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Panel Discussion on Social Imaginaries

Updated: Nov 28, 2022

Astrid Mangnus, Johannes Kleske, and Jeroen Oomen participated in this panel discussion on social imaginaries. The first speaker, Johannes, holds a master's degree in futures research from Freya University in Berlin. He is a partner in The Third Wave Of Foresight And Technology Studio that he co-founded. His motivation is to increase people's capacity for self-determination in an increasingly complex world.

Johannes Kleske
Johannes Kleske

Johannes is particularly interested in theoretical work that combines critical future studies with the social science literature on imaginaries. His theoretical elaborations help identify and understand the preconceived notions that people bring with them when they enter a discussion about futuring.

Astrid Mangnus
Astrid Mangnus

The next speaker is Astrid Mangnus, a PhD researcher at Utrecht University's Urban Future Studio. Astrid's research focuses on the use of various highlighting methods in urban areas in Europe and Japan, ranging from broadcasting to gaming to imaging and transformation to sustainability. In her research, she conducts experiments with various groups of governance actors as well as novel methodologies such as gaming visioning to see if new images of the future lead to new imaginaries and actual practises for transformation to sustainability.

Jeroen Oomen
Jeroen Oomen

The third person to speak, Jeroen Oomen, is a postdoctoral researcher at Utrecht University’s Urban Future Studio. His research focuses on the social, cultural, and scientific practises that shape society's perceptions of the future. So he has worked on climate engineering and investigated how and why climate engineering became a potential approach to addressing anthropogenic climate change, and he questions how social processes allow us to imagine the future in specific ways, as well as how imagined futures become lived and enacted, and how they influence actual practises.

The following three questions dominated the conversation:

What is the material of the imaginaries you encounter in your work?

Johannes attempted to develop a theoretical approach to the term future imaginaries by combining critical futures studies' understanding of images of the future with social theory's understanding of social imaginaries, then bringing the two together and seeing what happens.

So the socially imaginary part that he is talking about is expectations in a group or collective, even a society, that has become so accepted that they're not questioned anymore, they're just taken for granted, and then if we combine it with the future, it means that they are expectations about a time in the future that is held by a group or collective.

Future imaginaries are constantly present in Johannes' work. It's the preconceived notions, the things that his clients take for granted about the future that they're not even interested in debating because they just think this is obvious; how could anyone think anything else about this. His role is always to loosen it up a bit, to bring it more to the foreground, to question it, and by doing so, to open up the space for imagination.

Astrid regards imaginaries as a major driving force in any type of transformational project process. What she sees in her case studies is that there is usually one dominant imaginary, so when we're talking about the stuff that imaginaries are made of for her with these groups of people, it's a different thing every time, so it can be anything from food system imaginaries to smart city imaginaries, so the content varies.

What she sees is that there is usually a dominant imaginary, for example, what the food systems should look like or what the market should look like, and then what they usually work with is this group of people who all have their own ideas about how these systems could be better so and then with these futures methodologies they try to bring them together and sort of put all these new ideas together into a new shared image, so a new imaginary perhaps

According to Jeroen Oomen, one of the most important aspects of imaginaries for him is the normative aspect, which is much more than an image or an expectation. As per Jeroen, many people are circling something that may be the correct definition, and no one will ever be able to strictly define it, but when Charles Taylor says that imaginaries are people's ways of imagining their social existence and how they fit together with others, that is the deeper narrative that underpins these notions.

He claims that when we talk about imaginaries, we're not just talking about the future we want; we're also talking about the social structures we imagine there to be. So, when he thinks about the stuff that imaginaries are made of, it's really about how we re-embed those normative notions in everything we do all the time. One of the most fundamental papers on this for him is a very old paper on gender by jude butler on gender as a performative act, where it's a role-playing thing that we do to really re-embed all of these notions that we have about gender, but also about the imagined future.

He believes that when we talk about imaginaries, we must be careful to distinguish between when it is an image or a vision and when it is truly imaginary, when there is institutional stabilisation but not just institutional right, and when it is truly that personal kind of way of dealing with the things that we imagined collectively in the performative imagination.

What is the relationship between these imaginaries and the topics you work with?

Astrid claims that it is difficult to operationalize and also to grasp in empirical work and that definitions differ, so how to make this explicit link from the object of study to the undefinable thing of imaginaries is quite difficult. She would never really say that we have shifted an imaginary. It is a kind of claim that is difficult to make, so they usually stick with that criterion for transformations or governance change.

Jeroen says there's always this opportunity to reorient and restructure parts of those organised fields of social practices, but you're also always in that structuring and in that globally defined field of possibility, and I think that highlights two aspects with which he works. He has done a lot of work on climate engineering, which has a diametrically opposed research community. It's basically split down the middle between people who fundamentally disagree with the idea that climate engineering can play any sort of role in our climate policy and people who are attempting to reorient the discussion about climate engineering into the idea that it may have a place in climate policy.

Both of these different communities working in the climate change space are attempting to reorient the way we think about climate change and what we can do about it. Jeroen believes that the concept of the socio-technical vanguard, or at least some sort of vanguard, that plays a role in reorienting the way we think about specific issues and that then begins to poke at our preconceived notions of what science can do, what technology can do, or what the future may be like, is very important.

Jeroen believes that if we think critically about all of the moments that comprise that social imaginary or normative notion, we can begin to unpack where and when these imaginaries have critical moments or moments of change, and then we can form and play a part in that negotiation in a much more informed way.

According to Johannes, he discovered with the organisations and companies he works with that there is almost no understanding of how much our expectations of the future are like. What do we think the future will be like? How much influence do they have on what we do on a daily basis in our decisions? The more he researched this, the more he realised how little we know about it. As a result, at the start of a project, he wants to make his clients more aware of how their own subconscious expectations and ideas about the future influence how they behave.

What he discovered through hard experience is that if you don't do it at the start, they will come out later in the actual scenario and foresight work and people will just throw them in there, but if you ask them right at the start, they're like okay, I said what I think it is. Then, if you loosen them up a bit, you can actually create more broader scenarios or a few images of the future, so this is just a very practical way that they try to apply this by just trying to make it manifest a bit more, make it a bit more tangible so that they can start having conversations about it and people can start reflecting.

What functions do the imaginaries you encounter in your practice have in the present?

Jeroen claims that the images of the future that we discuss provide a reason for doing something and place us within that expectation. What the imaginary does to him is more about justifying his reason for acting and implicitly prescribing what you deem to be important, so it's more about the why than it is about the specific image, and there are a couple of things that he thinks are really important in that why.

Because he is so interested in science, the first question that comes to mind is, "What kind of knowledge about the future do you think you need to make any kind of decision?" What kind of knowledge about the future do you have that gives you a reliable image to work towards? At the same time, this relates to the question of who gets to co-create images of the future.

He believes that this is also implicit in imaginaries, much more than it is in expectations, because in every imaginary, there is an idea of who gets to co-create that image of the future, and so there is always an inclusionary but also an exclusionary part to any imaginary, and we can't escape that but we need to be very careful about that, but these, to him, are some of the most important functions of what we do in the present.

Johannes says If we all decide that this is the future we want, if we all decide as a society or as companies in a country or the EU that artificial intelligence is the future, then it starts to become performative, and we all act that way, and it becomes the future, which helps us reduce uncertainty.

If we look at public discourse, we can see that everyone is attempting to influence our expectations of the future and what we expect from it or how we expect it to turn out. Everyone is trying to tell stories about their preferred future in order to influence the imaginary of the future, so this is a role that we constantly see in our work, this performativity aspect of everyone acting as if this is going to be the future and hoping that it actually will be the future because then everyone is set on the same horse and we're all going to win.

According to Astrid, imaginaries are the ways in which people think about how the future should be, so that's just a really strong uniting force. So imaginaries really bring people together; they can form strong bonds and reach an agreement on how to proceed in making a future reality.

She discovered that the people she worked with in a Japan case study really kept organising as a group, collaborating, and even establishing themselves at the local governance level, implying that imaginaries have this function of change as well, even if we can't really manipulate them that much, but they're a powerful force in that sense.

Watch the recap here:

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