In this conversation we will be delving into how embracing the social nature of imagination might transform the democratic contract.

Agenda track: 2 Ontological politics, 3 Civic imagination
Session type: New narratives
Interaction level: Some
Movement level: None
Screen need: Needed all the time
Day: Thursday 23 September

Moving beyond the dominant narrative

Today, the dominant narrative in society is that our imagination is failing us. We find ourselves in the state we are in because there is a deficit of imagination, leading us to experience what Roberto Unger termed the ‘dictatorship of no alternatives’. The democratic contract of the 20th century was to hand over our imaginative power to a system of public and private institutions who in turn would provide new solutions, systems, and futures. The promise was bigger, better, forever. The promise was for a single equitable and sustainable future. This promise has not been fulfilled, and instead we face a global failure that appears to be deepening inequality and unsustainability. 

But what if the story of a deficit imagination was not the whole story, indeed, what if there was a different story?

  • What if we recognised that our imagination is in abundance, rather than in deficit? 
  • What if our imagination, rather than failing to provide new futures, is in power and producing and maintaining the existing?
  • What if we revealed the collective & social nature of imaginative power, rather than seeing the subject who owns the imaginative power as the individual? 
  • What if by acknowledging this imaginative power, we also acknowledged that the capacity to apply it to imagining new futures is unequally distributed? 

Viewing our democratic contract through the prism of social imagination 

These questions arise when we hold the perspective that our imagination is social. During our session we will be crystallising this perspective and demonstrating how it provides us with a powerful set of prisms to view our current world through; opening up new possibilities; new ways of seeing, new ways of doing and new ways of being.  

During our session, we want to explore together what these prisms might reveal is possible, and what might already be emerging, as a set of shifts towards a different democratic contract; the asks and the offers within the exchange of power and representation between citizens and the state. 

Towards a Generative Democracy?

Core to this will be exploring a proposal for a shift towards a more generative form of democracy that mobilises the power of our social imagination to renovate our democratic processes, whilst fostering our collective capacity to imagine and realise new futures. We are currently working with a range of partners across Europe – from foundations, networks to local governments – to further explore and develop this proposal for a more generative democracy.

The dominant deficit narrative of imagination can be corrosive and inhibitive to the energy, creativity and will that are necessary for organisations, systems and societies to realise radical change. By revealing the power of our social imagination and acknowledging the imaginative power we already hold, helps to shift this deficit narrative, to one of abundance, possibility and hope. Join our session if you recognise the need to shift this narrative and want to explore the possibilities for our democratic contract when we gaze through the prisms of social imagination.

Following the festival, we would like to host an ongoing group of people who would like to explore this proposal together. Our aim is to build a community of people who can collectively explore and develop this proposal, shaping the agenda and pioneering the change through a practice grounded in people and the places they live. 

Paola Pierri is Head of Design and Research at Democratic Society where she is exploring ways to strengthen and re-imagine democracy. She has worked as a practitioner and in academia across Europe, teaching and researching democratic innovation and participatory design. She is now based in Berlin. She has a Doctorate in Design Anthropology, on the topic of creative democracy and the role of imagination and social imaginaries. Paola believes that ​​imagining a different future is the first step towards mobilising people to make that future possible in the present. 

Jo Harrington has been working to support social innovation programmes in governments across the world for the past 15 years. He was a programme lead and lecturer in Design at Goldsmiths College London, a partner at the Innovation Unit in the UK, and currently lives in Sweden, working across Europe. During Jo’s experience, he has witnessed both the inhibitive nature of a colonial imagination and the possibilities when this imagination is revealed and mobilised for more pluraliversal futures. 

@demsoc @paolapierri