Why imagination matters

What if a scientific investigation would be a video game? Suggested idea from one of my Creativity + Science course students.

Creativity and innovation have become popular words. Just a quick search in Google shows about 663,000,000 and 3,270,000,000 results respectively. Also, many articles from domains unrelated to arts and design have described creativity as the skill to master in the XXI century. In a recent article for The New York Times, Peter Coy discusses how creativity could open economists’ mind to see the world and find novel solutions. Similarly, science, technology and government have express the need for new ways to rethink their areas of expertise. Multiple books have been published about how to be more creative providing countless strategies, processes, games, and techniques to do so. Speculative design, foresight, and organizations about the future present approaches to think about radical change and imagine new possibilities. If I didn’t know anything, all these factors would be positive indicators that creativity and innovation could be at the center of everything we do.

However, as society, we still struggle to make sense and find solutions to important global problems, from poverty to climate change. Clearly, although popular, we aren’t embracing our creative capacity yet. As evidence, have a look at the movies from the last three years: they focus on either destroying the Earth or human-looking Aliens wanting to conquer humanity, or permutations of these story lines (Black Mirror is an exception).

At the heart of creativity and innovation is imagination. This is our capacity to form new ideas not present to the senses and to recombine ingredients in untraditional ways to create alternative scenarios, radically different realities, and “ridiculous” possibilities. We all have limitless imagination, but a big barrier to creative thinking begins when we don’t allow ourselves to use it. I witness this behavior among my creativity students. Regardless of age, background or nationality, they have a hard time using their imagination to come up with ideas or situations about realities that don’t exist. While this is easier for them when they engage in in-class warm-up exercises, as soon as they have to use their imagination to think about “more serious” topics like their PhD thesis, solutions to healthcare problems or ways to improve well-being, their mental blocks take over and mostly generate practical and doable ideas based on something that already exists, with the “creative” element being technological.

Although we have more means than ever before, the way we approach everyday problems hasn’t really changed. There is strong resistance (beyond the classroom and educational settings) to use imagination at its fullest and other playful techniques as valid ways of problem solving. I haven’t yet seen a company or institution that truly embraces and nurtures creativity and imagination at all levels of the organization. Coy suggests reading science fiction as a way to imagine other ways the world could be, and states that society needs open up to the idea of “radical change.” This type of change could be imaged by answering some of these questions: “What if money went away? How would we reorganize society if no one needed to work?” What if humans didn’t need to eat? What if humans could eat objects?

He goes as far as arguing that “It’s a failure of the imagination to take today’s society form as a given.” In other words, why is it so hard for us to challenge what we know? Why do we judge or struggle so much to entertain the possibility of a different world when we do this everyday during the first years of our lives? If we think about how society was built, we realize that long time ago someone (or a group of people) decided to create social rules, states, churches, and legal systems; and then convinced everyone of their value and importance. Almost everything we take for granted and never question are social constructs, not things that really exist, such as nature.

To me, if we want to “stretch our collective imagination, so we are more flexible, adaptable, agile, and resilient when the ‘unthinkable’ happens” as Jane McGonical (2022) puts it, we must start envisioning worlds, situations and ways of solving problems that may never exist. We first must adopt an imaginative way of thinking and seeing the world. Celebrating the difference, welcoming play, removing judgement, listening and questioning to help us understand rather than evaluate or criticize are key behaviors to master. As Teresa Amabile points out, personal motivation — as with any other form of change — is essential to put our imagination to work and break with our self-imposed constraints.

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