Imagination – Yearly Theme For 2021
Deciding on a yearly theme has been different this time. It feels more urgent than ever. Here’s why I’m choosing Imagination as my yearly theme for 2021.
I’m usually skiing in Japan this time of year. Deciding on my yearly theme is something I routinely do on the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagano or, like last year, on the mountains themselves.
But I’m not writing these words from the mountains. My cabin in the Japanese Alps is cold and dark. And I’m still in London, living in isolation, like I have since March 8, when the world’s borders closed and my universe got smaller.
Thinking about 2020, words and phrases come to mind I never want to hear again. “Unprecedented” is one. “Common sense” another.
For a yearly theme for 2021 I need a word that sums up what was missing in 2020 (see the article on how to choose a yearly theme for more on this). If one word could sum up 2020, it might be “compliance”. Compliance was the difference between countries that dealt well with the pandemic well and ones that didn’t. Establishing rules and policies means nothing if people don’t comply.
However, I’d already spent 10 months complying. Not just to UK standards, which are as fickle as Britain’s famously changeable weather, but to the best global standards. Compliance is already automatic.
It’s also tempting to focus too quickly on the end of the pandemic. But we’re not there yet. While next Christmas might be a lot better than this Christmas, summer 2021 will be more like summer 2020, than summer 2019.
We should remember something we learnt in 2020, if you don’t know how long the journey will be, then assume it will go on forever.
The Failure Of Imagination
I need a word that can do double duty. Something for a year that will begin in lockdown and with rates of death and new infections as high as at any time during the pandemic. A year that will add many weeks to the 42 I’ve already spent in isolation. Where the prospect of widespread vaccinations offers hope as long as people comply with the programme. And a year replete with economic insecurity, as countries struggle to cope with the consequences of the pandemic, and people try to find work, or rebuild their business.
I need a word for the best of times and the worst of times.
Or more specifically, the failure of imagination. So many people, especially people in positions of power, failed to imagine how bad the pandemic might be, how quickly it could spread, how it might be transmitted, how crippling and deadly it could be, or how drastic the measures needed might be. We saw the failure of imagination every time someone said it was “just the flu” or prognosticated a date when it would soon be over, like by the summer, then Christmas or perhaps, next spring.
If only we’d had more imagination, we could’ve handled 2020 better. So, surely, we’ll need plenty of imagination in 2021 as well.
The Work Of Imagination
The words we choose as yearly themes should do work for us. Simple helped me simplify my life and Conviction helped me believe in myself more. Momentum kept me going when a year that was supposed to be full of adventure and travel turned into a year when the greatest challenge was not to get stuck. So, what is the work of Imagination?
Imagination is obviously connected to creativity. But it’s not a connection I’ve written about or explored in depth. I’ve mostly been interested in exploring the practices and processes of creativity. I want to explore the role of imagination in creativity, the way we engage our imagination when encountering art, how imagination encourages playfulness, and the way we use imagination to generate new ideas.
“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”
Imagination also defines the character of our cognitive architecture. Imagination is at work when we use our beliefs, experience, and knowledge to make sense of the world. This is especially the case for decision-making, moral reasoning and scientific discovery. Imagination is at work whenever we need to move from the abstract to the particular and practical.
Even our sense of humour depends on our imagination.
Imagination makes hope possible. In 2020, my natural optimism took a beating. It was hard to hold onto faith in humanity. Imagination is central to faith – faith in change, faith in progress, faith in a better world. When we set a goal, or start a project, we imagine a successful result, and that imagined outcome gives us the hope to keep going.
Imagination isn’t some fluffy nicety. Without imagination, science isn’t possible. Imagination is central to any attempt at public policy or personal self-improvement. Imagination drives change and fuels hope.
We Need Imagination Now More Than Ever
The year 2020 ended with a burst of excitement about vaccines that could end this pandemic. Today, I put my details into a website that predicts when you might get a vaccine, based on your age and other factors. It suggested I’d have to wait until early 2022.
It’s hard to imagine another year of limitations and restrictions will be like. But we have no alternative. We have to be brave enough to imagine a new normal because the old normal left us dangerously vulnerable to everything that went wrong in 2020.
For this we need imagination to be a torch to light the way in 2021.
“Normal was great for some people. It was terrible for a ton of other people. And we can do better…
…it is a moment in time that demands the full force of our imagination. We fail the challenge if all we do is go is back to like some earlier safe point.”
– Ed Yong