The Imagination Sundial … a new design tool to help us imagine what we might seek from the future … and how to build back better

July 9, 2020

“Don’t even try to recover, instead find a new path” was the challenging message from Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient who created microfinance as a way for people to escape poverty through work. He joined me online last month for The Recovery Summit alongside over 80 leading thinkers from business, politics, media, sports and beyond.

A unique pause in our careers, a message from the future, a once in a lifetime opportunity. The disruption of today’s global pandemic, may well become a turning point in how we lead our organisations, and live our lives. Rob Shorter’s “Imagination Sundial” has emerged in recent weeks as a new design tool to help us imagine what we might seek from the future, and how.

Shorter, from the north-west of England, spent the last decade working for the Co-op, one of the world’s largest consumer co-operatives, owned by millions of members, and the UK’s fifth largest food retailer. He has now joined “doughnut” economist Kate Raworth and her team, whose model has recently been embraced by the cities of Amsterdam and Copenhagen in recent months, as a blueprint for better growth.

He describes his goal as “to cultivate the collective imagination” towards an economy in which “people and planet thrive in balance.”

The “Imagination Sundial” emerged from a view that we are living in a time of imaginative decline at the very time in history when we need to be at our most imaginative. Rob Hopkins who worked alongside Shorter says “we believe that this decline is first and foremost underpinned by the rise in trauma, stress, anxiety and depression which, neuroscientists have shown, cause a reduction in the hippocampus, the part of the brain most implicated in imagination.”  Wendy Suzuki agrees, writing in Forbes “long-term stress is literally killing the cells in your hippocampus that contribute to the deterioration of your memory. But it’s also zapping your creativity”.

If imagination is, as John Dewey defined it, “the ability to see things as if they could be otherwise”, and given that we need to see, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) put it “rapid, far reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”, then nurturing our capacity to have the most resilient and dynamic imagination possible is vital.

The sundial contains 4 main elements, described in more detail by Shorter and Hopkins:

  • Space … the mental and emotional space that expands our capacity to imagine. Our busy and stressful lives are riddled with fear and anxiety which inhibits our potential for imagining. Space is about how we can slow down, feel safe, open up and connect with others and the natural world to rekindle this capacity. “Morning pages” is a practice recommended by Julia Cameron in “The Artist’s Way” to help people with artist’s block. It is an individual practice of continuous freefall writing of three sides of paper every morning, an unfiltered emptying of your mind, and appreciation of what is there.
  • Place … the gathering points for collective imagining, designed for connection and creation, collaboration and chance encounter, encouraging diversity of people and ideas. In Portland, Oregon, Intersection Repairinvites residents who live around a shared intersection to come together to imagine what they want their street to look like, then collectively paint the road surface. The results are truly beautiful and it starts to change the way people see the place. Communities start holding street parties, setting up mini libraries and just generally gathering in the place they once ignored.
  • Practices … that connect us and change our frame of possibility. Practices are the things we can do together that take us out of our rational thinking minds into something altogether different, breaking down our internal constraints and societal norms to open up a greater sense of what is possible. A good practice creates bridges between the real and imagined, the known and unknown.For example, “what if” questions are a simple way to open up a range of possibilities. They are sufficiently open-ended that they don’t feel prescriptive while allowing people to shape their own creative responses.
  • Pacts … of collaboration that catalyse imagination into action. Action drives belief, and belief inspires further action. It is an agreement that brings together people and organisations who together can make things work. In Italy, for example, Bologna’s Civic Imagination Office works with communities across the city through 6 labs, using visioning tools and activities to come up with a diversity of ideas for the future of the city. When good ideas emerge, the municipality sit down with the community and create a pact, bringing together the support the municipality can offer, and what the community can offer. In the past 5 years, over 500 pacts have been created.

You can download a high resolution PDF of the Imagination Sundial here.