“You, you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one”
– John Lennon, Imagine
If the maxim that “The first step to a better future is imagining one” is true, then perhaps the first step towards resilience is imagining a different type of present. Successive disasters and crises have gone some way to shaking the sense that we are living in perpetual stability. But these shocks have not yet been entirely transformative. The underlying sense that there is some sort of ‘normal’ that will be returned to in a few years is still pervasive. Politicians remain convinced that a return to unending economic growth lies over the horizon; we just need to ride out these tough times.
However, their undying confidence that things will essentially remain the same is not borne out by a history that has seen empire after empire crumble. At the very heart of the concept of resilience is an acceptance of change. The need to imagine a different world, a different reality, is essential to ensure our societies, economies and ecosystems remain adaptive and creative. The belief that the current way of doing things is unshakable is fatal. In rejecting the inevitable need to reinvent, the focus shifts to increasing the narrow efficiency of operations, striving to reach an ‘optimal state’. This leads to ideas become entrenched and channels for innovation are closed.
In 1971 John Lennon wrote ‘Imagine’. The song’s power lies in the simple yet transformative idea of using imagination to drive progress. Lennon recognised that in order to stimulate fundamental change, one must first be able to imagine a different world. 41 years on it is a concept that continues to elude many proponents of change. For example, the protesters on the steps of St Pauls are able to clearly delineate the problems with the current economic system, but the real challenge lies in enabling people to imagine a workable alternative.
Imagination is important for resilience because it is the spark that leads to innovation. All systems whether they be communities, businesses or ecosystems move through a cycle. Initially, there is a new approach, an idea. This idea gathers momentum and support and is recognised as a good way of doing things. As time passes this way of operating becomes dominant. Eventually, the approach begins to entrench itself, it becomes less flexible and it may no longer be the best way of achieving its goals. But by this point many people rely on it and have an interest in maintaining it, institutions have been built up to support it and do so with mechanisms such as tax brakes, subsidies and lobbying. At this point, people begin to start envisaging other ways of operating that are more suitable. Opportunities present themselves.
From here one of two things can happen. Either there is recognition that the current approach is no longer appropriate and one of the new opportunities comes to the fore and begins to gather momentum and support, or there is collapse. Frequently, the institutions that support the status quo have become so powerful that collapse is inevitable. The vested interests in maintaining an oil-driven economy, for example, remain a considerable brake on change and innovation in the energy sector. Building resilience requires more flexible institutions whose role is to support the established way of operating without becoming bound to it, and simultaneously to support innovation and allow new approaches to flourish. Governance models that allow powerful interests access to the instruments of policy-making are incubators of entrenchment; they close down the spaces in which innovation can be transformative.
Simon Levine, a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, explained the importance of creating conditions that support innovation to ensure the long-term sustainability of development project. His work in several countries including Mozambique and Uganda showed him how important it was that the institutions that were established to support the projects were built in such a way to encourage innovation within the communities themselves. “Institutions can undermine innovation if they are not designed to identify it and recognise what factors might be blocking it”, he said. It is a point that might sound obvious, but if you applied this measure to many of the institutions of governance in the UK, few would score very highly.
Resilience demands a far broader appreciation of the potential of both imagination and innovation from sources that traditionally find their ideas sidelined or belittled. The dominant sources of ‘innovation’ currently come from laboratories and large institutions and the continued support for this is important. But there has been a marked under appreciation for the stock of innovative potential at the local level, that is often far more culturally sensitive and geographically relevant. The Enabling City is a project that highlights the enormous capacity of urban communities to design new ways of living and organising that are often more relevant and appropriate for their lives, often as a reaction to unsuitable ‘innovation’ imposed on them. From local currencies to community gardens and skill sharing, the imagination on show at the local level is breathtaking. Designing institutions that give these ideas the freedom and support to grow is a vital step in building resilience and preventing collapse.