public sector, and what we might be losing if we dismiss it as simply ‘day-dreaming’. Jo is the Director of People and Inclusion at Camden Council.

Artwork by Sebastian Rubiano for Fine Acts, licence: NC-BY-CC-SA

Imagination is a superpower. Every single change in society started in somebody’s imagination — or in a small group’s collective imagination — from women getting the vote, to the civil rights movement or better services for healthcare. Some say it’s the quality that makes us most uniquely human — especially our ability to collectively imagine the new.

But imagination is not recognised for what it is — the star stuff of truly radical innovation that builds a new world into being. It’s often dismissed as something associated with day-dreaming, fantasy and fiction. If a job candidate put “imagination” on their CV, it would certainly raise eyebrows. As early as school, we are told off for daydreaming, reinforcing from the start that this is someway a pointless or indulgent activity. What if this carried on throughout life with our organisational and civic systems constantly narrowing out imagination, rather than recognising its true importance?

It’s natural that in a period of austerity, imagination falls to the bottom of priorities. As we face scarcity and insurmountable challenges, people focus on efficiency, practical deliverables and getting things done. Imagination is seen as a distraction, something wooly and perhaps relevant for an away day, but not core to the building of new policy and systems.

Imagine if we’re wrong. As temperatures hit record level in the UK this week, there is a growing sense that we have lost our way. Things have gone wrong — and we need to put them right. But how do we do that when policies, responsibility, vision and action seem to be stuck in a gridlock? How can we solve some of these deep rooted problems — if we use the same approaches we will get the same answers we have always got.

The challenges we face are incredibly complex and cannot be solved by any one individual or solution alone. Just like a bee goes out to search many different locations for the perfect place for its hive before committing to one of them, so too the mind needs to wander and explore the different possibilities before choosing a way forward. Our imaginations can be incredibly helpful to paint different scenarios in our head and test them out through simulations.

Imagination and day-dreaming may seem like a waste of time, but what if developing that part of our brain is one of the ways we can better use the resources we’ve got more effectively? Think about the new futures that are not necessarily bound up with what we’re currently doing. We may chance upon such alternative futures, but why aren’t we supporting frontline workers and leaders to build their muscle in doing such imagining — a core skill for facing the inherent uncertainty of the future.

The corporate sector understands the importance of making time and space for imagination. If you look across the Camden offices into the Google offices, you may see beanbags, dogs and colourful decor. Of course, time and space for creativity and imagination is a luxury, and corporations like Google have the means to support that. But it’s also about a recognition that the human capacity to imagine is one of our most precious resources. Google prioritises creativity in a way that we in in the public and charity sector struggle to — and do not have the budget to boost on top of delivering crucial services.

If you apply that to our workforce, how much time do you have to imagine things differently, and when are the gaps and spaces where imagination can take root and happen? It’s a social justice issue that only some people, usually those who have more time, space and resources, are able to exercise imagination in their working lives.

In the charity sector and local government, it can feel like the tasks at hand are so important that space for ‘imagining’ and being creative would be taking away crucial time and attention from the task at hand. However, as many of us have been coming to realise, it’s not just what services we deliver, but how we deliver them. If we want to deliver relational services, we need the time and space to nourish imagination, hope, care and even love.

Unfortunately the result is that imagination becomes allowed for some people in society — usually people in tech and silicon valley — but not everyone. This needs to change. Imagination is a human right and a source of great joy and innovation — and connection to confidence, direction and vision.

Maybe it’s time we started daydreaming again.

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Phoebe Tickell

Phoebe Tickell

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