Notes from an Imagination Advocate, Part Two

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Image by Jane Hoffer

It’s always pleasing for an author who has written about an idea to see that idea reappear spontaneously in public discussions. I’ve experienced this pleasure with the “ICI Continuum,” a concept that Eric Liu and I include in Imagination First and that refers to this relationship: “Imagination -> Creativity (imagination applied) -> Innovation (novel creativity)” (20). In other words, imagination is conceiving of what is not, creativity is doing something with that conception, and innovation is advancing the form in question. Seems commonsensical, right? People are starting to think so, happily, but there hasn’t always been robust agreement on these issues. Continue reading

Imagination Superconductors

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Image by Shane Gorski*

Image by Shane Gorski*

I’ve been struck lately that the topic of imagination is everywhere if you look for it. Just open up today’s paper. It’s in the question of how we define success in Afghanistan. It’s in the question of why America’s green jobs sector is still not taking off. It’s in the paradigm shift that is creeping up on the NFL, in which players begin to imagine a sport less dependent on using an over-helmeted head as a weapon. And of course, it’s in the work of people every day in every profession. I spoke this week at a statewide conference of school counselors in Louisiana. These are people who are passionate about creating possibility in the lives of their students, and yet our society and our education system utterly shortchange counselors. The typical ratio, anywhere in America, is more than 500 students per counselor. How can that possibly work? A counselor, properly understood, can have as much to do with the sparking of a middle- or high-school student’s imagination—her sense of what she can do and be in the world—as any teacher or parent. But we are not set up to make those relationships between counselors and students work in any sustained and meaningful way.

This makes me look around and wonder where else in our web of relationships and institutions we are neglecting key nodes in the potential transmission of imagination. In business, having a visionary CEO is great. But the spread of imaginative thinking throughout the organization— the organism— depends critically on certain superconductors who are rarely as visible as a CEO. Do you know who those people are in your institution? And do they have the tools and the time to unlock the imaginative capacities of those around them? Imagination is certainly, as Scott Noppe-Brandon and I have written, a personal practice. It is also, however, a function of inherited structures of social organization. So let’s ask ourselves more often, of our schools and our governments and our charities and our businesses: are we optimizing for imagination?

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Advocating for Imagination

Greene020A note to my fellow advocates of imagination: The good news is that some of the sectors we are reaching out to—business, government; the shakers and makers, you might say—have come to full alert and perceive imagination as a primary asset of leadership. They actively seek those who are capable of bringing imagination, creativity, and innovative viewpoints to the table.

Unfortunately, in the minds of many, we’re promoting something that they still view as nebulous, indefinable, even mystical. Among the naysayers, sadly, are numerous institutions of education, a field that is perhaps closest to our hearts.

The man in the street cannot be blamed. We’re in the midst of the severest international financial crisis in decades, a period when people just want to get back on their feet before they even begin to think about abstractions, such as the arts or the imagination—which they do not think of as the tool that might help them improve their affairs. It simply isn’t a part of our cultural traditions. The catchphrase has always been “hard work,” not “imagination,” and, ironically, no one has taught us just how much one depends on the other.

So we’ve got our work cut out for us if we want to convince our communities that the imagination is important and must be cultivated. “But how,” you ask, “do I begin?” Continue reading