Social imagination envisions a future, in which those who were considered weak and powerless in the past, take charge and create new answers. Imagination here is not a dream or ideology, but a journey rooted in community and practice. Start by reframing the world around you in new ways. Whether at home, in society or in government, practicing social imagination brings immense joy as we empower people and experiment with new ways of doing. But it is also an emotional dance with the pain of slowness in the face of urgent problems.
What does good look like?
Every day, I ask myself what good really would look like. What will it take for me to a good father today? And, knowing all my imperfections, what will matter as I get it all wrong? And what is my contribution to society? Should I aim for making things a little better every day, or demand deep transformative change? So far, in The Slow Lane, I chose to share several stories with you. The work of User Voice in Pentonville Prison, Albina Ruiz's movement to empower waste-pickers in Peru, and the story of the green movement in Germany. I selected these stories because they inspire me about how we all can (re)imagine what good looks like.
All the stories have one thing in common. Their visions for change were not imposed by a singular leader or ideology, but emerged out of their work. Through listening, experimentation and participation. Mark Johnson brought his own lived experience to seed a new way of improving rehabilitation in the UK prison system by founding User Voice. He had lived in addiction, crime, and the process of returning to society. This had made him more attuned to many important nuances overlooked by experts. For example, he saw how the power dynamics between officials and ex-offenders rendered the information about the needs of ex-offenders' unusable (see Story #1). In Albina's case, it was her technical skills that brought her into government, but it was her humanity that got her to focus on the suffering of the poor as the real cost of the broken waste management system (see Story #5). And the Green Party in Germany had no single leader, but was produced by a unique set of circumstances that forced it to transcend ideology and accommodate a very diverse and distrustful group of people (see Story #6). All of them started by framing known problems in new, more meaningful ways. And as a result, they shifted the focus to what really mattered.
Reframing: The Radically Better Question.
Reframing, it turns out, is a truly radical first step, practiced with empathy as much as razor-sharp logic. My friend Georg's words come to mind as he reflected on an evening turned sour, after our daughters spoke up about Fridays for Future for the first time. "It should have been a moment to celebrate that our daughters spoke up about a cause they cared about." (see Story #2) That is reframing a situation right there, to what matters most! And doing this, opens so many creative opportunities to imagine what is next. Social imagination begins right there. We saw how, from this reframing, we can chart a course that is not defined by what we had believed to be possible. Instead, it is defined by what is right.
Nowhere does the power of reframing become clearer in how we describe the people who suffer the consequences of a broken system. Traditionally, they are framed as incompetent, or victims. Not unlike how the media portrays our youth every day. Instead, there is little talk about helping victims in our Slow Lane stories. They choose to reframe the problem in a way that asks: What if those who suffer most from the problem, become part of, or even own, the solution? It is a question that looks for capabilities, rather than weaknesses, right from the start.
This kind of reframing is no easy feat. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel-prize winning psychologist and author of "Thinking, Fast and Slow" how our lazy brains try to avoid the effort of finding new answers, but instead pick an answer that is familiar to us. Even if it is for a different question. That is thinking fast. For Albina, for example, thinking fast would have given us an engineering solution to the waste management problem of Lima. Engineering is what she knew, it aligned with her skills, it is what everyone expected (and paid her) to do. And it would have yielded some quick results. According to Kahneman, it would have been what everyone's brains wanted! But she chose to think slow, to find the right answer. This is inconvenient for everyone involved and requires a lot of additional effort. Our stories start by thinking slow, not tempted into just 'making the issue go away', but creating a new frame of reference.
Curiosity has three elements. First, we unlearn our preconceptions, to open up to new ideas and collaborators. Second, we seek inspiration from outside our immediate reality, for example in science or other movements. Third, we maintain the space for others to let their vision for change emerge. Curiosity practiced in this way, helps us retain the flexibility to find common ground, instead of getting caught up on a single solution.
Reframing is the first step in our quest to find what good looks like. Thinking slow in this way resonates with Story #4, where I wrote about how curiosity as Slow Lane Principle #5. It starts with unlearning. And unlearning is deeply uncomfortable for everyone because it means letting go of what we value most: our hard-earned experiences, expectations, knowledge and know-how.
I want to highlight a couple of foundational techniques that help us develop our new idea of what good looks like.
Organizing = Empowering.
Let's start with organizing. We have seen how those who suffer from a problem, but in the past had no power to do anything about it, become a functional community. Take User Voice as an example. Instigated by Mark Johnson, it is a self-organized team of ex-offenders who helped empower thousands of other prisoners and ex-offenders. Albina started out by helping waste-pickers step out of informality into the municipal recycling business. The German green movement self-organized into a platform for civil society to become a qualified voice, in what was considered a highly technical matter just for experts: nuclear power. Even the government of Iceland organized (see Story #3), calling on citizens to rewrite the constitution, after its political system had become self-serving. We will see many more examples in the coming chapters in society and government, empowering people on issues like health, gender equality, social justice, technology and early childhood development.
Organizing, as practiced in the Slow Lane, is inseparable from empowerment. Empowerment, quite often, starts out as a service. Albina didn't simply drag recyclers to a national negotiating table, but thirty years supporting, training, and organizing recyclers so that they could join the table from a place of pride and capability. Without this nurturing effort, their precarious lives would have not allowed them to pay attention to anything but their immediate survival. They joined the negotiations not indoctrinated, but liberated to be experts at their own lives and possible futures. Similarly, User Voice trains prisoners for their role in a Prison Council. And the German green movement recruited experienced activists, political mentors and nuclear risk science (in particular from the U.S.) to develop the tactics, positions and confidence of its members.
The growing capabilities of people feeds our social imagination. In the early 1970's it was unimaginable, even to activists, that they would one day be represented in the cabinet of a German government. Our confidence grows as we learn about the capabilities of those around us, it opens radical new possibilities.
Imagination by Doing.
The second technique is simple: trial and error. In all our stories we see a lot of experimentation. We want to prove that people who were stigmatized for being poor, uneducated, or uninformed, can indeed create, deliver and own better solutions. User Voice proved that offenders could become productive partners in prison management. Albina's movement proved that waste-pickers could team up, to become recycling businesses that were better at managing municipal waste than the 'professionals' with their expensive machines. In Germany, the green movement proved that environmental activists could see eye to eye with experts and even become a responsible political party when elected into office. Experimentation is applied to practically all other aspects of these movements also: how to take decisions, how to fund efforts, what political tactics to use.
We should practice this experimentation with plenty of curiosity. Curiosity keeps us open to new ideas, but it also provides inspiration from science, arts, business and other movements to feed our experimentation. Spain showed no curiosity in its initial response to the financial crisis: the message was simply 'there is no other way' to the bitter medicine that threw millions of people into poverty (see Story #3). Successful Slow Lane movements, by contrast, show an insatiable appetite for quite the opposite. They always have alternatives on the table.
Trial and error helps us avoid pinning our hopes on simplistic fixes. It also builds the intelligence and capability to actually achieve results. This know-how is what makes everything possible. The Slow Lane is where anyone can acquire sophisticated skills that push their ideas about what is broken, and what is possible.
Audacity = Empowerment x Practice.
To see how radically different all this is, think about Facebook or Tesla for a moment. Both companies never set out to design solutions for those who are disadvantaged or excluded. It would have weakened the success of their plans for technological dominance. For their stories to work, they have to first solve for the most privileged -- the early adopters, the wealthy nerdy people, who like to use new toys and will make them desirable to others. By the time their products reach people further down the social hierarchy, the platforms either impose their terms by making the user the exploitable product (Facebook) or simply remain an unaffordable dream (Tesla). The story of Albina's movement is radically different. It gets more and more audacious over time, as the poorest and most stigmatized people become and own the solution. Their vision feeds on a radical shift of power that builds a stronger, more inclusive, society at every step of the way. Audacity here is not a utopia, but the logical product of continued empowerment and practice.
Slowness, Bad and Good.
As I write about slowness, it turns out that time is almost secondary to these Slow Lane stories. They all desire to change things fast, but this urgency operates more like fuel than a hard delivery date. Even in the German green movement (where urgency was the actual purpose!), urgency provided the energy that was channeled into creating something much bigger. It motivated people to keep experimenting, testing, adapting. And so, whilst every story, wanted 'change now', it also seems, that it was simply beyond their control to determine speed. Slowness is a double-edged sword. It causes pain and anger, but also leads to the practice of our Slow Lane Principles, that unlock more meaningful success later on. As painful as it may be slowness enables us to accomplish important things to figure out what good really looks like.
As we strive to reach our vision, we will soon find that we have to build bridges to the outside. This can be uncomfortable, as these groups and people will come with their own priorities. But we also know that we cannot empower others by telling them what to do. Conversion to your cause is not a matter of indoctrination. It starts by listening and being of service. At home, we can listen and cheer our children on as they reframe their reality. Even if that is uncomfortable and challenging to us. I cannot empower my daughter Olivia by converting her to my cause. I can empower her only by offering myself as a resource to hers. How can I empower someone if I don't trust them, deep down, to eventually come around to what is right? That is precisely how I experienced coming around to the green movement. It changes how we relate to our peers at work, to other people in need, or to our favorite cause. Empowering means being of service, no strings attached. And once you try it, it becomes the purest joy.
The Joy of Slowness.
I would like to close this chapter with a sense of beauty and joy. Whether at home, work or in society, empowering others, free from expectations, is the most joyful undertaking. It is inseparable from the beauty of doing, the creative practice of experimentation and learning that helps push our imagination to new heights. Whenever I talk to Mark Johnson and Albina Ruiz, but also German environmental activists, I felt that love and joy for working in their respective communities! This beauty and joy is inextricably bound up in a dance with time, our urgency for change, that also brings many dark moments and inflicts much pain on us (more on that later, in Chapter 4). But the secret here is to see our social imagination as a place of abundance that offers hope, beauty and joy. And if we are lucky, this will see us through the pain long enough to reach the other side. That moment of truly transformative change, where our audacious vision becomes reality.
This brings Chapter 1 to a close. As always, please share your ideas or feedback. I love hearing from you, even the tough kind of love that helps make The Slow Lane better.
Next week, we will enter Chapter 2, in which we will explore listening as a practice. The next story is about an exciting day in the slums of Caracas, to be followed by the story from a Slow Lane city government. Stay tuned!