Municipal imagination: a movement whose time has come

This blogpost outlines a call for municipal imagination in the UK, introduces the term, and talks about the Camden Council and Moral Imaginations partnership, working over the last 12 months to build municipal imagination in Camden.

Emily Bazalgette
Moral Imaginations

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Written by Emily Bazalgette and Phoebe Tickell

This blogpost outlines a call for municipal imagination in the UK, introduces the term, and talks about the Camden Council and Moral Imaginations partnership, working over the last 12 months to build municipal imagination in Camden. Together, we have been building the case for municipal imagination and put it into action by training 32 council officers in the tools and practices of collective imagination, and create the infrastructure to support the ongoing support of this collective capacity.

We are learning a huge amount from this work and will be sharing more over the next few months as we move into the second phase of the project. If you would like to follow along and learn with us, please sign up for updates.

A sketch of a live Imagination Activism training session. The background is bright blue and green, with handwritten text in black, illustrations and black arrows. Sample text: Industrial growth society, great unravelling, business as usual
A live artwork by Reilly Dow, part of the Camden Imagines programme

“I was doing an event recently where someone asked me how you say “no” when you open up citizen expectation — what we have found when you invest in imagination is that you find new ways to say “yes”.” — Cllr Georgia Gould

Moral Imaginations has been working with Camden Council since April 2022 to build imagination capacity. On 13th February 2023, Councillor (Cllr) Georgia Gould, leader of Camden Council, gave the London Society’s annual Sir Banister Fletcher Lecture about the future of London and the role municipal imagination has to play in that future. In this post, we build on Georgia’s lecture and focus on:

  • Why we need municipal imagination (or collective imagination)
  • Why imagination is a core skill for public servants
  • How Imagination Activism can help build imagination capacity
  • A call to build municipal imagination in the UK.
Watch Cllr Georgia Gould’s Banister Fletcher Lecture — “Valuing the past, looking to the future”

A call for municipal imagination

Municipal imagination pairs bottom-up imagining with policies and action to make imagined futures a reality. It is a form of collective imagining that happens when people across a locality come together to collectively imagine the ways things could be different, whether they’re a resident, part of a community, a politician, charity, businesses or council officer.

Elements of municipal imagination are already happening at different scales and in different forms, for example, Let’s Talk Islington, which engaged over 6,000 local people to understand residents’ perceptions and experiences of inequality and their priorities for Islington. The group employed creative methods like puppetry and collective documentary-making to gather insights to feed into the council’s Islington Together local plan. Other examples include Camden’s own Think and Do and Barrow’s New Constellations, where local residents convened with council officers to creatively chart futures for their place, using a futures-guided approach to identify values and visions of the future.

“Often there is no lack of imagination in our communities but a lack of hope that those ideas will be heard which is why imagination has to be an essential part of our government toolkit… when you resource [imagination], start to bring people’s ideas to life even in a trial or a model, the energy unlocked is extraordinary and things happen” — Cllr Georgia Gould

Imagination is a core skill for public servants

As Georgia outlined in her lecture, we need a step-change in order to address the situation we’re in, with Councils opening up warm banks, giving out nappies and food banks sourcing food that doesn’t require cooking as people struggle to turn on electricity. Staying the same cycles of fear and resource competition will keep us stuck, with the same sticking-plaster solutions that are currently failing. We need new approaches to solving problems.

The imagination to address these challenges exists within communities. Georgia gave examples of Camden’s Imagination Activism, including the birth of the The People’s Museum: A Space for Us in Somers Town:

“In Somers Town, a proud radical working class community next to Kings Cross, there is a sense of being done to, of gentrification, of history and identity disappearing. Residents came together to create the local People’s history museum of Somers town to tell their stories and preserve their shared identity and they are now buying back art lost from the community…” — Cllr Georgia Gould

Photo of a woman standing in the doorway of a museum. On the blue museum shutters is graffiti in yellow paint: “A space for us”. The woman is white, with dark brown hair and red lipstick, wearing a blue dress, black jacket and red beaded necklace. Behind her, in the museum, we can see a bookcase.
The People’s Museum: A Space for Us in Somers Town, photo credit: We Make Camden

Now, the challenge is for councils to match their institutional imagination to the imaginations of their residents, and for everyone within localities to step into collective, municipal imagination, together. To make this happen, it’s time for an investment for councils to build imagination capacity within councils and their localities.

Imagination activism: shifting perspectives, building new systems

In Camden, Moral Imaginations has worked in partnership with Camden Council to develop a programme that can help unleash imagination and put it into action. It builds on the work Camden has already to done to engage residents and do things differently, centring relationships. And it builds on the work Moral Imaginations has done to centre imagination practice as a core way to change systems, through the idea of “Imagination Activism”. Together, we asked: what if imagination activism could help support Camden to meet the imagination of residents?

Imagination activism is described as a new kind of activism that focuses on shifting perspectives using active imagination, and bridging that to build new systems. This is different to traditional forms of activism that focus on fighting the old. Phoebe Tickell of Moral Imaginations developed Imagination Activism in 2022 to address the “imagination gap”. At a glance, here are some of the key concepts:

  • Imagination is a muscle that requires working out, just like a physical muscle, or it risks becoming atrophied
  • Many good ideas are never put into practice, creating a gulf between idea and action. We need new ways of bridging this gulf, and different ways of organising to make change happen collectively, adaptively and inclusively
  • The opportunity to imagine new worlds and then act to bring them into being is unequally distributed — those with the most resources (for example, tech companies) are currently the ones imagining and building our futures.

In Imagination Activism training, we use practices to shift ways of seeing towards empathising with future unborn generations, more-than-human world and ancestors (the Moral Imaginations Three Pillars Model). From this shifted place of perspective and time, different worlds become possible and different systems can be created.

By imagining a different future, fuelled by a deep sense of connection to self, others and planet, activists can sustain themselves through hope and inspire others to create the kind of flourishing world they imagine. Imagination Activism training also provides the tools to make change happen, equipping people with self-management and horizontal organising practices. In this way, Imagination Activism strengthens the pathway from imagination to policy-making, action and systems change.

Training Imagination Activists in Camden

In late 2022, Moral Imaginations ran an 8-week Imagination Activism training programme for staff across Camden Council, from repairs, to planners, to social workers. It was a big departure for council officers. We heard that, at first, it is hard to envision the future — it feels blurry and intimidating. But with the right conditions and support, from trainers, guest speakers and the peer support from officers on the programme, imagining the future becomes easier and easier over time, as does taking action to bring those visions to life.

Rather than a traditional training, it was an activation programme to unleash the imaginations of council officers, and equip them to build an internal movement of imagination-led change. Each Imagination Activist went on to activate 10 others in the organisation, creating a ripple effect reaching the 3000 employees at Camden council.

The 32 activists were supported to go out and share their learning and tools with others in the organisation, creating an internal marketplace for these skills. Imagination activism sessions have been run at internal away days, community conferences, team meetings, and leadership strategy sessions.

Building Imagination Activism in Camden (image taken from the Imagination Activism in Camden 2023 report)

Alongside the training, Moral Imaginations and Camden worked together to create a scaffolding for the unleashed capacity of the imagination activists. We ran briefings for managers, to prepare them with what to expect from the participants of the course, and how to support them to exercise their tools and ‘imagination muscles’.

This was combined with the establishment of a community of practice and internal ‘imagination fund’, regular ‘what if’ spaces held for the entire organisation, collaboration with the resident-led Think and Do to organise sharing spaces with residents, and later this year, the entire senior leadership of Camden will take part in an Imagination Leadership training, as we work with Camden to integrate imagination into their leadership model.

This scaffolding work is essential if imagination is to continue to blossom at Camden, and makes sure we deliver on the promise of the benefits of the training. Just like a seedling needs a healthy soil to flourish, imagination needs the right conditions to grow — which means that the activation programme is half of the work, the rest is less visible, but just as important.

“We are seeing extraordinary results [from Imagination Activism training] with small numbers and so much could be unlocked if we grew this. Imagine if this was how we invested in all public sector staff, if we gave them the tools to build relationships and solve problems?” — Cllr Georgia Gould

A call for municipal imagination in the UK

With budget cuts, a cost of living crisis, and increasing demand on services, the pressure on local councils is mounting. Pair this with the ongoing attack on the arts in education, the onslaught on our attention through digital dependency and targeted algorithms, and the decline of the average person’s leisure time, and it’s not hard to see that imagination is in danger.

At the same time, the best solutions often come from the bottom up, and as local budget cuts increase, investment in the time, space, permission and practice of imagination becomes more crucial.

Since the date of the Camden training, we have been invited to work with Essex Council and Hounslow Council on their Future Neighbourhoods 2030 programme, equipping council officers with tools and practices to support their future-facing work with residents. Last month, we collaborated with Barking and Dagenham and Redbridge Council in the organisation of a day-long form of citizens assembly, The Interspecies Council, that employed imagination tools to bring the voice of the nature into decision-making around the River Roding, supported by Defra Futures and the UK government’s Policy Lab.

Meanwhile projects also building imagination infrastructure like The River Don Project in Sheffield or the Regenerative Futures Fund in Edinburgh are launching off the ground, all in the last 4 months. These are by no means the only examples, but signals from our ecosystem and our own work that municipal imagination is starting to stir, open its eyes and see the others in this movement.

There is a rising interest and opening to these methods and techniques and a growing appreciation of their role in creating just, participatory and sustainable futures. Whether this will establish as a movement will depend on the role of communicators, funders and movement-builders, and the the longer term outcomes of this work.

To dive deeper:

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Emily Bazalgette
Moral Imaginations

Regenerative organisational desiger. Coach. Grief tender. Writer. Creator of GriefSick: https://griefsick.substack.com/. Website: https://www.emrosebaz.com/