Transformative imagination: linking resonant action, deeply creative practice, and imagination infrastructures
Dr. Joost Vervoort is an Associate Professor of Transformative Imagination at Utrecht University. His work focuses on connecting games and creative practices, politics and action to create better futures. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @Vervoort_Joost
In 2021, after years of campaigning and ramping up strategies, Dutch activist group Fossielvrij NL are preparing a court case against civil pension fund ABP, one of the world’s biggest pension funds. Together with countless pension holders, Fossielvrij wants to get ABP to divest its fifteen billion euros worth of investments in fossil fuels. In the week leading up to the official announcement of the court case, the seemingly impossible happens: ABP has decided to divest all of its fossil fuel investments. Shock, amazement and stunned happiness run through the activist movement. Unbelievable. Years of effort by so many people, and suddenly it’s done. As this new reality settles in among celebrations in front of the ABP building, a world of new possibilities has opened up. Who’s next?
In the late 2010s, Estonian writer Robert Kurvitz manages to escape the clutches of depression and alcoholism after the very disappointing sales of his book Sacred and Terrible Air. He helps his friend and fellow author Kaur Kender get out of the bottle as well. Kender suggests that they turn his book into a role playing game. Another friend, painter Aleksander Rostov, recounts that Kurvitz came to his door to ask him to get involved, saying ‘’My friend, we failed at so many things. Let us also fail at making a video game.” The result is Disco Elysium, a game about an alcoholic cop set in a world that is very unlike ours but also strangely similar — in an impoverished neighborhood that is the site of a failed communist revolution, crushed by a neoliberal international order. The game feels like a direct download from the souls of its creators — positively electric with sadness, wry humor, darkness, humanity, ideological debate and complexity. Your own skills and capabilities speak to you with different voices. There is a man in the game who is so rich that light bends towards him. The game’s version of climate change actually devours reality. It feels impossible that this deeply political, deeply human game exists. It goes on to become one of the most awarded games in years, and sells an estimated 2.6 million copies. Disco Elysium opens a new sense of possibility for the medium that inspires game developers around the world for years to come.
What resonates: a research agenda for transformative imagination
I probably speak for a bunch of us when I say that facing dark world events makes me question whether I’m working on the right things. I feel at once powerless and overpowered. I feel an urgency to use my skills, networks and resources to do the things that really matter, and not the things that almost, or kind of matter.
This worry can be a paralyzing trap, of course. To overcome it, I try to tap into my sense of wonder, my curiosity, my sadness, my anger and my fear all together — to work out what feels most important right now. I try to do this with students as well, and I tell them it’s not just about what feels most urgent. Where do your specific passions, interests and capacities fit into societal change?
Some time ago, I decided to work out a research agenda based on what I really care about. I’ve since noticed that whenever I’ve described this research agenda it has been useful or inspiring to people. I’m working on a research article, but I thought I would share a draft of this thinking so others can use it now (rather than in a year).
I have a long history of research and practice in what can broadly be called foresight/futures — the art of applying structured methods and approaches such as scenario planning to help people including policy makers, businesses and communities to expand their understandings of the future and how it relates to present day action. Though foresight work can be powerful, I’ve also seen a lot of it be hampered by a double bind.
Foresight is often stopped from being truly imaginative, truly resonant, because those involved (policy makers, the foresight experts themselves) need it to be ‘realistic’ or ‘plausible’. But this means that foresight is often hamstrung by very limited, present- and past-based ideas about the world. At the same time, foresight can often stay fairly disconnected from action on the ground, and from people’s real experiences, whether that’s in local communities or the messy politics of boardrooms or ministries.
I know this is a pretty negative caricature. Many people in the field are struggling hard to make foresight grounded and useful as well as strongly creative. But make no mistake — it is a struggle. In governments and corporate contexts the decision making culture is often set against truly creative work and at the same time very far removed from experiential realities. In recent years I’ve been trying to break out of the limitations of this space. I’ve been moving in two directions: powerfully resonant present day actions, and truly imaginative creative practices.
The limitations we encounter in foresight and more generally in sustainability have to do with a deep disavowing of what it means to be human. In reality, our imaginations and our actions are always connected. We are creatures of imagination and embodiment, of relationships and desired possibilities. My friend and collaborator Roy Bendor wrote about how imagination is enmeshed in experience. He also recommended the book Dream by Stephen Duncombe to me — and allow me to pass on this excellent recommendation. In Dream, Duncombe very rightly argues that, to paraphrase, ‘realpolitik’ has to be ‘dreampolitik’. To understand human politics and our capacities for change, we have to accept that we are creatures of dream, myth and sometimes irrational desires. My colleague, Urban Futures Studio religion scholar Tim Stacey, would say that we as modern humans are more religious than we think. Utopia researcher Ruth Levitas argues that utopian desires are woven into the fabric of society.
A lot of the fullness of being alive, and a lot of society’s transformative potential can be found in the power of truly resonant present day actions that represent new ways of existing in the world. It can also be found in the deepest creative and imaginative practices. To break out of disconnected ways of engaging with ‘the future’, I am interested in what we can learn from the possibilities opened up by radical acting and radical dreaming alike — and what these practices can learn from each other. And a third question emerges — what infrastructures enable or constrict collective imaginations and possibilities? By the way, when I use the word ‘resonant’ here I am drawing on brilliant work by sociologist Hartmut Rosa mapping all the ways in which resonances between human beings (and beyond) shape the world. Resonances have the power to connect to and activate what is already inside of us, and to transform us in the process. Powerful actions resonate, as do powerful works of imagination.
Sociologist Randall Collins argues that powerful interaction rituals are a backbone for human social organization. Practices rooted in imagination and in present day action are similar in that they often revolve around powerful interaction rituals that generate strong emotional energy. Our own team researcher Carien Moossdorff adds to this that such rituals can form the basis for institutional development, and therefore for transformation. Emotional energy in particular has been a key bridging concept informing much of our work.
Resonant action: opening up the sense of the possible
Let me start with resonant action, to avoid getting too trippy too early (but we’ll get there). To put it shortly, I am interested in how the lived, embodied realities of truly novel and radical change actions form a basis for opening up individual and collective imaginations about what is possible in the future. This includes all the emotions, complexities and dramatic developments that go along with such embodied realities. This line of investigation connects to many types of research going on in the space of transformations — like prefigurative politics, real utopias, imagination activism, and experimentation-focused research.
The ABP divestment story serves as a good example of this kind of resonant action. It shows climate activists all around the world and society at large that activism gets results — and presents a new form of it, with a new target and new strategies. In turn, this campaign was partly built upon the previous successes of court cases against Royal Dutch Shell and the Dutch government, as well as campaigns targeting other pension funds.
The relentless focus on this one pension fund helped inspire the Dutch branch of Extinction Rebellion to focus on one goal as well — fossil fuel subsidies provided by the Dutch national government. After many blockades of the A12 highway in the Hague, culminating in a 27-day blockade, the Dutch Lower House has asked the Cabinet to come up with pathways for decreasing fossil fuel subsidies. A preliminary result, but still one to celebrate and one that will once again inspire other actions. This is resonant and dramatic activity in the public sphere. Nine thousand people were arrested on the A12 highway. People were being hosed daily by water cannons. The blockades were in the news for weeks in a way not seen with normal protests. XR members joined national talk shows.
We are now studying the interaction between present day successes such as ABP’s divestment and the court cases and imagined future possibilities. I’m also working with people in the game industry to get them directly involved in climate activism so that the felt realities of this activism become part of who they are — and they go on to take it into their creative practices.
But the notion of resonant action in the present as an inspiration for future imaginations goes beyond the drama of activism. One of my favorite collaborations of recent years is the Seeds of Good Anthropocenes project. This project is a collaboration between researchers worldwide to develop a database and methods around the idea that innovative present day practices and projects can inspire imagined futures. ‘Seeds’ are new ways of doing, being and organizing that are currently still in the margins, but that represent a better future, at least according to someone. Such ‘seeds’ can be combined with each other to create truly novel ideas and pathways for the future. This approach has been used all around the world and is still growing in use and popularity as an approach rooted in the potential of under-examined present day realities. In this seeds approach, the activist actions discussed above are characterized as ‘disruptive’ seeds in a paper with Lucas Rutting. Disruptive seeds do not only present alternatives but try to actively break down existing structures. I teach the seeds approach in a big course with 180 of our students who work together to create future pathways with policy makers and national experts in 20+ countries worldwide.
Another world is possible; in fact, it’s already here in many places. But more research is needed at micro and macro-levels on how resonant present day actions shape collective possibilities and imaginaries.
Resonant imagining: deep dives into possible realities
What about moving in the other direction — starting in the depths of imagination and dream? Let’s move out of the technocratic workshops and into cultural productions where people are really the masters of imagination, such as games, music and other artistic practices. This also involves getting into the aforementioned trippy territory.
Games are by far the biggest creative industry. Estimates count more than 3 billion active video game players on the planet, when mobile games are included (as they should be). The game industry is rife with bad practices and terrible or forgettable games. However, true gems of the craft emerge pretty regularly. Big budget games typically play it very safe, and fail to open up public imaginations. But weird exceptions like Elden Ring, Death Stranding and Nier: Automata, and now the absolutely glorious Baldur’s Gate 3 exist that burst with imagination. In the independent game space, more risks are being taken to stand out, and this is where you’ll find some of the most truly creative games. Disco Elysium is a standout example; but there are thousands of other games out there that can be understood to be ‘seeds’ of new ways of being in the world, like Citizen Sleeper, The Outer Wilds, Immortality, or Before Your Eyes. Minecraft is the biggest game of all time, and that started out with a tiny team once upon a time, and is all about creative expression.
What our Anticiplay research team is finding is that such games resonate deeply with people’s emotions and imaginations. They go far beyond what we see happening in so called ‘serious’ games focused on education or behavior change in rather simplistic and pedantic ways. The best games out there provide players with resonances — lessons, skills and experiences that appear to transform, in smaller and larger ways, their engagement with the world at large, when that was often not really even an intended impact. Our team is working to harness and mobilize the potential of this gigantic industry — to open up individual and collective imaginations and ways of being in and with the world. We are also building a game, All Rise, in which you are the person taking fossil fuel companies to court. Our aim with this game is to be thoroughly entertaining as well as impactful.
But what goes for games also goes for other creative productions as well. In the CreaTures research project a large European-wide research team experimented with twenty creative projects to help understand the link between creative practice and transformative futures. Together with creatives, funders and policy makers, we discovered a rich diversity of change pathways and captured these in nine dimensions of change: changing meanings (embodying, learning, imagining); changing connections (caring, organizing, inspiring); and changing power (co-creating, empowering, subverting). Each of these dimensions represents a rich body of literature that helps express all the ways in which creative practice matters when we want to make change in the world.
Then there is music. Ruth Levitas describes music as arguably the most utopian on art forms, and full of the raw energy and desire of the possible — of what could, should and might be. Music arguably lacks some of the elaborate world building and role playing of games; but it is viscerally emotional, communal, accessible, universal. Activist movements are often supported by music and vice versa. I am a musician myself, and with fellow researchers and musicians Josie Chambers and Steve Williams we are opening up this line of research and practice into music, futures and societal change.
Finally, let’s talk about the truly trippy stuff. There are practices that are aimed at transforming our entire bodies and worlds into living sites of imaginative healing and change. These include imagination-based meditative practices, therapeutic practices, and work with psychedelics. Here, people encounter the raw power of connecting their embodied experiences with their imaginations, their desires, their fears and struggles.
Most of this work has been covered in the context of mental health care because of its obvious value there. However, personal transformations associated through psychedelics, meditative and therapeutic practices are often also related to changes in people’s relationships with the world, and in particular with natural life.
What does a research program look like that applies the same rigor and care that is currently being applied to mental health effects of such personal change practices to changes around relationships with the world? How can understandings of psychedelic and meditative modes be used more generally to inspire creative engagements with a better future? Last week, I attended a workshop focused on the potential of psychedelics, mystical and transformative experiences organized by my friends Aidan Lyon and Anya Farennikova with Michiel van Elk attended by neuroscientists, psychologists, religious studies scholars and practitioners in this space. From their reactions to my proposals, there seems to be widespread interest in connecting such practices with societal change in the sustainability space.
Creating the conditions: imagination infrastructuring
The final essential element in this agenda is the notion of imagination infrastructuring. Created by UK-based systems innovator Cassie Robinson, imagination infrastructuring focuses on the preconditions needed for the flourishing of societal imaginations. I’ve found this to be an extremely valuable concept. What are the physical, financial, social, political and ecological infrastructures needed to make imaginative societies?
Understanding societal imagination as an infrastructural project highlights the political and power dimensions of who gets to participate in shaping the future. Who feels like their ideas about the future even matter? Who gets to play, to experiment, to train their imaginative muscles? Who has the financial and legal safety to participate in civil disobedience or ‘seed’-like experiments in the first place?
What happens when we apply this concept to massive creative industries like games and music? What about the psychedelics industry? Therapy and mental health care? As shown through recent events, in the gaming industry, many of the most essential imagination infrastructures are in the hands of single companies, sometimes with disastrous results. What is needed to ‘seize the means of imaginative production’? This question goes beyond using imaginations to create options for a better world. Living an imaginative life is in itself is an essential part of living a full, soulful and connective life.
Diamond sky, firmly rooted
As we explore these research directions, I find it very important to root all of this work in multidimensional feeling and thought. This is why imagination, action and infrastructuring appear to be such a powerful combination. Imagination that is not rooted in action may disappear up its own trippy ass. Action without open imagination may become stifled, dour, and exhausting. Both need to be rooted in all emotions — wonder, hope, possibility and optimism but also grief, anger, fear — as well as a sense of justice, clarity, and clear-headedness. The infrastructural perspective brings in another kind of work that is less interested in emotional fireworks. Infrastructuring engages with deeper structural political dimensions, but it can also highlight the mundane and the invisible that is still essential for the more dramatic forms of transformational change.
I have argued that the combination of resonant action and imaginative practices benefits from an understanding that deep seriousness and deep playfulness are not opposites, but that they can strengthen each other and lead to powerful engagement with the depths of societal challenges. Deep seriousness roots us in more difficult emotions, in justice, and in a sense of clear seeing and urgency around societal challenges. It helps us feel the courage we need to take difficult action. Deep playfulness allows us to be light, intelligent, incisive and powerfully subversive around problematic current systems. Both are needed.
There’s a lot in what I’ve just described, but also some key bridging concepts that pull much of it together. In the coming time I will be working hard with various people to build out elements of this agenda and both create and investigate powerful and interesting concrete examples. Let me know if you’d like to join us in these efforts! Two events are coming up that explore different aspects of this agenda:
- On November 2nd we are organizing a symposium on imagination infrastructures at the Social Impact Factory — diving into this concept from different academic perspectives.
- Then, on November 23rd, we are returning to the Social Impact Factory for a larger event focused on ‘Utrecht, City of Imagination’ where we bring together the city council with diverse organizations involved in creative and imaginative practices.
Anticiplay is an NWO Vidi-funded research project that aims to establish a new design paradigm for the gaming sector in collaboration with CreaTures EU. You can find our mission statement here! In short: we’re all about Games For Better Futures and Futures for Better Games. Follow us @anticiplay on Twitter, and feel free to engage us with any questions, games that you think are inspiring, and anything else!