Opening The Way To Better Imaginings

Openings.  An opening is a beginning.  An opening is also a hole or a space, a gap or an aperture.  Our communities and organizations should be porous and permeable, with many gaps and spaces.  They should be friendly to the new, to curiosity, to beginnings.  

This is some of what we mean when we write about the social possibility or imaginative capacity.  During my doctoral studies, I travelled to Belfast, Northern Ireland.  I was interested in the work of local groups to bridge divides in communities separated by “peace lines”.  These were walls and razor wire and barricades that split neighborhoods and separated residents based on ethnic (Ireland vs. Britain) and sectarian (Catholic vs. Protestant) identifications.  The walls isolated neighborhoods and made travel and daily life more difficult.  

I met with a number of people including Breandan Clarke of the North Belfast Interface Network (NBIN).  Some of his work was with youth living in divided communities. He helped begin an initiative called Draw Down the Walls (DDTW).  Their purpose was, “creating the conditions to imagine a city without barriers.”   NBIN partnered with neighborhood groups, artists, and youth on a number of projects.  

One such effort involved the creation and installation of large photographic murals at selected points on both sides of a barrier.  The images depicted what could be seen if the wall was absent.  Many residents were unsure or resistant to the group’s efforts.  But, the installations spurred conversation and did indeed help people imagine their communities without barriers.  More residents came to see the walls as a barrier and obstacle, rather than simply as permanent and protective.  In some areas, gates were installed and some walls were removed.  

DDTW’s work was not the sole cause of community change.  It was but one piece of a much larger effort.  Yet, the project helped create an opening, a shift, an opportunity.  It engaged youth, artists, and residents in seeing and thinking differently about their community and their environment.  NBIN and the Lower Shankill Community Association both agree that DDTW, “provided a crucial shift in perceptions within interface communities.”   DDTW has continued to engage artists with community youth in a range of projects.

In an earlier writing, I described DDTW as an example of civic tinkering.  It could also be an example of community arts, creative place-making, organizing, or tactical urbanism.  Whatever one calls it, I think their work points the way to better imagining.  

So, how do we help our places and organizations to imagine better?  We might think we get better with more practice and more collaboration.  A 2020 study found that more brainstorming practice does not necessarily lead to higher numbers of ideas nor to more novel ideas.  Idea quantity tended to stagnate with practice and idea novelty tended to decline.  Interestingly, the participants themselves felt they were becoming more creative with increased practice. That study looked across multiple sessions.  

Another 2020 study examined creativity in one-time idea generation (or ideation) sessions and found the production of new or novel ideas tended to improve with longer time periods.  The participants themselves felt their creativity decreased as the time period lengthened.  

People may be most creative when there is a mixture of time alone and time in a group. One study by Paul Paulus of the University of Texas found that a process interspersing brief periods of individual and group time produced 71% more ideas per person than either individual or collaborative work alone.   So, we are not great judges of our own creative output.  And these kinds of brainstorming, ideation, or design thinking sessions are not the whole of creativity or imagination.

Imagination is that which broadens the horizon of possibilities, but that also lets us see our present array of options and situations in a different light.   The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on imagination is extensive and conveys the overall sense that imagination is, in some ways, ineffable.  

The entry includes a discussion of the uses of imagination by Amy Kind and Peter Kung who suggest two distinct imaginative functions:  “the transcendent uses of imagination, which enables one to escape from or look beyond the world as it is, and the instructive uses of imagination, which enables one to learn about the world as it is.”  

For now, we like to think of imaginative capacity as encompassing both functions:  the ability to see what is not yet there AND the ability to see differently about what is already there.  Imaginative capacity helps reveal possibilities.  It looks for and creates gaps, or openings.  Imaginative capacity is strengthened by a mixture of time to ourselves and time spent with others.   Some studies have pointed to a connection between population density and innovation, often using patent applications or business starts as a proxy for innovation.  I am not convinced that population density equates neatly with imaginative capacity.  We need spaces where we make connections, encounter surprises, and experience collaboration.  But we also need spaces where we can easily be alone, reflect, see beauty, access nature, and experience wonder.  Places with many kinds of openings.  

Imagination is crucial for organizations as well as for communities.  Martin Reeves and Jack Fuller argued something similar in their April 2020 Harvard Business Review article, “We need imagination now more than ever.”  Fuller and Reeves surveyed over 250 multinational companies in 2020 to discover how they were handling the pandemic.  While all those responding had tried a number of reactive measures, only a very few companies had begun to shape more proactive and strategic opportunities.

In her volume, Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change, philosopher and Maxine Greene writes that,

“To call for imaginative capacity is to work for the ability to look at things as if they could be otherwise. To ask for intensified realization is to see that each person’s reality must be understood to be interpreted experience—and that the mode of interpretation depends on his or her situation and location in the world. … To tap into the imagination is to become able to break with what is supposedly fixed and finished, objectively and independently real.”

To find the gaps, to create openings.  Time apart, and time together.  To see differently – to envision what is not present, and to see what is present in a different light. This is the work of strategy, of leadership, of better imaginings.