Geoff Mulgan on Social Imagination

Geoff Mulgan is one of the most curious and constructive thinkers and practitioners around. He used to work in politics, he founded and ran big think tanks, he is an academic with a strong leaning towards action and change. His big theme recently has been the lack of imagination in Western societies, the failure to envision a different future – and the ways this could be changed. Geoff Mulgan is Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation at University College London (UCL) and a Senior Advisor at THE NEW INSTITUTE.

Let’s begin with the big one: How does change happen?

Sometimes slowly, sometimes suddenly. I have tried in my work to make sense of patterns of change and the role of ideas, of social dynamics, of technologies and how they interact. One of the reasons I became interested in imagination recently was because perhaps there was a missing piece in the theories of change. In the past, one of the things which allowed change was people thinking ahead to a better possible society or utopia. And my worry is that that kind of imagination has almost disappeared.

Why is that?

People can picture a much worse world, with climate change, ecological catastrophe, robots taking over the world, populous demagogues. But very few people can give an articulate account of how the world might be better socially. What might our health care look like? Our primary schools, our libraries, our parliaments. And part of the reason is that the institutions which should be working on this imagination have largely vacated that space - political parties, universities, think tanks all for slightly different reasons. This has become part of a pathology of our time.

You have a very mixed background, working in government with Tony Blair, founding and running big think tanks like Demos and Nesta, teaching at university. What is your personal ambition in all of this?

I spent half of my career as an activist, from the grassroots upwards, starting at the age of 14. I used to organize marches and pickets and I remained involved in community organizing and social entrepreneurship trying to find solutions from the bottom up. And I have spent the other half of my life working from the top down, with governments around the world, the European Commission or UN now. To some extent, nearly all change has to involve some alliance of the top down and the bottom up, the powerless and the powerful. I sometimes call them the bees and the trees – the people with the ideas and the big institutions with power. And, uh, money.

Where do you get your energy and optimism from?

I get some optimism from having seen how often you can transform things completely. The great lesson I have learned or relearned, again and again, is that we overestimate how much can change short term. But equally, most people underestimate how much can change over one, two or three decades. There is nothing worse than an unrealistic fatalism because it undermines the energy, the capacity to do the practical changes – which of course won't solve climate change in 2022, but actually over 20, 30 years. We will completely transform our economy and society.

How much of your job is to try to design options for the future?

One of the institutions that you want to challenge and change is the university – for THE NEW INSTITUTE you wrote a fascinating paper on what you call “exploratory social sciences.” Can you explain your argument?

I mainly focus on social sciences, it is a very different story for engineering and the other sciences. But in the social sciences, the fundamental question for an academic is: how much of your job is to understand the present and the past, and how much of your job is to try to design options for the future? Now in the 19th century, in the early days of social science, it was assumed you did both. The London School of Economics for example was very much formed as a place for academics to work on designing future health systems, welfare states et cetera – not just to write books and analyze what had gone wrong. Over the last 50 or 60 years, academics have become quite fearful of designing the future. It is almost career threatening.

Why is that?

Some of this has to do with the rise of positivism and quantification, the in many ways quite welcome rise of attention to data, to empirical analysis, to looking at the facts. In many ways, this has been good. It has made for a much more rigorous understanding of the present and the past – but it squeezed out creativity and visions for an alternative future.

A scepticism vis-à-vis utopia or world-building?

There certainly was a disappointment with the grand ideological projects of the last century, which led a whole wave of intellectuals to move into critique rather than creative construction. It's a much safer place to be critiquing all that is wrong with capitalism rather than trying to propose alternatives to it. I believe there is a need to recover a bit of that older tradition of social science but align it to the best tools we have now, data and models and experiments – and learn methods from design and the arts and other fields, which do creativity as a matter of course.

Economics has been in many ways the leading social science of the last decades, and it has often pretended to be more than that, more like a hard science. What is your take on that?

Weirdly, economics has taken almost no methods from any other fields, including from business, in terms of its own creativity. There is a real intellectual narrow-mindedness, a lack of curiosity, lack of hunger at a time when creativity methods are so widely used in everything from film and design for products and services. My hope is that we will see university centers of exploratory social science, which try to be as good at rigor as they are at imagination. We have this paradoxical situation where the people with the deepest knowledge are not doing the creativity and vice versa – and hopefully THE NEW INSTITUTE can be part of changing that.

We need some really bold, radical thinking in this century

What is the politics in all of this? Traditionally, the left was aligned with the future, the right with preserving the status quo. This has shifted, in surprising ways, hasn’t it?

Traditionally, the conservative right was skeptical of any designs for the future because by definition what exists has been tried through history. For a time, that changed, left and right swapped places. A lot of conservatives became almost more utopian than the left. They pictured a future run by markets, supported by technologies, with a slightly crazed enthusiasm. In the last 20 years, they have returned back to a much more traditional conservative position, with nostalgic pictures of race and community and manufacturing-based economies.

And the left?

The left is still in a rather fearful state – a political fear of being exposed by having genuinely novel, genuinely challenging ideas. You are much more likely to make it as a public intellectual by reviving old ideas rather than coming up with new ones. Which is pretty disappointing. Because we need some really bold, radical thinking in this century if we are going to cope with climate change, with AI, with the threats to democracy. And our intellectuals are not serving us that well.

You explore a few tools and methods in your paper to get to that point where the new can happen: experimentation, complexity thinking, design. How can we unleash our societal imagination?

Extension is an example, you can use it for almost any phenomenon – like re-imagining your local library or childcare. Then you go through a series of transformations. What would happen if you extended one aspect of it radically, the way that we have extended ideas of rights to cover everything from animals to transgender. There is also inversion: What happens if the farmers become bankers or patients become doctors? Or grafting: You take an idea from a very different field and try and apply it to your library or your childcare.

What is the next step?

That is just the starting point. Then the deep knowledge comes in. You have to think about building your world, your designs, and see how plausible they are, what might be an evolutionary route for them. The challenge is to find a balance between the willingness to leap ahead and jump beyond what is realistic now to what might be possible in 20 years. And not to fall prey to what I call unrealistic realism.

What does that mean?

It is striking that many academic disciplines are very good at explaining why change won't happen. And when it does come, they have no way of explaining why it did happen because they hold on to their unrealistic realism. And at the same time avoiding fantasy, illusion, ideas which have absolutely no plausible prospect of ever happening. I would like to see in universities cross-disciplinary teams becoming good at creating these alternative worlds, interrogating them, seeing what their implications are, what their economic base might be, the legitimacy of them.

Imagination as practice.

Every society needs some sense of where it might be headed in the future in order to be healthy, just as we do as individuals. We need some shared pictures of where we could be headed 30, 50, 70 years into the future, pictures which aren't only ecological disasters or technological determinist triumphs. That's the missing space in our collective imaginaries which we really need to address. Because the downside is that all sorts of other dark forces may fill that space instead.

Geoff Mulgan is Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation at University College London (UCL) and a Senior Advisor at THE NEW INSTITUTE

(The interview was edited for length and clarity. You can watch the recording of the whole conversation here.)

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