In 2019 I was approached by the 5 Lamps Arts Festival in Dublin’s north inner city to design a solution to foster collective ownership over and begin to tackle local challenges such as inequality, housing crisis, dereliction and safety.
I decided to focus my attention on children, a large social group that are rarely encouraged to engage in civic and political life. Together with the 5 Lamps Arts Festival, Royal Canal Amenity Group, Fighting Words and St. Vincent’s GNS William Street North, I designed and facilitated Project 45’, a Design Thinking programme for school children that aimed to re-frame local challenges as opportunities for positive change and innovation.
The local school, St Vincents, sits adjacent to the Royal Canal, a well known local amenity that many believe has enormous future potential. As it happened, 2019 was the 45th anniversary since the Royal Canal Amenity Group began restoring and reimagining its future after it had fallen into disuse in the 70s.
Taking inspiration from the first restorations in the 70s, Project 45' asked the children to reimagine The Royal Canal over the next 45 years, centred around the themes of sustainability, climate change and community development.
So what did I learn? A lot!
I found that children are aware of the complex challenges society is facing, and if given the opportunity they can bring imaginative ideas, fresh perspectives, and the energy and fearlessness necessary to generate positive social change in their local communities and beyond.
But, I’ll take things back a step and concentrate on one basic ingredient that is often undervalued, but necessary to tackle social issues and achieve change: Imagination. Here’s four thoughts on the power of imagination and how we all might learn to practice and value it.
1 From The Future to Futures
There is not one single future destination, rather many possible futures. As we live through multiple complex challenges at both local and global scales, communicating the future as unwritten and open can be liberating and empowering.
2 Recognising the Power of Imagination
Realising alternative futures firstly depends upon our ability to imagine alternative futures; followed by an actionable pathway towards getting there. But the act of imagining has long been sidelined, often regarded as a trivial exercise carried out by children. We need to re-value imagination and recognise it for the powerful tool it has always been, allowing us to develop and adapt to our surroundings and to create new possibilities for change and innovation.
3 Rediscovering our Capacity to Imagine
We are all born with the capacity to imagine, in fact, as far as we know, imagination is what makes us distinctively human. At some point, probably during our formal education, we became rather disconnected from this capacity. Sir Ken Robinson describes this well. The good news is, using our imagination is a skill, and the more we practice, the better we get. So, one critical question for the 21st century is ‘how might we harness the capacity to imagine that lies within us all?’ From my experience facilitating Project 45', allocating time and creating a safe space to imagine, as well as building a collaborative culture are fundamental.
4 Allocating Time and Creating a Safe Space to Imagine
As I said, the act of imagining is a skill that requires practice, and practice requires time. But there is a bit of trouble here — time is a privilege and not accessible to everyone. What if we allocated time to imagine in our educational programmes and work places? This coupled with engaging spaces, where people can take risks, experiment, fail, think critically and broaden perspectives could be a good start.
If you’ve any feedback or have been involved in similar projects, I’d love to hear from you. Comment here or catch me over on twitter @flynnflynner