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This is about serious make belief

You can feel it wobbling, bubbling, shifting, rubbing, fizzing. There is a change underway in the way we seek answers to complex issues. Old systems are being unmasked, dismantled, and even overthrown.

There is a significant movement to address topics such as climate change, economic and political system reform, and reducing social inequality in an interdisciplinary manner. Scientists, creatives, policymakers, and entrepreneurs are joining forces to approach problems holistically. Additionally, the systems approach is on the rise.

When scientists, creatives, policymakers, and entrepreneurs combine their efforts, they use their collective imagination to devise innovative solutions that might otherwise not be considered. The rise of the systems approach, which acknowledges that everything is interconnected and every cause has an effect on society as a whole, requires a deep level of imagination. To understand and influence the complex relationships and dynamics within systems, we must be able to envision different scenarios and their potential outcomes.

The call for imagining alternatives is growing louder. In a rapidly changing world where uncertainty is the norm, we seek new visions, ideas, and possibilities to navigate. We need new narratives is something that we hear and read all the time. Futurists and speculative designers are busier than ever. And we have a growing need to feel what all these changes and uncertainties are, in order to grasp them and give meaning(1).

Paradoxically, imagination itself is also under pressure. Our society, where instant gratification, constant unrest, and fear play increasingly significant roles, often limits our capacity to think freely and creatively. Social media, news feeds, and the constant stream of information make it difficult to think deeply and dream about the long term(2). Fear of the unknown and uncertainty about the future is (according to some studies) stifling to the imagination and lead to a retreat into familiar but outdated thought patterns(3). And and at the same time, we can use our imagination to overcome this fear.(5)

In my design research on unwanted polarization, I learned, for example, that we use our imagination to reduce ’the other/them’ to an opinion and a group. Once we have imagined that, we lose the ability to use our imagination with the same ease to place the other back into a broader perspective, thus finding common ground. To get people to imagine that someone has other identities and imagine ways to find common ground can bring back that ability.(4) When it comes to uncharted territory, we are looking for answers and those who claim to have the answers attract the most followers. Once you have chosen a side, there is little room for imagination of alternatives. I would argue that polarisation leads to a certain degree of imaginative poverty.

Imaginative poverty makes us less able to devise solutions, imagine alternative possible futures, view matters from different perspectives, come up with a diversity in stories, and understand each other. 

With this publication and my design research, I want to demonstrate that imagination, particularly collective imagination, is valuable and perhaps indispensable for understanding and dealing with complex challenges for the future and the way we interact in that future. 

I am aware that I am just starting to discover and unravel the concepts below, and I am merely scratching the surface of fields as speculative design, social dynamics and collective imagination. The purpose of this document is to set a starting point for further exploration, research and practise in these fields.  

Imaginations superpower #1 - uncover undiscovered territory

Within the realms of art and philosophy, much has been written about the power of imagination. The ability to imagine allows us to think creatively and innovate. Einstein once said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited to what we already know, while imagination enables us to transcend those boundaries.”

Philosopher and educator John Dewey distinguishes between imagination (an emotional journey beyond the borders of habit and facts) and fantasy (a random representation of fictional things), as well as between illusion (the difference between reality and unreality)1. The imagination I want to discuss is the ability to envision objects and situations that we may not know but are not impossible. Thus, employing imagination is not arbitrary and endless, nor entirely unreal.

In my research, I learned that when imagination becomes too fantastical, participants disengage, and the outcomes lead to little more than a beautiful story told by one or two people. However, when discussions were held about events that are unknown but possible, the entire group participated much more actively.

Australian philosopher Toby Ord writes in The Precipice that the lack of imagination among many people is the reason for not seeing or underestimating existential risks. He suggests that this is because we make assessments based on memories. Neurological research also indicates that the area in our brains that ‘lights up’ when thinking about future events is the same area that is active when recalling memories.

I interpret this as we invent from knowledge and assumptions we already possess. To break free from this, we might need to imagine situations we have not previously encountered. As Dewey describes, this allows us to create new connections and consider alternative paths.

This brings us to the first superpower of imagination: the ability to foresee and map uncharted territory.

Or, as I would like to say: Making memories of events that have not yet happened.

What distinguishes humans from other animals is that we have the individual capacity to create an open ended imagination and that we have the insatiable desire to, as social animals, connect our minds to generate collective imagination or intelligence.   Thomas Suddendorf

Common and distinct regions engaged by the construction and elaboration of past and future events (Addis et al. 2007)

Neurologisch onderzoek wijst uit dat het gebied in onze hersenen dat ‘oplicht’ bij het denken over toekomstige gebeurtenissen, hetzelfde gebied is dat actief is bij het oproepen van herinneringen.

7. Ord, T. (2020). The precipice: Existential risk and the future of humanity. Hachette UK.

Future memories

To move forward, we need at least one point on the horizon and an idea of what it looks like to navigate towards it. When we think of points on the horizon, we usually project them into the future because we talk about something we are moving towards. In this text and my work, I like to use future thinking and speculation for various reasons, which I will explain further.

In the field of futures thinking, imagination is used not to predict the future but to understand the different consequences of today on tomorrow(8). This helps us envision alternative futures and make better decisions in the present.

In Speculative Everything, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby (9) propose a kind of design used as a tool to create not only things but ideas. For them, design is a means of speculating about how things could be—to imagine possible futures. They pose “what if” questions that are intended to open debate and discussion about the kind of future people want (and do not want).

In future thinking, forecasting, and speculative design, the futures cone of Hancock and Bezold is used. Futures are represented based on probability (see the adjacent image). Futurist Joseph Voros (10) adds Preposterous futures to this model. These are future scenarios that everyone says will never happen. Yet, there are examples where these scenarios did become reality. He suggests that even seemingly impossible scenarios are worth considering. Without this mindset, we wouldn’t have the internet, gender emancipation, smartphones, or flexible working. 

Another point Voros makes in a podcast (11) with futurist Nikolas Badminton  is that most future visions are created by large companies and governments, focusing primarily on innovation and technology. He advocates for civilization-level foresight, where society is central. In my opinion, this should be inclusive foresight, involving not only businesses and governments but also citizens.

As a designer, I want to contribute to this so called future literacy, as is being done in UNESCO’s Future Literacy Labs. I have learned by making the experiences I did, that it is possible to make foresight more accessible through storytelling and playing in futures.

Based on what the group wants to explore, I use possible or even preposterous futures in my designs. I research relevant trends and signals for what we want to practice. I translate these into a background story to start the session. This background story can be told in a video, audio fragment, time capsule, or a mysterious letter in an envelope.

During the experience, we live in this future. Who are we, what happens, how does this society work? We delve deeper into the future. Making the idea of a far future personal. 

I use events that advance the story and stimulate the problem-solving skills and imagination of the participants. Depending on the topic, these events highlight certain occurrences. It gives me, as a facilitator, a tool to guide the group and the story. In the case of polarization: Some events drive the group or an individual away from the other and sometimes connect them. The events are based on scientific and practical research into what polarizes and depolarizes.

This raises questions such as: What do we do? What does this do to us as a community? What assumptions do we make?

Afterwards, we remember what happened in the future. How do we leave this future behind? How do we proceed? What did we like and want to keep, and what do we leave in the fiction? The elements we want to further explore or keep can then be brought back to concrete steps in the present through backcasting.

We remember the future so that we can take action in the present to make the desired future a reality.

Probable Futures:
Water will rise and we need to strengthen the dykes
Plausible Futures:
We have to give part of the Netherlands back to the sea
Possible Futures:
There will be floating cities and houses
Preposterous Futures:
The Netherislands, an archipelago of islands off the coast of Germany.

“I remember how the government had more overview of what was happening in the city when there was more communication within the quadrants.”
Participant – Policy maker Municipality Almere

“I remember that the way we handled the city should be the way we treat each other in this country.”
Participant – Student Political Science

“I remember that the mayor was a spokesperson for all the aliens”
Participant – Communications Almere





The narrative and the truth

Every future begins, like a memory, with a story. And when multiple stories come together, a narrative emerges. Narratives determine how we experience the world around us. This worldview influences our behaviour towards the world and each other. If we want to change behaviour, we need to change the narratives, and to change the narratives, we need to change the stories (12).

This sounds rational, but it is not. From all the objective and subjective information we encounter, we create stories, a mental representation of the world that often guides our behaviour towards others. Our perception of reality in our brains is equivalent to the truth (13). Our imagination allows us to invent entire worlds and worldviews. In that space, we project models of how people behave and how objects should look, based on what we know and what we experience.

These spaces in our imagination are imperfect and contain distortions and gaps. Interestingly enough, if our story turns out to be incorrect, it creates a kind of short-circuit in our minds. Instead of adjusting our story to fit the new reality, we first try to adapt reality to our story(14).

We continually adjust our representations to make them fit into the stories we understand. Whether these representations are correct or not does not matter to our brain.

In my research into the dynamics of us versus them thinking, I learned that polarization is a dynamic of feelings. This means it is no longer about the facts but about who says it. The factual information becomes less important to completely irrelevant. This also means that to depolarize, other ways must be found to reconnect.

When focusing on social dynamics, I have consciously chosen that it is less relevant whether a story is accurate or true. (As I mentioned earlier, a certain degree of recognition is important, but the story does not have to be entirely true). It is about how we, as a group and individuals, deal with it.

By taking liberties with the content of the story and the times in which it takes place, we create space to play and experiment with possible or absurd futures. If we start with something that might be possible, then other things can also become possible. I see this reflected in the interactions with participants. Solutions suddenly become less complicated because why not? Cheating can occur. Hacking can happen. Someone can even be murdered.

In playing with collective stories as part of the iterations for my research, we discovered that the story does not necessarily have to be linear. Different times and events from the present, history, and the future can coexist.

In imagination, we consciously or unconsciously create mental images of the story. Whether it is true or not does not matter. The fact that the story is created by the group makes it, in that context, a true story with shared future memories.



I don’t participate in this. I am moving off the island.

Iteration: collective story derived from an AI image.
Hans: It is like in the old days,
when we also had refugees, but they are not living on the street. But in a remote area. Marijke: Yes, but they cannot stay here in these tents. Probably there will be no more houses in 20 years because of the heat. Then we all live in tents. Oh, perhaps these are not refugees but people who live in tents because the houses are too warm. 

“Stories surround us like air; we breathe them in, we breathe them out. The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do.”
Rebecca Solnit, Call Them by Their True Names


To make room for imagination, it is important to create a safe and sometimes neutral space. Future scenarios or fiction can help with this, as they remove participants from their sometimes restrictive reality and create space for alternative ways of thinking. Additionally, anything can go wrong, because it isn’t happening for real at that moment. This not only contributes to the learning curve but also to the imagination.

By playing with future memories and thus emotionally and physically experiencing what they mean, I believe it is possible to slightly touch upon the fear of the  unknown.

Fear is largely caused by imagination. According to Damiaan Denys, psychiatrist and researcher of fear, all forms of fear can be traced back to the feeling that you have no control over the situation, the outside world, your inner world, or your thoughts(16). But by experiencing what you imagine could happen, the fear of losing control can simultaneously decrease (Like in exposure therapy). In short: What happens when we experience what we are afraid of? Can imagining a disaster ensure that we gain more control? Or make us see that we cannot control it, is that enough to diminish the fear of loosing control. 

In my designs, I introduce a disaster halfway through the story. This disaster is initially intended as a catalyst to provoke a dilemma, which allows us to make polarization visible. But as the different play sessions progressed, I discovered that it did more than that. The players immediately switched to solution mode and helped each other. What was meant to polarize turned out to be very depolarizing as a new common goal was formed. Experiencing the disaster together also did something with the players; it created a sense of solidarity.

Whether participants become less afraid of such an event in the ‘real’ world by experiencing a flood or a locust plague, I cannot say. One participant stated: I recognised that unexpected things happen all the time that changes everybody’s life, and we just have to deal with it. Perhaps this simulation in an adapted form can contribute to more research on this topic. I wonder if collectively imagining a disaster and the actions we take together, as a result of that disaster, contribute to ownership and thus the sense of control over a possible disaster.

What stood out during the play sessions with different disasters was that the fun, energy, and engagement of all players clearly increased. This is also reflected in research showing that we find bad news more interesting than good news(17). It relates to the negativity bias; we are evolved to react quickly to potential threats. Bad news could be a signal that we need to change what we’re doing to avoid danger.

The fear of the unknown is not limited to places and events. It extends to fear of others…

If we see our fellow man as something scary and not a full person with projects, plans and a full life, then imagining the lives of others is a great solution.
Martha Nussbaum

Imaginations superpower #2 - discover the other

And this brings me to the second superpower of imagination. To explore unknown territories and envision alternative realities, we need an open and investigative attitude that challenges assumptions. In researching social dynamics, examining the relationships between the group and the individual is essential. According to philosopher Martha Nussbaum, imagination enables us to empathise with others both concretely and emotionally(18).

In the polarisation games I have created, participants play a role. This allows them to bring their own interpretation to the game and thus find a comfortable place (you do not have to be yourself, but you also do not have to act). The goal is to understand each other better and increase empathy among the players. According to research done by Verweij Jonker Institute a large de-polarizing factor is increasing empathy between people who are opposed to each other(19).

By empathizing with other perspectives, we become more empathetic. This can be done through reading stories, watching films and documentaries, and having conversations with people who think differently. However, active empathy primarily arises from taking on another role and temporarily experiencing someone else’s life.

18. The Narrative Imagination from Cultivating Humanity page 85-112, Martha Nussbaum, Harvard University Press, 1977

19 Derix, G., Day, M., & Verwey-Jonker Instituut. (2021). Het stille midden voorbij.


Experts in this form of active empathy are, by far, the LARP (Live Action Role Play) practitioners.

The concrete outcomes of the games I create are, like in LARP, difficult to define. After the experience, only the stories and memories remain. These stories are the product of the experience but do not carry the same weight as the experience itself. A follow-up design question could be: How do you make experiences like these concrete enough to be transferable to other situations? And how do you make it measurable? I have not yet found research on this. 

Another effect of role-playing is that by playing another character, you notice how others react to you. Just like imagining futures based on the knowledge you already have, you also project your own feelings and prejudices. These assumptions, prejudices, and the feelings associated with them all come to the surface when playing with characters and can be questioned there and then.

Player: I am the CEO of a factory and I don’t care about nature at all, I am super selfish and only care about money and status.
Me: Would that person describe themselves in the same way? Player: No, probably not…um I’m a CEO of a beautiful factory that I’m proud of, I like good food and nice cars and it’s important to me that my family is well provided for

Collective imagination & social dynamics

If imagination allows us to practice alternative realities, empathize with others, and determine how we behave towards each other, is it then possible to use imagination to explore alternative social dynamics? And with that same imagination perhaps gain more insight and understanding?

Through all the iterations I conducted with players, I discovered that the most fascinating aspects were not just in the physical setup and being in a room together. It was the fictional conversations and the attempts to convince each other with completely fabricated arguments that charged the experience with emotions. These emotions made what we experienced together linger and gave players a certain awareness of the actions of others, as well as their own behaviour within the group.

I am looking forward to delve deeper into these actions and behaviours, which has led me to the endlessly interesting path of collective imagination and the study of social dynamics. As in: understanding the behaviour of groups and the interactions of individual group members. In the design of the game, I have created nudges (characters, little assignments, private events) to get individual imagination started. By being physically present in the space with others who are imagining, I aim to spark collective imagination through shared goals, city and neighborhood events, and a disaster that affects us all.

Individual Imagination

Imagine what it is like to live on Polaris. How do you live there, work, who are your friends? Or maybe you don’t work at all? Perhaps you are a retired neighbor who takes care of colorful streets with the local children. In the games I create, everyone is free to imagine as much as they want. By providing space to bring individual thoughts together, a game develops within the rules of “Yes, And,” where individual imagination becomes a building block for a larger story. Making difficult and complex issues personal. 

According to the feedback of one participant: “I find it remarkable and enjoyable that everyone actively contributes and engages with the story. This made me more liberated in my own inventiveness.”

The power of imagination is amplified by bringing all individual creations together in one space, like rolling a giant snowball.

Collective Imagination

During this research, I discovered that what I am actually doing is activating collective imagination. As a designer, I ignite your imagination and ensure that  collective imagination emerges. By creating space, stories, frameworks, encounters, and games.

Using collective imagination as a tool, we can create more inclusive and diverse future narratives and discover how certain civilization-level dynamics could work for our common benefit. The importance of diversity within the group is therefore necessary. In the iterations I have conducted with groups so far, people were diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, and age, but all were highly educated. I have not yet succeeded in bringing together a true reflection of society in one group. But that is definitely part of my aim for the future. 

Making large complex issues small and personal

“I find it remarkable and enjoyable that everyone actively contributes and engages with the story. This made me more liberated in my own inventiveness.”

And so, the story begins

During my design research into the dynamics of us-versus-them thinking, I discovered that unwanted polarization can be reduced by harnessing the power of imagination. Participants who used their imagination to explore the unknown territory of a possible future and interacted with their characters and others became more open to alternative perspectives and ideas.

It’s often said that we need new narratives, but all new stories start in the imagination. By reconnecting and using collective imagination in diverse constellations, we can create more inclusive narratives and visions of the future. 

By fostering and harnessing our collective imagination and using it as a tool, we can practice navigating unknown territory. Experiencing this unfamiliar space personally, within a group, gives us a sense of control over the stories we tell. Imagining a society on a micro scale allows us to more easily understand and empathize with others, leading to more meaningful connections and a deeper understanding of diverse perspectives. Experiencing and feeling what it is like to be in a possible future society is far more powerful than merely reading about it.

As a designer I wish to contribute to Future literacy and the nurture of collective imagination.
With two workshops I have created, that allow people to seriously play with the social dynamic of polarization, I will continue my design research and practise in making more social dynamics insightful and tangible.

With my own imagination, methods from experience design, speculative design and transformative play in my toolkit, I will continue to work  as a spacemaker for imagination, rehearsal, play and of future memories.

The discovery of a whole new field and transdisciplinairy network around the use of collective imagination for the challenges we face for the future gives me hope and energy. This together with the new network I have build in the past two years and the new projects and collaborations that are already happening gives me great excitement to kick off my new practise.