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Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.
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Another World is Possible: How to Reignite Social and Political Imagination – Geoff Mulgan

Hurst Publishers, 2022.

Sir Geoff Mulgan is Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation at University College London. His latest book discusses social imagination and how we can create societies that are more able to imagine their futures, in a positive way.

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Another World is Possible is a book about social imagination. Mulgan’s idea is that we are in a crisis of social imagination, unable to reimagine what the world might be like, and how we could adjust or adapt our societies and our lives to face the other crises that are present.

In order to remedy this, we need to design our societies around imagination, and include more opportunities to imagine new things in our everyday lives. Time, space, resources, creative networks, imaginative processes, collaboration, diversity, and more, are all tools that will help us to achieve this.

Geoff Mulgan is a Professor at University College London, and has worked with many organisations and governments to design and implement solutions to change societies the world over. This shows in the book, with an impressive array of examples to support and negate ideas related to social imagination. The text is very practical, and prefers to remain at the level of example and implementation, rather than delving too far into theory and abstract thinking.

The main perspective of the book is that of top-down implemented solutions to large populations. Even in cases where bottom-up approaches are recommended or favoured, Mulgan still seems to believe that it is up to the Government or businesses to enable people to do these things. Designing experiences is key to Mulgan’s solutions, which could raise fears among some that the spontaneity of human experience ends up being ‘designed out’ of our lives, because all the spaces, experiences, and interactions we have are designed and set up with specific outcomes in mind. The individual loses their autonomy to the other, who provides them with all possible experiences.

This means the text is steeped in a certain kind of thinking, which we see often with people who work in the social policy or innovation space. This same kind of thinking is key to ‘design thinking’, a design and innovation methodology developed at Google to solve problems collaboratively. All the principles of design thinking seem to be present in the book. Mulgan seems aware that this whole ‘ecosystem’ of thinking is but one way of viewing the future, viewing imagination, and viewing human possibilities, but doesn’t demonstrate how to actually get out of this.

Many people who are in financially disadvantaged situations don’t need particularly large imaginations to determine what would help them in life, and what they need to get from where they are, to where they want to be. Large-scale policies have little effect on helping people with individual stories, histories, and problems. With the right help, and the right resources, these financially disadvantaged people often thrive – only if we let them determine the pathway they want to follow, and be autonomous in their decisions. This requires listening and offering, and not people in power to have imaginative solutions to help others. Letting others help themselves is a massive yet underrated solution.

This got me thinking. Would these people in poverty also claim that there is a lack of social imagination? I doubt it, I think rather they would focus on a lack of help, a lack of resources; rather than lack of imagination regarding their own lives. They know what they want, and what they dream of. Jacques Rancière demonstrated this very clearly in his PhD thesis about the dreams of the working class in France. They dreamt of poetry, literature, and a better life. Similarly, Mulgan does discuss the fact that workers in the US factories would often read during the 20-second intervals between each car they would produce. It would seem to suggest that we don’t lack social imagination, rather that certain people are too attached to certain social structures and power regimes in which thinking differently is not needed, because that would mean changing something that works well already, in their eyes. Through this reading, the book is for those people who are stuck and attached, to realise that there are other ways of doing things.

The book is also very English-centric, with little reference to the developing trends in places like France, with a large social imagination that isn’t yet translated into English, or lies on the margins of texts we often read. We can’t of course expect every author to know about other countries who speak other languages, but Mulgan’s point seems to apply to a certain kind of society.  The problem in France (and perhaps in other countries) is that power structures mean that the ideas that could help the most are not heard or adopted by those in power, who often have their own agendas. Despite this, many books are being published with new ideas, videos are being made, ideas are being generated: they just don’t fit the models that the current society is projecting, and they don’t fit the models that Mulgan seems to want to follow. More design, more technology, more intervention, and a certain view of progress isn’t the dream for everyone.

The book also doesn’t focus on ecology and climate change nearly as much as it perhaps could. Reducing emissions and developing a circular economy are by no means sufficient responses to the ecological crisis; rather, real social imagination is necessary to develop new societies, ways of being, and ways of relating that lie outside our current ways: and Mulgan knows this. If we take the conclusions of the IPCC’s sixth synthesis report seriously, we have to dramatically change our societies within a short time frame; small, experimentally-designed solutions might to some extent work, but at the same time, radical and perhaps uncertain decisions need to be made, because we do not have the luxury of time.

I think most people know what they need to succeed, they’re just not empowered to be able to get there. Power relationships underneath the tools that Mulgan suggests are often unaddressed, and certain views dominate when ‘fringe’ ideas are not given the chance to flourish or be tested, which reinforces the lack of empowerment among certain classes of people. Mulgan’s book is a good read for anyone new to social imagination or design thinking, but seems not to offer a lot to those who already know a bit about these topics, besides a summary of one perspective on the issue. If you’re looking for an ecological read, I don’t think this will be it, but if you’re looking to include imagination in your company or organisation, Mulgan’s book could be a good place to start.

Another World is Possible is available at Paper Plus NZ here, or check out your local bookshop to see if they have it in stock or can order it for you. 

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