Imagination is at the heart of change. How is Camden working to build imagination into everything they do?
“What if imagination were part of everything we do?”
“What if there were a seventh generation viewpoint in every room?”
“What if we brought creativity and play into our work?”
‘What if’ questions generated by Camden Imagination Activists during the Imagination Activism programme.
Imagination is not a word you usually associate with local government. But over the past 18 months, we at Camden Council, a member of LOTI, and at Moral Imaginations have been working together to build the imagination capacity of the organisation. The work has centred around building something called Imagination Activism in a cross-section of council officers from different teams in the organisation. Trained in skills like Radical Ambition, Visioning, and Long-term Thinking, they return their roles but now they double up as Imagination Ambassadors for their teams and the organisation. We have recently completed the Phase 1 of the joint project, called Camden Imagines, and launched a Phase 1 Report, bringing together stakeholders at a launch in Camden.
Wind back to 18 months ago, we asked the question, “How might we help build the imagination capacity of a Borough?” The Camden team reflected that imagination was already alive and thriving in the Borough of Camden. With resident-led initiatives like Think and Do, or community champions which tackles health inequality as part of Camden’s estates mission, there are signals that the imagination capacity of residents is not lacking or struggling. The question transformed into asking how council officers can better respond to the collective imaginations of the Borough. This is where training Council officers in Imagination Activism came in.
Camden Imagines is about deep organisational change, working at the intersection of the personal and the collective. The programme acts on mindsets, values and beliefs, which in turn become embedded in governance, policy and systems. Camden is working to integrate imagination into Camden’s model of leadership, and build towards a future where collective imagination is at the heart of how the Council and Borough come together to make change.
As Camden colleagues Florence Henry and Benny Souto explain in more detail on our blog, Change by Design, the Phase 1 consisted of a representative cross-section of 32 council staff who engaged in a programme to expand their imaginations, give them practical tools and techniques, and make them ambassadors for the imagination within the organisation.
Imagination Activism is an approach which involves using imagination to inform, inspire and then implement the most bold, ambitious action. It uses a rigorous approach to imagining, informed by cognitive science and systems thinking. Imagination Activism is about seeing and thinking differently in order to act differently. It is a focused, action-oriented process.
Participants on the programme learnt how to include future generations in decision-making, grow their psychological safety and radical ambition, befriend their failure, exercise future visioning for themselves and others, and how to make the leap from accepting “what is”, to imagining “what if”. They learned tools to move from ‘imagining’ to ‘action’ and designed 20 possible interventions to build imagination capacity in the organisation.
Within 2 weeks of beginning the course, participants were sharing imagination practices in team meetings, hosting small check-in and visioning exercises, and working to influence others in the organisation to make space for Imagination Activism, to attend events and to help with their initiatives. Senior Leaders shared that they had been experiencing the exercises in meetings, away days and strategy sessions. One Senior Leader said that the exercises helped “get out of the robotic approach and business as usual” and instead “to step back and look at why and how we’re doing what we’re doing”. Others were activated to bring this work to residents, neighbourhoods and citizen assemblies.
The programme had a powerful impact on participants, which is now spreading outwards from that initial group. At the end of the eight weeks:
- 100% reported high imaginative capacity (with 92% reporting a significant increase).
- 82% reported a feeling of psychological safety at work (with 69% reporting a significant increase).
- 100% felt they had been equipped with practical tools to bring imagination to their teams and their day-to-day work.
With the first phase of Camden Imagines – alongside various other pieces of change work – Camden is seeking to tackle issues which will be familiar to colleagues across the public sector. The challenges of the 21st century require organisations to make enormous leaps in the way they work, driven by fresh mindsets among those who work in them. However, cultures of creativity and positive risk-taking are hard to cultivate. Even the most courageous organisations can focus their efforts on building data, design and technology infrastructure without embracing the deeper shifts in leadership and culture they need to take advantage of new skills and tools. Both are important, and require each other to work with the former chronically underinvested in because of the perilous financial state of public organisations. But often the latter is overlooked, and as it’s harder to measure and guarantee success, it’s not surprising that limited budgets get spent on the infrastructure you can see and touch.
In many scenarios, leaders understand that most innovation happens at the frontline, and is often incremental and everyday. In this case, leaders’ role is an enabling one, to provide the infrastructure, as well as permission to get on with things. The infrastructure is the easy bit to plan and deliver – equating to investment plus commitment over time. But the permission is harder. Strong narratives around empowerment and autonomy for practitioners and subject matter experts abound. The bosses mean what they say but good intentions go unheeded. There is a call but no response.
So what’s missing? We would argue that to unlock the latent creativity and imagination within workforces you need scaffolding that enables people to do this particular type of work. For those without power and privilege in organisations, exhorting them to take risks is misguided at best and damaging at worst. People need support to exercise a muscle that, in the public sector – where most staff are dealing daily with risk, regulation and intense financial pressure – has atrophied for many. It is more call to arms than permission, more movement than mandate, and it needs much more energy behind it.
Camden Imagines is just getting started – right now we’re preparing for Phase Two, which will involve rippling out into the community, building on Camden’s participation journey, which started in 2017. But we hope it serves as an example of the kind of movement-building local government so urgently needs. It goes beyond an exhortation just to think differently, asking also what staff require to be able to do so. This has been a live topic for us in Camden for some years, guided recently by “The Way We Work”, our renewed vision for the organisation published in 2022, which poses questions like “how might we enable all staff to develop strong, inclusive relationships with our citizens and be empowered to act on them?”
Across the public sector, we need local government officers and civil servants motivated by purpose and energised by imagination. We need to design our organisations to enable them to exercise judgement, to be empathetic, and to cultivate relationships with the people they serve, not because it is nice, but because it is how you co-produce outcomes. Some of this means sweeping aside or reforming some things – performance management, or how we deal with risk – and investing in others (such as data, technology, or design capacity). But a deep well of imagination, the ability to ask what if and why not, and to long together for a different future is at the heart of innovation.
If you’d like to find out more, please read our report Imagination Activism in Camden, Insights from the First Phase and feel free to get in touch with Nick Kimber at firstname.lastname@example.org or Phoebe Tickell at email@example.com.