Watchet Imagines: municipal imagination in the town of Watchet

A community Imagination Lab with allowed local people to collectively reimagine the economy

Phoebe Tickell
Moral Imaginations


A short documentary about the Watchet Imagines project — a Collective Imagining Lab to reimagine the future economy of Watchet by communities

This blogpost introduces the work Moral Imaginations did in Watchet as part of the Onion Collective’s Attachment Economics project, to support community members to reimagine an economy that is connected to community, care and what’s important. This post sets out the context to the work, the history and background of Watchet, the intervention we developed in collaboration with the project partners, and the impact and learning.

We outline our approach which used collective, immersive, participatory imagination informed by systems theory, complexity and deep ecology; covers the portfolio of activities we undertook and summarises our learnings. We welcome your questions or comments and if you would like to find out more please get in touch.

Background on the town of Watchet

Watchet is an marine harbour town. Since Watchet’s working harbour closed in the 1990s, seeing mass job losses, it has been struggling to recover. A marina opened in 2001 to try to boost the economy, but the closure of the local paper mill, which had operated for 265 years, in 2015 took an entire fifth of the town’s jobs with it.

The demise of the mill represented what Onion Collective director Sally Lowndes describes as “a devastating” loss of identity — still talked about as a collective trauma and something the community has struggled to process and move on from. The area now has the lowest social mobility in England, with around 25% of young people going to university, compared with 50% nationally. Eight community-interested women born and bred in Watchet known as the Onion Collective realised that no one else was going to tackle a chronic unemployment problem in a town that is among the most deprived in the UK.

So they decided to work to create a new story, a new identity, and a new economy for the town. This has included building a visionary £7.2 million arts and community centre, East Quay (featured in the Guardian here) creating 37 decent new jobs, five apprenticeships, and supporting 109 jobs indirectly from visitors’ spending on local businesses.

East Quay is on Watchet’s harbour front. Photograph: Jim Stephenson, from this article

What were we invited to do?

Moral Imaginations was approached in September 2020 by the Onion Collective, a local social enterprise, after they saw The Impossible Train Story and resonated with the story and approach. Onion Collective was planning to write a collective book on community ‘attachment’ economics and their dream was to include written pieces from the local community. The chapters from the local community would communicate the things that really matter to them — that need to be placed at the heart of a new economy. They were looking for a process to support the community imagining to explore economic futures for Watchet.

Illustration by Reilly Dow, artist and graphic scribe for the Watchet Moral Imagining Lab, Day 1 on Attachment Economics in Watchet

Moral Imaginations designed an immersive imagination journey called a Moral Imagining Lab that would support 30 community members to vision an alternative economy for Watchet.

The week-long imagination lab would be delivered virtually, with community members supported to participate using Zoom and Google Docs and given onboarding support as part of the process. The idea was to use our experience of working with narrative design, collective imagination and embodied cognition to offer a journey that would be transformative for the community and support them to access their deepest imaginations through a state of pressure-free exploration and psychological safety.

What happened in the Imagining Lab?

Over the five days of the lab, we worked with 30 community members to explore the future, connect to the past and make sense of what a new identity for Watchet in the 21st century. We worked with metaphor, story, collective imagining practice and deep reflection to generate shared visions, images, shared metaphors and language. This was then followed by a weekly reflection session for eight weeks following the Lab, to integrate the shifts in awareness and work with the images, metaphors, questions and inquiries that emerged.

There were five stages to the lab:

  • Opening the Portal (through the Impossible Train Story in the context of a new economy for Watchet)
  • More-than-human World (exploring more than human perspectives)
  • Future Generations (exploring a future generation perspective)
  • Connecting with Ancestors (exploring a connection to ancestors and place)
  • Closing and Celebration (showcasing the artwork and collective imaginations)
Illustration by Reilly Dow, artist and graphic scribe for the Watchet Moral Imagining Lab, “Opening the Portal”

Through a team of 4 co-facilitators, an artist and graphic facilitator, we delivered an experiential journey that was carefully and rigorously designed based on our methods and approaches, and also adaptive and emergent based on the needs of the participants.

What was the outcome?

Over the four days, through a digital scrapbook, the community collectively created 121 pages of poetry, images, prose, future visions and speculative fiction, articulating their new-found motivation, hope and sense of possibility for the future. As part of our approach we also worked with community members to produce a shared immersive audio piece which captured the collective creativity of the group, creating a collective poem from the More-than-human Day of the Imagination Lab.

Immersive audio piece from Day 3 — More-than-human Imagination

The community continued to host their own, self-organised imagination sessions (which we supported with our materials) after the end of the live Imagination Lab. This continued for six months with continuing enthusiasm and creativity, which was perhaps the most transformative aspect of the intervention.

The final collection of community artwork, poetry, metaphors and creative writing can be found here: Watchet Moral Imaginations Lab — Vignettes.

Community members created new artworks, poetry, drawings and even songs and continued to record, share and express creativity in the 6 months following the lab. It’s as if the 5 day Imagination Lab liberated the community’s imaginations and visions and gave them the permission and confidence to keep creating, long after the lab was over.

As part of the Lab, the community was supported to create new collective metaphors to capture their explorations, discoveries and collective sentiments about the past and the future. One example can be seen below: “sticks in the mud” was collectively created to describe the people the community felt fought to resist anything new, any new ideas, shooting them down. Below is the artwork created by our graphic facilitator and scribe Reilly Dow:

The community came up with the “Sticks in the Mud” metaphor to describe what has been holding back change and transformation for Watchet. Illustration by Reilly Dow.

What was the impact on participants?

The results were transformative, empowering, and for some of the participants, potentially life-changing. The Onion Collective described the results as “extraordinary” and “transformative’. “It’s changed how we think about the future, how we think about ourselves, and what we feel is possible,” said Georgie Grant, one of the Directors of the Onion Collective.

“It’s changed how we think about the future, how we think about ourselves, and what we feel is possible”

The key thing that participants report is the sense of closeness, kinship and trust that developed from the 4 day virtual experience together. Participants experienced therapeutic effects and effects on well-being — something we could not have predicted from the outset of the project. One participant, who suffers from agoraphobia (a fear of outdoor spaces) said she was able to go outside and meet with people in a way that hadn’t been possible before the experience.

One participant said, “I feel I have found a new part of me that feels strong.” Others reported feeling a heightened sense of connection with nature, and a heightened sensitivity to sounds and colours — one participant reported “colours seem brighter after the lab, and I can hear more birdsong — I feel a grounded hope and inspiration”.

“I feel I have found a new part of me that feels strong”

The connections forged and the vulnerability shared has accelerated a sense of kinship, connection and mutual support — with many of the Imagination Lab participants continuing to meet up, help each other out with errands, volunteer for each other and carry out acts of mutual aid.

Reflections shared by participants:

Reflections from Sara, Imagination Lab participant
Reflections from Kalina, Imagination Lab participant
Reflections form Dotty, Imagination Lab participant

“It’s the earth, the universe and everything. All massive existential questions. And yet it’s quite a playful way of doing it. And a way that people who might not have thought they could do it, could.” — Sara Summers, participant

“This has been a mind blowing experience… Now we need to work out how we continue what we started. I want to keep up relationships that have started. It’s been such an amazing brain stretching, emotional, experience, where we go from here I have no idea…” — Frank, participant

What was the impact on the Onion Collective?

The Onion Collective reported deep changes in their work and a resulting shift in their priorities. The process opened up a deeper way of working, created a space where they could talk about the ‘spiritual’ and ‘sacred’, and centred the importance of imagination and story as a way to unite the community and shift things at a deeper level. Jess Prendergrast and Georgie Grant, Directors of Onion Collective who took part in the Imagination Lab later went on to tell the Guardian:

“We really want to build an ‘imaginarium’,” says Prendergrast. The word conjures images of a coastal Millennium Dome, filled with vapid platitudes, before Grant explains. “Every town should have a temple of imagination,” she says, “a place where you can go to imagine what you want the area to be like.” “We’re all stuck in who and what we think we are, but we should be able to imagine different possibilities.” — Guardian article on the Onion Collective and East Quay

“Every town should have a temple of imagination, a place where you can go to imagine what you want the area to be like.”

The reflections from Georgie were: “I was surprised by how emotional it was, it felt like an opening up of my soul! The questions required deep soul thinking, which I don’t normally do, or know how to necessarily. It meant accessing a different part of my brain which is tiring and exhilarating.”

“It meant accessing a different part of my brain which is tiring and exhilarating”

Jess later spoke about the experience: “We worked with a brilliant group of practitioners called Moral Imaginations. And we undertook quite intensely for a week and subsequently over several months a game changing journey really of helping people in our communities to imagine what the next economy might look like and understanding the imperatives to which they wanted it to respond. And then from that thinking helping people generate creative work — so prose and poetry and art and writings all about economics of all things!

And I honestly think it was the most powerful engagement process I have ever been part of. And I really live and breathe this stuff.

We expected it to be hard and we thought that when we asked people to come to do a week’s worth of Zoom workshops on economics they would run a mile, but they didn’t — and we literally couldn’t shut them up — and they produced some of the most heart wrenchingly beautiful sometimes quite crushing but also really hopeful work about how things could and need to change.

“I honestly think it was the most powerful engagement process I have ever been part of. And I really live and breathe this stuff.”

And those in turn have really deeply influenced our own writings and own thinking on the way the next economy might be run for the better and how the values that matter to those communities can be integral to that change.

The process we experienced with Moral Imaginations was really revelatory but it was also hard. And hard for those people involved. It was emotionally quite taxing, and it awakened fears as much as hopes, and it was quite spiritual. Again, not something usually associated with economic thinking.

But it was really worth it, and it helped people not just process their own ideas, but rethink what was possible, build friendships and understanding of difference, create shared purpose and values.”

“It helped people not just process their own ideas, but rethink what was possible, build friendships and understanding of difference, create shared purpose and values.”

Illustration by Reilly Dow, artist and graphic scribe for the Watchet Moral Imagining Lab, “The Impossible Train Story”

What did we learn?

Time, space and scaffolding
Our biggest learning is that communities need space, time, permission and scaffolding with imagination exercises and emotional support to engage in what can be a challenging, but rewarding process. Many of the community members talked about feeling a sense of reconnection with something that had felt lost before — a sense of freedom, creativity and hope, without denying the challenges and injustices that weighed them down day to day. Participants also said they had never experienced something like this before — and that the week-long Imagination Lab served as a catalyst for continued relationships, creativity and community support and mutual aid. A week-long experience paid dividends for the 12 months after.

Continued support and care after the Lab
Another important learning was the need for continued support, scaffolding and care in the time after the Imagination Lab. Arguably the most impactful time was in the 3 months following the intensive experience, where community members transitioned to hosting their own imagination sessions, supported each other to overcome challenges, and continue their creative and community projects. One of these projects was the “No Judge Club” created by Kate, who curated a space for community members to congregate, have a cup of tea, and be able to speak about their problems and feelings in a judgement free space.

Adequate support during the Lab
Having a team of co-facilitators was important to the process. The Moral Imaginations team had 4 co-facilitators and a graphic scribe, and the Onion Collective had 1–2 people present throughout the Lab. People needed different levels of attention and support to participate in the process, and there were also multiple complex needs in the room, so the team was essential to create a support structure that could respond to what was happening. Co-facilitators were available for one-to-one meetings after the Lab which was important for 4–5 of the participants in particular.

Conditions for a transformative process
Lastly, we learned a lot about the conditions needed to create a transformative community experience. We followed a process of emergent design, which allowed us to shape the experience responding to the community’s needs and levels of comfort which allowed a deep and responsive process. It was also important to enter the Lab with very little pressure on participants to produce or achieve anything — which yielded results far beyond what either Moral Imaginations or Onion Collective had expected.

Scepticism around imagination and dreaming
The Onion Collective expressed some concerns before the Lab about whether the community members would find this too “wooly” or “fluffy” or “spiritual”. Later they felt that the tone struck was one that held space for the sacred and important values, without being woo-woo or fluffy — and actually the themes and topics discussed were things that the community had struggled to discuss previously — like feelings of grief and despair about the future. Transformative processes are difficult to describe and talk about and this presents a barrier in the setting up of such projects and experiences. There is a need to develop better language to describe this kind of work and its qualities in a way that does the impact of it justice.

Closing thoughts

Communities deserve to shape their environments and infrastructure, and contribute to co-imagining the future. Immersive, transformative, participatory imagination should be available to all communities and not just those who can afford these experiences. A collective imagination approach with a focus on values and entanglement with future generations, ancestors and the more-than-human world can create a shared experience that unleashes energy, creativity, hope and empathy, with a strong shared articulation of what is vital and important. We are deeply grateful to work with the Watchet community and Onion Collective, and play a small part in their ongoing journey, and thank all the participants for giving their time, energy and creativity to this process.

Find out more

Who gets to imagine the future? | RSA — A panel discussion featuring Jess Prendergrast talking about the effects of the work.

Cultivating Everyday Imagination — What Next Summit — Phoebe speaks about the project and showcases some of the artwork.



Phoebe Tickell
Moral Imaginations

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