Imagination Infrastructure — What Do We Mean?

Olivia Oldham
10 min readApr 30, 2021

Last year The National Lottery Community Fund launched Emerging Futures, recognising that alongside its crisis funding response it needed to resource communities to build the capacity to imagine beyond the present. As those 52 grants across the UK have been seeded they’ve recognised that for the work to grow the whole idea of community-led collective imagination needs an infrastructure that sees it invested in over the long term. How this infrastructuring is defined and resourced is an ongoing inquiry for the Fund, alongside a growing community of people designing and practicing collective imagination.

To support this enquiry, on June 10 from 13:00–19:00 BST, TNLCF will be hosting a public event on Imagination Infrastructuring aimed at anyone working in a community in the UK interested in discovering more about collective imagination and imagination infrastructuring, as well as those who work within funding, local and national government, and other upstream, systemic work. You can find more information about the event and register for a free ticket here. Confirmed speakers include Amahra Spence, Anab Jain, John Powell and Katerina Cizek with more to be announced shortly.

Here, I outline and deepen some of the references and ideas we’ve been working with as we develop this work.

Image: The Wychwood, Olivia Oldham

The imagination is defined by Yusoff & Gabrys (2011) as a way “of seeing, sensing, thinking, dreaming” that creates “the conditions for material interventions in, and political sensibilities of the world.” It is a “site of interplay between the material and the perceptual — a site for framing, contesting, bringing into being.” Imagination is thus a transformative practice, which has the capacity to cultivate and foster alternatives to social, political, cultural and economic conditions; it is a prerequisite for changing the world for the better.

Infrastructure, on the other hand has been defined by Brian Larkin as “material forms that allow for the possibility of exchange over space”. It entered the English language around 100 years ago from French, where it had been used since the mid-19th century as a railway engineering term — referring to the necessary underpinnings of the railroad network — tunnels, culverts, bridges. Over the years, it has gone through various reinventions — from a military term employed by NATO, to the more generic signification of massive capital investments in the basic necessities for societal functioning — roads, sewerage, the electricity grid, and so on.

Not everyone agrees, however, that infrastructure is necessarily material — intellectual, informational and institutional structures and operations can also be infrastructures, as can anything “upon which something else rides, or works”. It can even consist of people, who do the infrastructural work to move or exchange other things — as with the garbage labourers of Dakar, Senegal who are the focus of Rosalind Fredericks’ 2018 book Garbage Citizenship.

At first glance, imagination and infrastructure couldn’t be more different — the former implies a latitude of thought, a certain airiness and creativity, and the ability to reach beyond the bounds of the physical and spatial realities of the world; the latter, on the other hand, implies solidity, functionality, and the banality that often comes with those necessary matters of everyday life often remain unseen, unnoticed, unthought of. Indeed, there are those who question the suitability of the term infrastructure at all when dealing with complexity, entanglement and interdependence, given its etymological implications of verticality or subsidiarity.

When combined, though, the amalgam ‘imagination infrastructure’ evokes more than the sum of its two parts. Three possible meanings arise when we bring together these two very different words. First, an infrastructure which supports the use and development of the skill and faculty of imagination; second, a process or methodology involving the use of imaginative faculties to design new infrastructure; and third, a description of the way certain forms of sociotechnical imaginaries are embodied in physical infrastructures.

These three meanings are entangled with each other — not mutually exclusive, but complementary, even co-constitutive. In The National Lottery Community Fund’s work with our partners on this notion of imagination infrastructure, we try to hold onto all three of these meanings as we explore what its implications might be for our work and the work of the communities we fund. How can we build up an infrastructure, both physical and metaphysical, tangible and intangible, to enable the development, the practices and use of collective imagination? We’re particularly interested in how the collective works here — what it means for us to imagine together, how the grouping of intelligence progresses our ability to envisage and build different futures.

This infrastructure will be more than a set of foundations or a scaffold. It will look, in fact, more like a playground: which exists, not subordinate to or below some other, more important work, but as a structure in its own right, one which supports, co-creates, and constantly re-produces play, creativity, imagination. Not something which can be taken away once the work is done, but which is itself the work — continually revisited, made new, repurposed, infrastructured (more on this below), to be used by communities, leaders and networks to collectively imagine better futures.

Old and new infrastructures of the imagination

Imagination is at the heart of world-building. Sometimes conceptualised as narrative or paradigm, we live in a world fundamentally structured by the social imagination. Existing imaginaries become part of the “unspoken, taken-for-granted equipment “ of the world, the mythologies and infrastructures around which we construct our societies. While these forms of imagination can be useful, they can also become ‘sticky’, trapping us in outdated ways of seeing and imagining the world, our place in it, and its future trajectories. Certain sociotechnical imaginaries have a hold on our collective imagination. Certain forms of biotechnology, for instance, or ways of structuring and relating to capital and labour, dominate our imaginary space such that we are unable to conceive of alternatives that go beyond their strict and very material bounds (see Bear, 2020)

Sometimes, old imaginaries are bound up in the physical infrastructure of the world. Infrastructure, though typically imagined as mundane and inert, is anything but mere ‘stuff’ — it is political, performative, relational and co-constitutive. Though in theory designed to ‘take care’ of us, infrastructure and the imaginaries it invokes and enacts can just as easily do violence: it can encode traditional heterosexual relationships, or the male body, or White skin colour, or nuclear, blood-related family structures as the default, and can provide profoundly unequal opportunities for fulfilling basic bodily needs (see Desai et al, 2015; Star, 1999). Imagination and infrastructure co-constitute each other, producing emergent futures which respond to and challenge existing forms of power in a constant state of flux.

How, then, can we create new spaces for those who need to imagine outside the existing box? What new constellations might be necessary to light the way for the co-creation of alternatives?

In part, this might involve using imagination as a method to enable citizens to engage with infrastructure in new ways. By building an infrastructure of theory and practice which focuses on the possible rather than the pragmatic or the feasible, more non-experts can be engaged in the process — or rather, different kinds of experts. (This is something we will be thinking about during our Imagination Infrastructuring event on June 10.)

For instance, the Sankofa City project involved members of a Los Angeles community threatened by gentrification to design technological interventions for their built environment. What they imagined produced alternatives to the dominant set of ‘Silicon Valley’ imaginaries which served their needs, and highlighted their own sense of what and who were important.

Interlude: The Temporality of Imagination Infrastructures

By thinking about imagination infrastructure as a method, a process, rather than a finished product, we are led to consider its temporality. Often, in the collective imagination, infrastructure is envisaged as a permanent fixture, characterised more than anything by inertia and intransigence. But what purpose does permanence serve, when we are reaching forward into an unknown future — when we don’t yet know what it might be that is wanted, needed?

Given the inherent emergence of futures — both imaginary and realised — imagination infrastructures need to be understood as verbs, not nouns, actions, not things — processes of creation in a constant process of becoming.

One way of thinking about this is the idea of ‘infrastructuring’, a term which points toward the messy, open-ended nature of producing infrastructure. ‘To infrastructure’ is to create “socio-technical resources that intentionally enable[s] adoption and appropriation beyond the initial scope of the design.” It involves thinking about the embeddedness of infrastructure in a socio-technical context, and the ontological implications of this: “[T]he act of infrastructuring changes what it is to be a road…or an ecology. Infrastructures… stand between people and technology and nature and in doing so reconfigure each simultaneously” in a process of “perpetual refiguring”. Infrastructure as playground, not scaffold.

Another, related way of thinking about the temporality of imagination infrastructure is to consider the idea of transitionary infrastructures. Transitionary infrastructures encourage us to consider the place of the temporary, and all the logistical questions that come with that — maintenance, repair, renewal, decommissioning, replacement. Not only that, but they also raise the question of whether it is at all realistic to talk about permanent infrastructure — what would permanence look like if we acknowledged the ultimate impermanence of everything? How can we build an acceptance of and resilience to the uncertainty of impermanence into our permanent imagination infrastructures?

Imagination infrastructures for liberation & justice

Imagination and infrastructures are both inflected with power, and can be tools to produce and reproduce forms and structures of power. As architects and designers of the infrastructure of imagination, it is imperative that we ensure this work is equalising and distributive by design.

The way the future is imagined is inherently selective, because the future is inherently unknowable. Anything could happen, so the things we choose to imagine must necessarily be a subset of what is possible. Given this fact, it is important to carefully consider who gets to be involved in the act of imagination, and which ontological and epistemological vantage points are permitted and emphasised in the process. How should the unofficial imaginations of everyday people, of marginalised people, be legitimised and given value through imagination infrastructure? How can imagination infrastructure lift up, for instance, the Black Imagination (something we will discuss and consider at our event on June 10)?

This raises questions about different forms of knowledge. Even something as creative as imagination can be held back by the tight reins of rationality and the intellect. An imagination infrastructure that seeks liberatory ends must actively bring together the head and the heart, the mind and the body, by valuing embodied knowledge and experiences equally alongside their rational, intellectual counterparts.

Furthermore, it is important to consider who the users of imagination infrastructure are envisaged to be — policymakers and academics? Or ordinary citizens, leaders with lived experience? Not only that, but who controls the means of imagination? Is the power to define and delimit imagination centralised or distributed?

When opened out to the widest possible audiences, imagination infrastructure can empower imaginative actors to see themselves as agents of civic change, and encourage feelings of solidarity through the ability to imagine experiences different to one’s own. The power and importance of the collective to imagination infrastructure is something that will be explored at our event. In this way, it can be a means to bring together groups of people who are very different, and perhaps even at odds, to find a common path forward.

Imagination and uncertainty

Imagination, and the infrastructures thereof, enables us to acknowledge the inevitability or ‘naturalness’ of uncertainty. Imagination is by nature speculative and unfixed, making it well suited to dealing with the unknowable future. In particular, imagination is often better-suited to dealing with questions of the future than other, more concrete and deterministic approaches, such as forecasting and prediction, as it enables explorations to be more open-ended, allowing for questions to be left open, rather than mandating answers. In this way, imagination infrastructure can inject a much-needed dose of humility into policy-making and collective action, a reminder of “both the limits of scientific knowledge and about when to stop turning to science to solve problems.”

Nonetheless, while encouraging an embrace of uncertainty to a certain degree, it is equally important to foster an understanding that the ability to thrive under conditions of uncertainty is a capacity which is unevenly distributed amongst different groups. As with physical infrastructure, imagination infrastructure can just as easily lead to oppression and injustice as it can to liberation for all.

For example, the use of the imaginative faculties can be a painful, even traumatic experience. Envisaging what it might be to live otherwise requires us to confront how we live now, which can be painful — for some more than others. How, then, do we build infrastructure that enables people to experience that pain in ways that are creative, rather than destructive — that help them to remain calm in the face of that pain, and to use it to imagine a path forward?

By including the distribution of the power to imagine into the process and art of infrastructuring, imagination infrastructures can maximise their transformative potential and their ability to reach and empower the broadest possible cross-sections of society.

Where to from here?

Imagination infrastructures, and all the questions, implications, provocations and possibilities they raise, are something we are only just beginning to explore. As we attempt to emerge from a year dominated by Covid-19, we are looking for ways to do better than just recovery — we want to imagine new futures, and to build the infrastructures that make that imagination possible.

Imagination infrastructuring won’t emerge spontaneously. Like all other forms of infrastructure and infrastructuring, it will need thought, support, and, crucially, resourcing. Funders are in a unique position both to provide material resources for the imagination infrastructuring and to weave networks and build fields around and between these emerging infrastructures.

To support this enquiry, on June 10 from 13:00–19:00 BST, we will be hosting a public event on Imagination Infrastructuring aimed at anyone working in a community in the UK interested in discovering more about collective imagination and imagination infrastructuring, as well as those who work within funding, local and national government, and other upstream, systemic work. You can find more information about the event and register for a free ticket here. Confirmed speakers include Amahra Spence, Anab Jain, John Powell and Katerina Cizek with more to be announced shortly.

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Olivia Oldham

Writer, Grower, Eater. PhD researcher at the University of Edinburgh interested in land, food, community.