Imagination and Innovation

Dr Tobias Andreassen

Paul Keating said at the end of 2017 that in relation to public policy, ‘if you can’t imagine it, you sure as hell never going to see it’. That seems obvious; we need imagination to create new things, or make things better, whether it is a policy, system or service. But are we really good at using this imagination of ours? If not, what is holding us back? Is it the way we work, our fears, or the environment we are in?

Before we explore this, let’s step back a bit, and reflect on ‘imagination’.

As humans imagination is our key to progress. Without it, we would not have progressed very far. It’s not too hard to imagine us being unable to imagine the wheel, a legislative system, human rights or an iPhone. It is not just about imagining helpful things of course, but also the bad when we imagine what could go wrong. Our imagination can drive innovation and change, but also protect or stifle us. Despite this, or maybe because of this, it has been a driving force for our unique ability as a species to develop, invent, and eventually, be more humane, equal and fair.

For most of us, it is self-evident that children play with their imagination all the time (well sometimes, unless they too preoccupied watching TV, another invention of the imagination). An adult’s ability, however, to imagine new scenarios, services or new worlds have usually evaporated, pretty significantly, once they have left school and ‘reality’, responsibilities and a perceived rationality takes over.

But to not imagine is to lose that ‘thing’ that is behind every great change; the ability to envision and see beyond what is obvious or right there in front of you. It’s about seeing processes or systems which may be counter to what we are doing, or seeing, in our everyday life, though something that is still maybe possible. If we try, test and learn.

Charles Wright Mills wrote in his classic book the Sociological Imagination that ‘imagination is the capacity to shift from one perspective to another’. For Mills, the sociological imagination is the ability to understand how structures relate to the individual, our stories (or biographies) and history. He argued, in the late 1950s, that it was the most needed ‘quality of mind’. Now, around 60 years later, new qualities are emerging, new ways to approach social challenges and ‘wicked’ problems. We may call the ‘new’ approaches ‘design research’, ‘social innovation’ or ‘systems thinking’. At their core, it is still about using the imagination to re-imagine how things could be better.

Being a ‘Social Innovator’ for The Australian Centre for Social Innovation, I am part of a dedicated team that strategically focuses on reimagining that which is not working very well in our society. It is not just about fixing the problem, but to imagine what is possible, and then to think rationally and carefully about how we can get there.

So how do we use our imagination? Well, in order to reimagine, we often use tools or processes that provoke, or evoke, the imagination. We use these with clients, within our teams but most importantly, with people who are facing disparity or disadvantage. It is not the tools or methods themselves that are the key, it is what they may spark. It can be LEGO – the kids toy – used to push our thinking and force us to think about something differently, move beyond the obvious. It can be drawings, maps and playful games. The only real purpose is to tap into our brain, ‘break’ the often very ingrained thinking and make us braver so that we will allow our imagination to run a bit wild.

Everyone has this ability, it is just that some put up the ‘pragmatic wall’, the ‘realistic barrier’, which stops the imagination from bursting free. It may sound all a bit childish, playful, maybe even silly, to the people with these walls and barriers firmly in place. Or with jobs that are serious and ‘needs to be done’. But it is an essential part of moving forward and create something new. In certain places, a safe space may be required, where it is possible to be a bit ‘silly’, where we can leave our rational and ‘realistic’ focus at the door. This is the reasoning behind policy labs using design-approaches (e.g. Lucy Kimbell’s 2015 book about Policy Lab UK) or Innovation Labs (e.g. the South Australian Public Sector Innovation Lab), but it is equally important for front-line staff and people with lived experiences.

Going back to Keating, if we do not make the effort to imagine what type of society we want, how it will work, what can be better for the citizens, older people, people with disabilities, migrants, First Nations people or other groups who may face challenges, we sure as hell will never see it. It is a quality of mind that we need more than ever, all of us!

To only imagine, however, is to be a dreamer; the next step is a strategic process that can move us forward and design the steps that will lead us to the place we want to be. For us at the Australian Centre, this is what social innovation is all about, whether we are trying to Rethink Restoration by reimagining the child protection system or Redesign Ageing by reimagining the future of home.

But social innovation cannot be achieved by just a few organisations or academia; we need Ministers, policy makers, NGOs and citizens to embrace this ‘quality of mind’. We need to have more spaces where the imagination can flourish and contribute to the creation of better and more effective social services and policies.

If we can agree this is needed, and Keating and Mills are right. What is currently holding you back from really using your imagination and being truly innovative, and how can we work together to get better and more imaginative?