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The Intersection of Imagination, the Arts and Science: The Future Begins in the Mind – Part 2

by Manjana Milkoreit, Walton Postdoctoral Fellow

There is a wild, free, unconstrained element in imagination – it is the world of the possible, the never-before-thought-of stuff. But when it comes to climate change, there is also a necessary element – the insights and knowledge gained from climate science. Scientific knowledge is the best tool we have to grapple with the question of how the future is likely going to unfold. Imagination is our mental link to different climate futures, and we need to leverage this skill to steer our families, communities and societies into a future we want.

Beginning this fall, Arizona State University, through a partnership between the Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives, the Center for Science and the Imagination, and the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, is launching the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative (ICF) to explore how imagination (and the lack thereof) shapes humanity’s response to climate change, and how our imaginative skills can be harnessed to create solutions to climate-related challenges.

Climate fiction, or CliFi, offers ICF an initial focal point to explore the intersection between imagination, the arts and science. As I mention in my previous piece, many bold claims have already been made about the power of Clifi to reshape society’s responses to climate change, but we really do not know whether reading a novel can change what you believe, how you behave or how you vote.

Understanding the potential power of Clifi and other forms of cultural engagement with climate change is at the heart of the ICF Initiative. The key questions that motivate the ICF research program include:

  • What is the nature of imagination, i.e., how do cognitive, social, and political processes interact to create, enable or constrain imagination?
  • How does science inform the imagination about climate futures? When and why does it fail to do so?
  • Can art help us imagine better? What does ‘better imagination’ mean?
  • Does climate art have to be scientifically valid to be a useful aid for our imagination and decision-making concerning possible climate futures?
  • What is the relationship between climate fiction, the imagination of climate futures and political decisions and behavior?

ICF zooms in on a crucial skill for socially beneficial, future-oriented decision-making in the Anthropocene: imagination. Imagination is not yet very well understood, and existing research is scattered across multiple disciplines ranging from philosophy to education, literature to cognitive science.

IFC will work to integrate this existing knowledge and develop a more comprehensive understanding of imagination as a cognitive-social phenomenon that connects individuals and groups in the present to the future. More importantly, this research can help us become better at using our imaginative abilities to address the world’s mounting sustainability challenges. Since all solutions begin as ideas in somebody’s mind, understanding imagination will vastly increase our potential to create, innovate, engineer and design sustainability solutions.

Researching the links between science, imagination and decision-making, the ICF initiative is engaged in three rather unusual efforts:

  1. Advancing a cognitive-affective approach in the social sciences – asking what is happening in the human mind – we push some current conceptual boundaries beyond notions of rationalism, behavioralism and even constructivism to discover the mental (cognitive and emotional) patterns behind actions and decisions.
  2. Rather than connecting two elements – art and science or science and decision-making – we link all three, tracing dynamics from scientific knowledge through culture and imagination all the way to political choice and contestation.
  3. These goals require a truly transdisciplinary approach with strong relationships between the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences. When (natural) science becomes the subject of art, and art becomes the subject of (social) science, we begin to truly integrate these knowledge domains rather than just collaborate with each other. And we do this not only within the academy, but also involve writers, artists, filmmakers, and decision-makers, who inform our work, help us to experiment and eventually apply our findings.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, we focus our research efforts firmly on the future and the importance of making representations of the future part of decisions in the present. How do people think about the future? How is thinking about the future enabled or constrained? How can it be broadened or expanded? How does and should science inform our imaginations of the future? What tools can help us imagine and build imaginative capacity? How can imaginations become decisions, actions and institutions – a new reality? And how can thinking about the future be studied?

ICF does not only conduct research. We also integrate themes of imagination, science, climate futures and culture into our teaching, and we actively reach out to engage the public in our conversations through events and social media.

This is a fundamentally optimistic and creative effort. While our primary goal is to study and understand the imagination and its role in creating the future, ultimately we hope to help individuals, communities and organizations to imagine, create and design a future that is worth living, maximally using all the scientific knowledge available.

The future begins in the mind.

Manjana Milkoreit

Manjana Milkoreit is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives, researching the role the mind has on addressing climate change and sustainability challenges. She recently helped establish the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative, an Arizona State University partnership that harnesses the power of our collective imagination and bridges the gap between the hard and soft sciences to invent and deliver solutions for a sustainable future. Milkoreit is also an active member of the Resilience Alliance, Beijer Young Scholars and the Waterloo Institute for Complexity and Innovation.

Missed Part One? Read it now.