Uncle Sam Wants You…To Imagine


Image by Aaron Domini*

Image by Aaron Domini*

Americans without health insurance, parts of New Orleans still reeling from Hurricane Katrina, deficient public schools—these are only some of the shameful, nagging social ills that Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon deem “failures of imagination” in their book, Imagination First. One thing these “persistent problems” have in common is that they’re all national issues, not merely the concerns of individuals or organizations. A natural question, then, is: what role, if any, should the federal government play in spurring citizens to find imaginative solutions to such challenges? President Obama prompted my thinking on this when he drew attention to social innovation earlier this summer. Let’s look to him as we try to find an answer.

On June 30, the President highlighted four “innovative non-profit programs that are making a difference in communities across the country” (this from a White House press release): Bonnie CLAC, which enables low-income buyers to purchase environmentally sound vehicles responsibly; Genesys Works, which trains and hires high school students to fill technical positions at large corporations; Harlem Children’s Zone, a diverse network of services aimed at bettering the lives of children in poor neighborhoods; and HopeLab, which develops state-of-the-art technology to help young people with chronic illnesses.

Against this bright backdrop of success, the President called on “foundations, philanthropists, and others in the private sector to partner with the government to find and invest in these innovative, high-impact solutions,” ones that will “build the new foundation for the economy and the nation.” So what are we proponents of imagination to make of this very public show of governmental support for innovation, imagination’s close relative (Liu and Noppe-Brandon’s “ICI Continuum” describes the relationship as imagination → creativity → innovation)?

I believe we should be very pleased. Though he didn’t mention imagination on June 30 (he has at other times), President Obama did many things right: He acknowledged that our country’s future depends on our ability to envision new possibilities and make them realities. That’s what Geoffrey Canada did when he turned his dream of an unprecedented “cradle-to-college ecosystem of community initiatives” into Harlem Children’s Zone (Liu and Noppe-Brandon 5).

The President was also wise, it seems to me, in his choice of glowing examples; their diversity—the fields of health, social work, education, and business were all represented—demonstrates the applicability of the ICI Continuum across a broad spectrum.

Finally, the President sent potential imaginers, creators, and innovators a powerful message: The government’s eyes are open, and so is its pocketbook. It will reward programs “that can most effectively transform communities and change lives”; may the best imaginer win. On June 30, President Obama proved—to this neophyte blogger, at least—that Washington can contribute to the discourse on imagination simply by exercising its voice, the loudest in the land.

Let’s return for a moment to the “reward” aspect of the President’s call for innovation: his offer to join with the private sector to “find and invest in” fresh solutions. What level of action should the government take in this area? A lot, I think. “When we reward imagination … great things—innovations—will likely emerge,” Liu and Noppe-Brandon argue. They add, “We need, then, to incentivize people to take the subpar social arrangements that we treat as givens here on Earth, and convert them into the stuff of big transformative goals” (174).

The Buckminster Fuller Institute Challenge and Lincoln Center Institute’s Imagination Award are crystal-clear non-governmental examples of this. Based on my reading of Imagination First, I feel it’s crucial that the government and its private partners provide financial support not only to proven programs, but also to mere ideas—new, brilliant, promising ideas, which actually aren’t “mere” at all. This way, individuals with imaginative prowess who lack the means to actuate their conceptions won’t get discouraged; if their vision is exciting enough, they may receive the resources they need. When the government puts its money where its mouth is in encouraging imaginative problem solving, it fosters what Liu and Noppe-Brandon call the “ecosystem of possibility” (174).

Will government involvement in the cultivation of imagination, creativity, and innovation bring problems? Probably. Liu and Noppe-Brandon say that “the trick is this: to give people permission to give themselves permission” to imagine. “This approach, rather than command-and-control permission, is scalable” (56). In other words, it’s better to invite people to imagine than to order them to imagine or tell them what to imagine; in fact, the latter seems at odds with the very essence of imagination. Unfortunately, governments do have a tendency to slip into “command-and-control” mode—it’s in their nature.

So, going forward, as the Obama administration struggles to toe the line between effecting change and answering to wary taxpayers, perhaps the President should also strive to maintain another balance—between a healthy respect for free imagination and an understandable desire for tangible social innovation. President Obama: speak about imagination, reward it, honor it, but don’t try too hard to mold it. Then let your country reap the benefits.


*There is a Creative Commons license attached to this image.

One Response

  1. Congrats on such a great post. I really liked reading it. Thanks!!

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