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Podcast Article December 13th, 2023
Cities • Delivery • Innovation

Reimagining Government season 2 episode 5: transcript

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Imagination is the secret ingredient in most of our best ideas. In season 2 episode 5, we explore how social imagination could help us find new ways to approach complex challenges.

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[00:00:00] SFX Charles Faulkner: Imagination isn't what we think. Think it's how we think. 

[00:00:04] Adrian Brown: Hello and welcome to Reimagining Government. My name is Adrian Brown and I'm the Executive Director at the Centre for Public Impact. It's a secret ingredient to our best ideas. Children are known to have it in abundance, but how can imagination help us take another look at how we structure our government and problem-solve the issues we face in modern society?

Today I'm joined by Senior Programme Manager in our Australia New Zealand office, Keira Lowther, to talk about how imagination should take more of a flagship role when planning in government. Welcome Keira. 

 Keira Lowther: Thank you. 

Adrian Brown: Now, in the introduction, I was just talking about imagination. What is the current relationship between public servants and imagination? Cause I think many people listening might think that those two are just completely different domains. 

[00:00:58] Keira Lowther: So I think, um, if the [00:01:00] relationship between public servants and imagination is a tricky one, I think there are a lot of really engaged and smart and experienced public servants who would like to use their, their imaginations more and, uh think more broadly about the problems that they're tackling and facing, but governments are not always structured to encourage that and to enable that. In terms of social imagination, I think we are, all of us are governed by the social imagination and the imaginaries that constructed the society that we're living in.

And civil servants are no different. So the things that we imagine and create are sourced and born in the social rules that, in which we live our lives. 

[00:01:41] Adrian Brown: That's a really helpful framing for us at the beginning of this conversation. As I understand it, there's a connection between complexity in the world and imagination.

So complexity means that there aren't straightforward answers, that one way of framing the way of thinking about a situation need not be the [00:02:00] only way. There are many ways, and in fact we're encouraged to think in many different ways. So is that another way of thinking about the role imagination can play?

It's sort of a way of navigating complexity or at least kind of wrestling with the complexity that we find in the real world. 

[00:02:15] Keira Lowther: I think once you've got your head around complexity and you're prepared to let go of that certainty and step into the ambiguity of complexity where you can't predict things and outcomes are emergent, and you have feedback loops and things are not within your grasp, or it's not within your gift to say, “I made that change all by myself”, for example, then you're in a better place to see.

Okay. So there are different perspectives. There are different lenses and there's different ways of looking at this one problem, which might shed real light on the situation if we were able to step into those things. And then that enables you to see, okay, so what are the rules and the, the boundaries of my thinking?

And how have I been trained and socialised [00:03:00] to see a problem a certain way? What else might be possible? And then you begin to say, it is quite scary, you know? These are rules and they can be different and we can break them. That's a quite a scary place to step into and it's not comfortable for a lot of people.

And in the work that we've done at CPI around social imagination, we've a hundred percent found that some people are really willing and excited to step into that ambiguity. And some people are much more hesitant and would rather try every single tool in the toolbox, and then they realise that that's not working and they need to step over that breach of ambiguity and lack of control essentially.

[00:03:39] Adrian Brown: Let's get into some of the guests that you've been speaking with to illustrate these ideas. Who's the first guest that you want us to hear from? 

[00:03:46] Keira Lowther: So our first guest is Hannah McDowall. [00:03:49] 

Hannah McDowall: I am, uh, Hannah McDowall and I am one of the Co-directors of Canopy, a social imagination project. We run what we call social imagination projects, or we don't [00:04:00] really run them, we partner with people who want to run them with us. 

So we come alongside usually system actors, like people in healthcare or people in the government, or potentially people in a charity or a business. People that shape the world quite considerably, and we bring them into relationship with the community, which is shaped by that system and could shape it differently.

We create imagination practice opportunities for the world to change by putting the imaginary and the imagination of the community at the centre of what they want to change. 

Um, yeah, so that's me. I'm also a beekeeper and I live on a boat.

[00:04:49] Keira Lowther: So during this discussion, we're going to be using the term social imagination a lot. So before we dive any deeper, here's Hannah on exactly what we mean by that 

[00:04:58] Hannah McDowall: Social imagination, it's obviously, it's got two words, it's a [00:05:00] social bit and as in imagination bit. And the social bit is about imagining about things that affect our social connections and our social equity.

So it's probably not things like imagining how to make the next super duper shaped car. It's also social because it's social in it's being collective. We do it together. It's an imagining we do together. And then we also talk about how we know that we have done, if you like, social imagination, because we step over a threshold.

We are no longer seeing the world the way we saw it before. We are in new territory for us as a collective. And the last thing, the imagination bit is really about, I often say it's embodied, but actually the real world I'd like to say is original participation. So [00:06:00] it's, there's a sense when we are imagining we are away from the codified and the conceptual, and we are in our bodies and image and sensation.

It's about saying what you are dreaming can change the world.

[00:06:20] Keira Lowther: I'm in Australia and I'm learning how to grow native indigenous plants and I'm learning that the fertiliser that we use for tomatoes and cucumbers and all these western vegetables has got too much phosphorus in it. So if I want to grow kangaroo paws and all these other Australian plants that I'm learning about, I can't use that fertiliser. I have to relearn. The soil is different and the soil grows different things.

 So if our society is shaped by mentalities and belief systems that are created by mostly European white men. Then the ideas of people who have a different [00:07:00] perspective will not flourish. And so social imagination is saying, let's change the soil.

Let's change the parameters around how we create our society. And anything that is made can be made differently. And social imagination is a way of doing that and a way of highlighting. And also the thing the other parallel, which Hannah doesn't talk about, but I think is relevant to this work is it's slow work.

The thing I'm learning about gardening is it requires so much patience. I'm not a patient person. Governments are not patient. Election cycles happen. Impact needs to be measured and demonstrated, and so this work is counterculture as well. But if we want to see the solutions that we need that kind of meet the challenges that we're facing in society, we need to do things differently. 

And social imagination is one option that we haven't lent into enough because most of the people who are making the decisions come from societies or cultures that are dominated by. [00:08:00] White European thinking,

[00:08:12] SFX - train sound: This is Stockwell change here for the Northern line. In 

[00:08:18] Hannah McDowall: Stockwell, they have a very high proportion of Portuguese speaking people. I think one in six people have Portuguese as their first language, and what they've noticed is that they have poorer health outcomes than the rest of the population in that area.

And when you look at it, it's all what we, you know, we call here social determinants of health: income and opportunity affecting people's ability to access a healthy lifestyle and also partly culture. So we were invited by the health practitioners in the community, the local GP, the general practitioner doctor, said, “could you come and work with the [00:09:00] community and find out what kind of model of health is gonna help?”

Because we have tried to put on clinics for blood pressure and stopping smoking and yada yada yada, and it's not making a blind bit of difference. Everybody knows they should do it, but they don't do it. We worked with a number of representatives from organisations from that community, like, but community-based organisations, um, and some health practitioners with 15 um, households, we designed a model of health that wasn't around the individual. But it was around the whole household. How do we choose together to be well? What does that mean in terms of supporting mum with her smoking, supporting dad with his English? Because if he's got his English, then he can do all kinds of other things that means that the daughter doesn't have to do them for him. 

And all of these factors that they wanted to improve. Some of them would come under the title of health, like maybe the [00:10:00] smoking, but many of them are just about being connected and agentful and purposeful in a community, and they identified what they were, the community did, and we did that by imagining what a future would look like in their household in which people were well.

By imagining a community in which they felt confident moving around. And they developed different kinds of prototype interventions for the community. So what if we ran our own, um, language classes where we put on a TV show in Portuguese and we all had to go at translating it into English? And so the kids are at school learning the English, they all teach us English, and they also have to then learn their Portuguese.

Now it becomes a language lesson, but it's actually also about retaining the culture, passing it onto the next generation. You know, another thing is they said, we would love it if the doctor would come and have a meal with us and talk to all of us about our health together. So people making massive changes in their lives when the household is at the centre. 

That [00:11:00] now is being taken from a sort of prototype idea to a pilot idea by, um, public Health England, and they're growing, how do we think about mainstreaming this in other places? So a household model of health rather than individual model of health.

[00:11:19] Adrian Brown: So this has some very familiar themes. I think from the Reimagining Government podcast in particular, this idea that the way, let's say the state views people is often through the lens of different government departments or different public services and the provision of those, those services. But of course, for people they experience the world and they experience their relationship with government in a whole variety of other different ways that don't necessarily, or are very unlikely even to fall onto those neat boundaries. 

So if I understand correctly, the imagination work here is allowing that particular community of Portuguese speakers in Stockwell to [00:12:00] start to articulate and explore what a different way of thinking about, in this case, healthcare could look like that makes more sense for them and in, and therefore necessarily spans the boundaries between health, education, social services, and creates a whole different set of possibilities than public servants working in any one of those domains where they've ever been able to come up with themselves.

Is that roughly right, Keira? Am I understanding this correctly? 

[00:12:29] Keira Lowther: Yeah, I think so. I think it's about values and different, different values in different cultures. So in the Western biomedical model, people come with a, a brokenness and, uh, an individual brokenness and a fix is applied. But you can see in this culture, it was much more collectivist, much more interdependent and so their values were about relationship.

 The values that were, um, that were driving their behaviours [00:13:00] were different to the assumption of values that would be in the healthcare, like service design essentially. So by putting their worldview and their values and creating a healthcare model which is more aligned and a more of an embodiment of the values that they held to be true and important, you get a completely different perspective, completely different service requirements or condition requirements for wellness.

[00:13:25] Adrian Brown: I think that is a really, really important point. This idea that the imagination work starting with and is anchored in the values and reimagining what those could be as reference points that then allow us to think about practical implications and applications in terms of the, the different language classes or the, the other opportunities that are more practical.

But I think what you're saying, Keira, and it's a really important point, is that this doesn't start by saying, let's imagine a different language class or let's imagine a different GP experience. This starts by [00:14:00] saying, let's imagine a different set of values, different framing, something much more foundational upon which we can then build out.

[00:14:06] Keira Lowther: And it begins with a respect and a trust for the community that they want to be. Well. And sometimes you get the sense in normal healthcare provision, I've been, I was a nurse, I've been in that position, so, but you get this kind of vibe that these people are just like really, um, stubborn. Or they just won't Like, “why won't he just like go to smoking cessation classes or why will they not come to clinic whenever we schedule an appointment that works for us?”

 And you know, it's a busy health service that's inevitable that those feelings are gonna come. But there's a sense of people who are, um, not helping themselves. And that's really frustrating.

 But this has a different assumption that people want to be well and people want to be thriving, uh, and that what we are offering them is not aligned to the values that they prioritise. And so we need something different to help 'em to realise that [00:15:00] wish for wellness, rather than saying they just don't want it enough.

[00:15:02] Adrian Brown: We've been talking a lot about services here, but from a public service perspective, there's also the commissioners whose job it is to, in some sense sort of manage these different services. How has Hannah started to explore what this, the implications of this work could be at that level of the system.

[00:15:20] Keira Lowther: So when we were talking to her about the difficulties of commissioning this imagination work, it was clear that this was another example of the way that we have this hunger for quantifiable, tangible results. And that undermines lots of our work in innovation, particularly in our complex social worlds, where change is not predictable nor always measurable.

[00:15:43] Hannah McDowall: I'm just spoiling for a broiling of that conversation. I can't wait to have that conversation because I think I've been missing a trick in making it super explicit. You normally commission for this, would you rather commission for something else? 

[00:15:57] Keira Lowther: But I, we had a conversation about this, like literally just today, [00:16:00] like about commissioning and complexity and commissioning innovation and, um, we had this experience with the government department who said, “our grantees are so on innovative like they have no new ideas, they have nothing fresh. We want you to help us get, to get them braver”.

And we were like: we think you need to change the way you're doing what you're doing, because they're like super controlling. But to get them to change the way that they commission requires them to take the risk rather than to put the risk on the grantees.

So they have to hold the uncertainty about what might happen rather than the grantees holding the uncertainty. Exactly. And that's what you are asking people to do. 

[00:16:40] Adrian Brown: Thank you, Keira, and thanks to Hannah for this insightful first part of the episode. After the break, we'll be speaking to Cassie Robinson from Emerging Futures, about how she sees imagination work in government, working in the future, and how to deal with skepticism.

So stay tuned.[00:17:00] 

Welcome back to Reimagining Government. 

[00:17:11] Cassie Robinson: I'm Cassie Robinson. I am here primarily with my Joseph Rowntree Foundation hat on. 

[00:17:17] Keira Lowther: Cassie has numerous roles, however, today we are interested in chatting to her about the collective imagination work she's doing as Associate Director of Emerging Futures at Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Here's a rundown of some of the work Cassie has been doing within this role. 

[00:17:32] Cassie Robinson: The work that New Constellations did in Barrow, um, and then went on to do a version of in Sheffield and are now doing another version in York. That those are sort of powerful examples of what can happen if you're working in a geographic place and you are taking a community through a journey, which does feel very different from a consultation or a set of co-design workshops.

Because [00:18:00] firstly, the, like the New Constellations process does involve connecting people to the histories of place. You know, the, the stories of ancestors to the ideas of the land that has layered and, and layered over time. So like there's, there's a kind of rich beginning for the work, which does I think, create a sense of pride in people in their place. There is something that creates a real bond, I think, in the community, just from the starting point of the work, and then to take people into different immersive experiences that do connect them to other ways of knowing, other ways of feeling, other ways of perceiving, so they actually have a different experience of the world and they're doing that in a shared or a collective space.

I think if you talk to some of the people that have taken part in some of those processes, they will describe it as being very profound. And the other reasons those kinds of processes have worked is because of who's involved, like the partnerships with the local authority, [00:19:00] the, the partnerships with the, the places where there is decision making and resource to take things forward.

So there's a mechanism for it to not just exist still as a dream and actually to become a reality. The multiple channels that they've worked with to get people involved, which is again, why it feels very different from like a one-off consultation. You know, they have phone lines, billboards, meetings, talks on the radio, like all, all the different kinds of sort of channels that encourage multiple kinds of participation, I think is also really powerful.

[00:19:37] Adrian Brown: So the work Cassie's describing here sounds very similar to, uh, some of the ideas that Hannah was sharing in, in the first part of today's episode. Are, are they very similar or are there some important differences Keira?

[00:19:51] Keira Lowther: I think it, it's quite similar in the way that I mean, she describes it as being profound, and I think what she's describing there is that [00:20:00] feeling that people get whenever they do some of these practices and realise that their actions are shaped by their values and that their values could be different, and therefore actions that they believed were good and right, and normal might not be good and right, and normal and could be different.

It's a scary moment, and you feel it in your bones. That things could be different. And I'm not safe as I, as I thought I was, things aren't as predictable as I thought they might be. So I think that they are, they are, yeah, they are very similar because they're talking about ways of looking at things and ways of, um, perceiving and, and ways of, and and essentially the question of who gets to say how we should behave.

[00:20:38] Adrian Brown: Yeah, exactly. Not just, uh, giving people permission to, to try different things, but also to think different things as well, right?

[00:20:45] Keira Lowther: Yeah, definitely. And, uh, begin to feel that they can, and they should shape their social worlds. 

[00:20:52] Cassie Robinson: We shouldn't underestimate the power of just inviting people to dream. I think [00:21:00] people aren't used to being asked about.

What, what do you dream of? What do you long for? What do you hope for? They’re just, you know, where do you want these five new bus stops to be in your city or, Mm-Hmm. Should we change our policy on X or Y? Um, you know, like the, just the framing and the of the invitation that alone is like really deeply moving for some people, cause yeah, they've maybe never even really been asked that or had the opportunity or the investment in them to even consider that.

[00:21:38] Adrian Brown: So Keira, here Cassie's talking about dreaming and about opening up all of these possibilities. But I can also imagine many public servants listening to this saying, “well, it's all very well to invite members of the public to suggest lots of different ideas, but [00:22:00] we hardly have any money as it is. So it's, it's a bit alarming to sort of raise expectations in that way.”

And so, you know, whilst the power of dreaming can be wonderful and liberating, you know, the practical it has to meet the practical reality of government at some point, which is we can only do a certain amount and we can't fulfill everybody's dreams. So is, is that a concern that we're sort of creating an unnecessarily high expectations here by opening this box?

[00:22:24] Keira Lowther: I think it's something that we have to acknowledge that, you know, that governments are doing, um, the best they can with really finite and shrinking resources. And this can feel like frivolous work. But we also know that, as we were saying before, what we have isn't working. And we have intractable problems and we need to do something different.

And it could be that this is the role that CPI needs to play or other people like New Constellations and the work of Canopy to hold that space for this more expansive thinking for new ideas and and solutions or [00:23:00] different actors to kind of come into play that will create more possibility.

I do think it's really hard, particularly in local government to set this kind of thing up and, uh, and raise people's expectations, knowing that it's really going to be, it could be very challenging not to create more of a sense of distrust, uh, and when there's expectations can't be met. 

[00:23:22] Cassie Robinson: There's also the act of witnessing as well, which again, I think is like the, the collective aspect is very powerful because, what does it mean for other people to witness you speaking your dreams? And what does it mean for other people to hear together that we do have some sense of shared dream? It might not be one dream cause I think it's always plural, but that can create some kind of accountability as well. 

[00:23:49] Adrian Brown: So there's a really interesting connection that Cassie was making there between dreaming and accountability, which I, which I hadn't thought of before 

[00:23:56] Keira Lowther: it. I think it's a really interesting point to make that when we dream together, there's an accountability, and we can support each other. And we know that change in societies happens in community. We know that from like even the biomedical research about how people change their behaviour or stop smoking, they do it more often, more successfully in communities. 

So we need each other. So dreaming together and uh, imagining how things might be different and how we might make things different, feels important. 

SFX Bob Schieffer: I realised it was just a dream and nothing more. After all, things like that couldn't happen in real life. Could they? 

Keira Lowther: As we've touched on earlier, imagination work is a new way of thinking that doesn't quite gel with the structures of governance we have in place today. When explaining practices to boards, it can easily be dismissed by public servants who are entrenched in the status quo. Here's how Cassie approaches the work to people who react with skepticism. 

[00:24:53] Cassie Robinson: I have talked about this work with some boards, and it isn't easy to land because [00:25:00] in these times of greater complexity, people want more and more certainty, things that sound familiar, known, quantifiable, you know, things that can be evidenced.

There are examples that you can start to point to, but they're not case studies with impact measures and outcomes and like that just isn't this work. Rather than have to kind of really make the case and prove things. I, I try and turn the tables a bit to understand what is it that they feel so certain about?

What is the kinds of data that they believe in? What does give them reassurance? Because it's actually very rare that they can combat with something that is in any way plausible in the current situation. 

[00:25:52] Adrian Brown: I certainly can relate to what Cassie's saying there. Having spent a lot of time bridging, I suppose, the worlds of more [00:26:00] traditional structures and management approaches and ways of thinking and, and some of these new more radical, uh, ways of working.

 It feels like we do need some sort of bridging function some, some more connective tissue that helps people who are not quite. As far down the path of thinking about imagination and and reimagining as Hannah and Cassie are to, to take some steps in their direction.

Is there any work that you've been involved with Keira that helps to create some of that bridge between older ways of thinking and this new, more radical, often quite scary world that we're talking about now

[00:26:45] Keira Lowther: I think it's really hard because this work is quite new and so, as Cassie was saying, there's none which have been like, you know, rigorously evaluated with quantifiable outcome metrics and that, I would say would probably be an inappropriate [00:27:00] approach to evaluate this work with anyways. So it is a different paradigm and it's a different way of seeing, and it's a different way of defining what is credible, like credible evidence or credible, um, knowledge because it's coming from different perspective.

If we're centring other ways of knowing, then the traditional ways of knowing are less helpful. And traditional ways of evaluating are also less helpful. But I think that we have to approach it with, um, empathy and understanding because I think what we're seeing is, uh, fear.

And, uh, with change, there's always loss and it can be really difficult for many when they see things going in a different way that they don't understand. There's a loss of comfort, potentially a loss of status or a sense of competence, or a loss of a sense of knowing what's going on and feeling like, I know I'm confident this is gonna happen the way I need it to happen, and this work [00:28:00] does not evolve in that way because it's firmly grounded in complexity.

[00:28:05] Cassie Robinson: Well, I think it's interesting as well how much party politics are restricted by political cycles. So they're completely, the fear and the lack of imagination is because really all they're thinking of doing is how to win. There's a really powerful movement of work around the temporal imagination. So that idea of the temporal imagination and decolonising time and like there is a lot of restriction on imagination. If we are thinking in political cycles, and it would be interesting what would happen to the kind of political imagination if they thought very differently about time. 

[00:28:45] Adrian Brown: This reminds me, Keira of a, of an episode we did previously on long-term thinking and the idea that some of the change that we're seeking, we need to think much more generationally or [00:29:00] beyond, beyond generationally, this concept of cathedral thinking, which is sort, it takes centuries to build a cathedral and people work towards that over, over many, many years. 

So if I understand correctly what, what Cassie's saying here, when she talks about decolonising time, uh, she's referring to the idea that the timeframes within which say political cycles operate may not be in any way appropriate for some of the ideas that we're talking about or would emerge from a more open and imaginative approach to thinking about the challenges that we're trying to tackle? 

[00:29:38] Keira Lowther: Yeah, I agree. But it's what we've got and um, and I think that people who work within these constraints. Like, I imagine it makes me think of like some kind of James Bond thing.

You know, when the window, the, the walls are shrinking in and they have to like, push against it, but the election cycle is coming around again, but they have to do something [00:30:00] which defies that pressure. Um, and it's, I think it's about accountability. Who are you accountable to? If you're, if you really are able to ground yourself in accountability to people who hold the risk in community, then it's maybe, I don't know maybe it's not. Maybe you're gonna get voted out and you won't get to do any of the things you want to do and someone else will come in.

I don't have any answers, really. I don't, I don't really know how, how we square that and maybe we're not the right people to do that. 'cause we're not sitting in those, those chairs facing a reelection and, and the pressure to win.

[00:30:35] Adrian Brown: Well, let's, let's hear a clip from Cassie where she talks about this, this idea of having to think, you know, a longer timeframe than than maybe our accountability systems would allow. 

[00:30:46] Cassie Robinson: We shouldn't underestimate just how hard it is for people in the current system to really be able to imagine something so entirely different.

But I do think they could if they to, you know, if they did a New [00:31:00] Constellations journey or they worked with the Maya group or they worked with you and, and the work you are doing, that's why those practices are so important and so powerful because it's very, very hard to unshackle away from the mental models that you are like existing in.

[00:31:17] Adrian Brown: And I think that is, that is a good point from Cassie that the system probably can't, or the people working who really embedded in the current ways of working, it's they’re in the, the most difficult spot in order to imagine something different potentially because they're part of the current way of working and therefore it's often just.

Much more difficult to see beyond that than those people who are, who are somewhat adjacent to the system and able to see different types of connection and different possibilities that, uh, aren't, aren't as obvious for those within it.

[00:31:53] Keira Lowther: But at the same time, they're the best people to know how, um, because they can see the potential.

[00:32:00] I, I think of how if, if things were imagined differently, um, they could probably see what might be unlocked or what might be possible. If you can put them into, um, the state that, um, Cassie and Hannah, um, describe of, of, of seeing things differently and recognising that values that shape the behaviours could be different.

Finally, in my conversation with Cassie, we spoke of the future. What role does she see the government play? 

[00:32:30] Cassie Robinson: The idea that, you know, the future needs you. The future wants you in it. The future needs you in it. I would say to governments, 'cause there's a lot of discontent with governments, there's a lot of people, a lot of places, uh, don't feel like our governments are full of imagination or, uh, integrity or doing the work we really need them to do.

But I would say to governments: we do need you in our futures, and we need [00:33:00] government in our futures 'cause they are the people that can spread and scale and resource at, at the level that we need for some of this kind of work. Where, where you can see governments starting to invest more in maybe like the deliberative democracy type instruments and me and, and work.

I think that has value. I don't wanna suggest it doesn't. But how are they ensuring that in investing in those kind of processes, they are asking the right questions, that they're taking the right questions into that kind of deliberative democracy work? That's where I think the work around the collective imagination or the social imagination really sits, and I'm not sure many governments are acknowledging that. They're kind of jumping on the bandwagon of citizen assemblies without, I think, checking in on, is this really just gonna repattern the kind of system we currently have, or is it gonna take us into a [00:34:00] completely different, uh, way of being and living because that's what we need? 

[00:34:05] Keira Lowther: Maybe collective imagination maybe is a way for them, us to demonstrate that all people have good ideas and, um, given the right conditions, all people can, can suggest that the future that they might want to see.

[00:34:24] Keira Lowther: Now, before we finish, I wanted to shine a light on a project we've been working on in Southbank here in Melbourne, Australia. This was a social imagination experiment exploring whether social imagination could bring more expansive thinking to the climate space. Could we use social imagination to, to broaden our horizons and our creativity and our sense of agency as citizens when we think about what is our response to the climate ecological crisis that we're facing?

So we worked with residents, those who live, or those who even who, those who work in the South Bank of Melbourne to explore ideas of belonging. That's what [00:35:00] they're most interested in. So we began with that. So we planned a series of five workshops and then some kind of aftercare to support and scaffold the ideas to bring them into reality and so they could make change.

Here's a participant from the workshop, Artemis talking us through how the workshop program was planned out and how she experienced it.

[00:35:18] Artemis: Going through the first four days where it gave us time to go more deeply into getting to know each other, uh, connecting around different topics of conversation, then honing down to more specific problems and things that we wanna tackle. 

Uh, going from creative to sharing deeper kind of past experiences and emotional states and having that time and space to get to know each other, bounce ideas off each other, and then kinda as we're going along, how can we bring that in a more practical sense in our individual journeys from there on in our little communities that we've built as amazing people that, [00:36:00] um, have in that room.

[00:36:01] Keira Lowther: Through these workshops, we worked really hard to create psychological safety and to build the community because we know that people are more courageous and braver when they're together and when they feel safe. 

[00:36:14] Bonnie: I think what we were just doing was going pretty wild. We have ideas for rollercoasters between towers. We had ideas for, you know, that Pokemon AR game where you collect things. We were like, what if that helped you build your first nation knowledge of the area and what if that, the more paints the points you got, you, um, reduced your council tax or something? You know, like what would it look like to incentivise, you know, moving towards the community that we wanna see and the things that we want to value and bring that to the surface.

[00:36:46] Keira Lowther: That was Bonnie. She works for the city of Melbourne, and she participated in the workshops. She also noticed that community was being built within the workshops and has seen it spilling outta the workshops into real life. 

[00:36:57] Bonnie: The group and the dynamic of the group, [00:37:00] um, who have been going through this process together becomes like a tiny microcosm of what the entire neighbourhood could be.

So there's that neighbourhood friendliness with each other. There's this co-existing of people from all walks of life. There's people in the room, different ages, different backgrounds, different experiences, different faith, and there's just been such a wonderful, um, I guess like holding space for each other to share exactly where they're coming from.

Yeah, so I've, I've heard that over and over. People are like, I would, I wouldn't have encountered you regardless of like our buildings, our towers are next to each other. I can't imagine have encountering you outside of this workshop, but it's because this space has been made. They're now, you know, planning things outside of the workshop, which is really great.

[00:37:51] Keira Lowther: When asked about the power of imagination and her experience at the workshops, Bonnie had this to say. 

[00:37:57] Bonnie: The power of imagination, it's a process of [00:38:00] our inner worlds coming out into the physical environment and that can just be through a way of words, uh, just existing in and around us, but it can also be the seed that leads to the action.

And it's been really great to be immersed in a sea of floating imaginations for a few days of just like ideas that are sort of just swirling in amongst our conversations and our activities. There's something to be said for the time we've had to build up connection with each other and time to really reflect on community and ideas before we've been asked to make them into a tangible idea.

I think when you make the space for imagination, the possibilities are quite different to when you're trying to fit it into a half day thing. And constraints can be a beautiful thing, but they can also be a [00:39:00] hindrance, especially when it comes to imagination because it is this internal dialogue that it is a process of drawing that out.

But yeah, it, I think it comes back to just being, um. I am really human. I think imagination is probably overlooked far too often, but it's so innate in us because every person in that room, whether they identify themselves as creative, whether they're identifying with the activities or not have something to contribute.

And that is sort of going into the melting pot of whatever we are cooking up. Like everybody's adding an ingredient, which is um, really beautiful.

[00:39:44] Adrian Brown: So Keira, many of the themes that we heard earlier from, from Hannah and then from Cassie are obviously also part of the work you've been doing here in in Melbourne. What's your reflection being involved in this work directly? How, how have you seen it [00:40:00] actually work through those workshops and, and, and what's come out from them?

[00:40:02] Keira Lowther: I think I've learned that it's really hard to reimagine, like how things are. It's really hard to imagine reality and that things can be different and that individuals could have agency to shape that difference. It's very hard for people to get there, and the best way to do that is to create some kind of an experience where they feel it in their bodies that this doesn't have to be this way.

And then you can begin to offer some space for people to think, well, what do I want to happen? What do I think needs to happen here? If all of these other constraints weren't around what should, what should be real and true? And how might we look at this differently? That - it's really hard to get people there, but it's possible.

So I think I've, that's what I, one of the big, big learnings is, um, people have to feel it. And then it can go to their heads. If you start in people's heads as conceptual stuff, it's [00:41:00] impossible. And in terms of the outcomes, got a group of people who are, uh, designing and delivering small projects across South Bank to, to build that kind of community capacity and um, social capital that will enable them to work together to do kind of climate action.

That's how we've, we've shaped it and that's how, um. That was our, that was the purpose, like of, of this project was to create more expansive thinking in the climate space. And they've a hundred percent, um, seen that as a, something they want to do and can do now that they are together and networked and have that kind of, um, sense of belonging to place, which brings with it an agency to change how things are in that place and how things might be for the future generations who will live in that place.

[00:41:45] Adrian Brown: I think one of the things that I've learned through this episode care is that whilst we might think of imagination as being something very carefree and almost childlike and very natural and [00:42:00] free flowing and easy - and of course it is, all of those things. 

To actually embrace it within the kinds of system, that are in place in government and in public services and other settings actually requires an enormous amount of effort and work and energy to allow to even create the space for it to happen. So there's almost a contradiction there, which is, on the one hand, imagination feels very, yeah carefree, I suppose.

But on the other hand, it has to be so purposeful and a lot of hard work and energy, which is what you've been putting into this work in Melbourne. To even start to get this conversation going and, and if we can try and navigate that tension, it seems that's where success could lie for this kind of work. 

[00:42:50] Keira Lowther: And also that it's, we need it because what we have is not working. So we need new perspectives and new ways of looking at things. And we need new, uh, [00:43:00] ways of knowing and being to address these complex, interdependent crises that we're facing as a society. 

[00:43:08] Adrian Brown: Well, thank you, Keira, for leading us on this journey through imagination today.

It's been a fascinating conversation and a lot, a lot to think about as we conclude here. And that does conclude this episode of Reimagining Government. If you are a public servant or policymaker, we want to hear from you. How can government use imagination to tackle the issues we are currently facing as a society?

You can call into the show through our answer machine. Head over to and leave us a message. Please be aware that we may play these out on the show.

And if you'd prefer to write to us, you can email us in the traditional way to let us know what topics we should cover in future episodes.

Finally, please remember to leave us a review on [00:44:00] your favourite podcast platform and let us know your thoughts on the series. Now, Reimagining Government will be taking a short break for the holidays, have a restful break, and we look forward to seeing you again in January 2024. Until next time, I've been Adrian Brown. Goodbye.

🎙️ Reimagining Government

This podcast explores radical new approaches to addressing global issues such as the climate crisis, equitable healthcare provision, and rebuilding trust with marginalised communities.

By speaking with public servants and politicians at the heart of government, we’ll shine a light on how to reimagine government so it works for everyone.

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