Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Grace Turtle: “Everywhere I look, there is this mass realisation that we need to re-engage our imagination” 

Just before the summer, I attended the Transition Design Symposium at Dartington, a fascinating two-day event.  I was the mid-dinner speaker, and found myself sat next to Grace Turtle who says, when asked to describe herself says “I’m a design strategist, or sometimes an experience designer, depending on what I’m doing. Sometimes a design futurist”.  We had such a fascinating conversation about imagination, that a couple of weeks later we followed up with an interview by Skype. Sadly the quality of the recording was so poor that I only have a transcript to share here, but it was a deeply insightful conversation.

For most of her career, Grace has acted as a consultant, working on strategic design and foresight and experience design.  She has been very involved in the Maker movement in Australia, co-founding the first Makerspace in Sydney.  For the last 4 years she has worked as a consultant within Deloitte, the global consulting firm.  She is currently being what she calls a ‘nomad’, working in Colombia with very small communities, communities farming a fruit called guanabana.  She has been working with the University of Ibague and a partnering organisation with this particular community to essentially understand their system within which they exist and figure out how to create an identity for the guanabana, and for their community, so that they can increase, if you like, their economic, social and general well-being.

“It’s been really interesting to work with the community because there’s so much complexity that exists between the men, the children, the women, the distributors, the middle-men, around the transport of the fruit itself” she told me.  I started our conversation by asking her “how can play help us to reimagine the future, or to bring the future into the present?”

“For some context, I’ve run so many workshops there is no way I could ever count how many workshops I’ve run.  With every kind of organisation, bottom-up, top-down, what I’ve found in working with banks or with government or with local community is that it is very, very hard for anyone to connect with their embedded knowledge, or their intrinsic values and desires.

When you’re working typically with an organisation with individuals working to strict KPIs, will and motivation to do things differently will often succumb to the world of short-term extrinsic value and quick wins if you like.  What I’ve always seen, and what I try to do in my work, is embed play into any form of thinking or creation because it connects you to your intrinsic values.  It connects you to this deeply emotional place where you can actually think of things that you didn’t know you could think of.

And when I talk about play, it can be any form of play.  It can be play with your body, which I’ve been exploring more in my recent work; how to use theatre to connect people to this place within them that they find it hard to connect with.  But very much like Lego – playing with Lego is an obvious example that gets used within design contexts –  but just creating things, without having a set objective is a really interesting way to look at futures.  Because our futures are very much constructs of things that have already been pre-determined by the present.  So in an effort to untangle and reimagine the past, present and futures, we play.

You wrote “play is powerful.  I use it to create a safe space to engage the imagination of actors and spectators through individual or social participation”.  Why is play so powerful?  What is it we connect to?  What is it that it enables us to do that we can’t otherwise do?

It connects us to a place within ourselves and with others that if you were simply talking to someone they wouldn’t be able to connect with that place.  For example, I ran a workshop yesterday in this community with guanabana farmers.  One of the issues within this community – or it’s not really an issue, it’s more just the way that they live – where the women, they don’t really do anything.  They stay at home, they look after the kids, and they cook.  This is very typical.

In regional communities in Colombia it is a very patriarchal.  The men have the last say with everything.  And these particular women in this community are very disenfranchised.  They don’t feel like they have a voice.  They don’t feel like they have the right to even think about possibilities within the future, within a future frame.  In this workshop I ran yesterday, one of the first exercises that they did was first of all connect within themselves in an imagined space, followed by an exercise that comes from the warm-up activity from the Theatre of the Oppressed, where essentially there’s a leader, and there is a follower, and the leader hypnotises the follower.

One of the people has to hypnotise the follower with their hands, and they have to move them around with their hands.  Very simple exercise.  But they were doing it with two people.  There was one person who had to control two people with their hands.  There was this beautiful moment, because for the most part they’re all women, and they were very afraid to control someone, because they had been disempowered so much in their lives. It took a lot of effort to get them to put their hand up in front of someone to control them.  You could see how afraid they were to do this.

But when they started doing it, there was an older woman who was really hesitant to come to the workshop to begin with… I’ve never seen someone laugh so much in a workshop.  Everyone was laughing.  So, this woman, she was immediately empowered, by doing this activity.  There was this other older woman, about 75 years old, she lives on her property.  Her husband disappeared.  She has to take control of the farm but, you know, she lives alone.  Her kids don’t visit her.  She is one of the eldest women in this community.

The president, who is a male, of the Association in this community that’s farming the guanabana was in the workshop as well with one of this colleagues.  They were they only two men in the workshop.  This older woman, we made her control these two men, and it was fascinating because she was so frightened.  Yet you could see her light up when she put her hands out in front of these two men and it was a beautiful thing to see her so engaged and feel so empowered, but also on the other side, these men releasing some of their control to this woman.  And the exchange, the energy, in that space at that moment, even though it was this exercise that was purely designed to connect them and to show that they exist within this complex relational system where there are power dynamics, it did something to them that is able to very simply shift perspective, to challenge their existing mental models around who has the power within the community.

Immediately after this exercise they were able to engage with each other and the process in a more organic, honest and emotive way. If they hadn’t done that exercise they would haven’t have been able to do that.  I think that is the power of play.  It is coming from this place where there is no possible way that if you were using your extrinsic understanding of the world, and surface knowledge, you wouldn’t be able to engage with that place.

How would you evaluate or assess the state of health of our collective ability to play and of our collective imagination in 2018?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently.  Particularly in the space that I am in right now, which is in a little tiny suburb. This area historically has had a lot of violence, there are some neighbourhoods where you can’t enter, and you can feel the ramifications of conflict and a state in crisis. It has a different feeling to other places that I know in Colombia.

The streets are all destroyed, and no-one really seems to have a problem with it, but what I’ve seen while I’ve been here, living next to a small gravel soccer field, and a cemented basketball court, and where kids treat the street as their living room, I’ve never seen so much activity – collective activity, collective play – in any other place.  And just experiencing the city itself, that isn’t just local to where I am.  I can see it everywhere.  I haven’t experienced that in Australia.

I haven’t experienced that in other places within Colombia.  It’s really interesting because it feels like even though there are so many issues happening simultaneously that it’s hard to comprehend or make sense of that I feel that the community that exists around me is a collective, and they are collectively playing constantly.  I haven’t seen that elsewhere.

It’s quite rare …

Exactly.  It is evident to me here in Colombia that communities come together to play in spite of conflict. This is the birthplace of Gabriel García Márquez and Carnaval de Barranquilla, collective imagination has deep-rooted cultural value here, in my opinion. I haven’t thought enough about it to make proper sense of it, but theatre also has cultural significance in Colombia.  A few of the biggest theatre festivals in the world are here, and I think a past Mayor of Bogotá, Antanas Mockus, created incredible collective change using performative play.

He really inspired me to continue to explore the power of play in my work.  So one example, people here don’t really follow the road rules.  They don’t follow rules.  In Australia, I can imagine the UK as well, a little bit yes, United States as well, in those cultural contexts they very much play by the rules and everything is systemized.  Here it is less so, and it is as much as people don’t abide by road rules, it’s a cultural thing as well that there are rules and that it is acceptable to break the rules, and that’s just how people are.  But one example, where people weren’t respecting the road rules, Antanas Mockus decided to employ mimes, of which there are many in Bogotá, to re-educate people how to use the roads.

What he did was he had all the mimes in the city, of which there are many, and he got them to stand at street lights throughout the city, and using action, using play, using theatre, they would guide people crossing the road.  They would stop traffic.  They would humiliate drivers that would continue to go through red lights or not respect pedestrian traffic.  He also gave people these big red thumbs, and green thumbs, like you see at a soccer match.  So that when someone did something wrong, you could put your big red thumb out and humiliate them.  Then when someone did something right you could put up your green thumb it was like, “Yes, we’re celebrating you”.

Through this act of play he even made himself a superhero outfit.  To kind of say we’re doing this thing.  He changed the way people treated roads, and all of a sudden the city changed.  He was able to change the city through play.

You wrote that “play is a political instrument”.  Discuss.

I think that is an example, Antanas Mockus and his outfit.  I was fascinated to see at the recent – well, I think it’s still going –  at the Victoria & Albert Museum, his outfit is displayed in the Futures exhibition.  He uses play as a political instrument.  Again, we’re in a context we’re dealing with significant environmental and social crises, political crises.  Conflict, corruption, all of this stuff.  Particularly thinking about the complex history in Colombia and where they are right now.  It is extremely difficult to make sense of that.

No matter how much you analyse a living system, a political system, a social system, it is going to do its own thing.  No matter how much you analyse it, unless you intervene in a playful way, like by putting mimes on roads as an intervention, you’re only going to perpetuate the present, because you’re only using this frame of mind, and the mental models that exist within you today and the past.

Coming back to political instruments, we understand the present, we don’t understand the future.  We don’t necessarily need to understand the future, but we need to understand difference if we are to move toward something that is, for example, post-capitalist.  And we know for example within this context that people are dissatisfied with capitalism, but socialism and communism probably aren’t right either.  We need something else, playful concepts like ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’ present interesting imaginaries. But I think basing our knowledge or our imagination solely off what we understand today isn’t going to bring us to something, isn’t going to take us somewhere we need to be.

If we’re making political decisions around how we want to exist in the world, then we need to think about the impossible.  And to think about the impossible we need to connect to this place that does not exist within your current state of mind.  This is why play should be a political – to open us up to unknowability.

If you had been elected, and you can choose whether you’re the President of Colombia, or Prime minister of Australia, if you had been elected into either of those roles and you had run on a platform of ‘Make Colombia imaginative again’, so you had felt that it was a time in history when there was a real need to put imagination back into the heart of education, and politics and policy making, and planning, and etcetera, etcetera, what might you do in your first 100 days in office?

I’ve been thinking about both.  I’ve been thinking about Australia and Colombia.  I’m going to start with Australia because it’s interesting.  Being in Colombia has made me think about the Australian political and social landscape.  I think we’ve talked about this, with Arturo Escobar’s work, and his movement that is big in Colombia right now around autonomous design and the Zapatista movement around “un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos”.  This is really powerful, and thinking of indigenous futures, and the frame of mind that indigenous people see the world, I think is really important.

Even though the indigenous communities here are extremely repressed, there are some that are thriving, connected and celebrated by everyone, and it’s a beautiful thing because they are extremely intelligent people.  In Australia on the other hand that does not exist and I think the oppression that exists in Australia with the indigenous communities is far worse than what exists in Colombia.  What exists in Colombia is violence and its transparent violence.  What exists in Australia is pure oppression.  An invisible oppression which I think is far worse than what is happening here in Colombia.

In the context of Australia where there is little being done to celebrate our indigenous heritage, and future indigenous imaginaries. I would, first of all, change the curriculum in school to tell the real history of Australia.  Indigenous history, and indigenous ways of looking at the world.  Because a frame of mind, the colonialist view, in Australia around our indigenous people is very, very shallow.  It is very dictated by essentially what you see on the news, what you read in notifications and what you’re taught in school.  And what you’re taught in school is a colonialist view of Australia.

It’s not an indigenous view of Australia.  And indigenous Australians are some of the best storytellers in the world, and their stories of the Dreamtime.  It is like this form of spirituality, this form of connection to each other, and to the land, that could 100% be the basis of what we’re taught in school.  I think if kids were taught indigenous history and the connection to land through Dreamtime, that would change the entire narrative of Australia.  That is the first thing I would do.

I would also take away standardised education and testing because that destroys creativity. I would adopt a context-based type of education that extends on Friedrich Froebel, concept of the kindergarten.  He is a German guy that essentially inspired Lego bricks, an extension of his original wooden blocks ‘Forebel gifts.’ Buckminster Fuller was also inspired by this guy, who was all about creating environments for experiential learning, and free play, free learning.

That gets beaten out of us as soon as we get to school where you are taught to be in a box within the labour market.  In line with this debate around what is our role – artificial intelligence, for example, starts to compete with our role in the world in terms of labour – we need to stop thinking about ourselves as a form of labour because we’re not machines, we’re human beings.

Therefore we need to stop teaching kids to be machines.  So in Australia, definitely, I think if imagination was central to the political system and our education system we would see some interesting societal changes. So let’s stop streamlining and standardising everything, let’s celebrate our indigenous history to create futures that stem from the Dreamtime.  I just think this is a missed opportunity for a country.

In terms of Colombia, coming back to the Theatre of the Oppressed, there is so much oppression that exists here.  But at the same time, like I said, I’ve never seen so many kids play on the street together.  They’re still singing in their school.  That type of learning is about expression.  I think that one of the reasons I want to be in Colombia besides the fact that I have a personal connection to Colombia being half Colombian is that the frame of mind of a Colombian is something that should be celebrated, as well, because they come from a place which is this balance of disaster and magic.

Similarly to how Antanas Mockus was able to create massive change through theatre, I think that this country could do a lot to re-imagine its future that isn’t embedded into this very complex history from colonialism to what is happening more recently.  The only way to overcome that complexity is to embed imagination into everything that you do, I think taking a very localised view of that imagination, again because Colombia’s territories are very different.

The culture within each territory, the complexity, the crises that exist within each of those territories, is very unique.  So you have to look at that imagination at that level.  And coming back to the idea of the Maker movement, and distributed and democratised knowledge, you have to distribute and democratise futures.  Because we can’t just have one Hollywood-esque view.  I think what was really beautiful that came out of this workshop yesterday with this group of women is that they were able to see a glimpse of their future that they wanted to create.  That they’ve created through theatre and play.  I want them to continue to do that.

I think empowering people in the local context to think about… You know, we don’t need to have this big techno-led future but we do need to be critical and thoughtful about the futures that we create.  We do need to think about the situated futures we want to create so that we actually have some kind of guide for transition.  And so, yes, I think whether I’m the President, or not, of Colombia, I am very much driven to localise these imagined futures, and to circulate new narratives of what those futures might be, because I think that is an important instrument for the transition of Colombia from its present context to a re-imagined context.

You wrote that “humans ability to imagine alternative futures have been and continue to be kept at bay”.  How does that happen, and what are the factors that are squishing our ability to imagine alternative futures into little boxes?

Yeah, so this is exactly what I’m talking about.  Again it comes back to context.  Working in consulting, with mostly large structural organisations, operations or the people that move the world, there is a thing that happens.  When you’re working with corporate market driven industries, you forecast futures and you say, “This type of technology is going to impact your customers, citizens, workforce or market in this way, and these are the actions you need to take to prepare yourself for this future. These are the trends that we’re seeing in the marketplace, and here are some ways for you to respond.”  Most of our decisions are based on responses to visible or forecasted signals and trends based on a knowable past or present – it’s low risk.  “This is how people want to experience things”.  Quickly shift it to that way.” What happens in a market-driven context is you’re accelerating the future by responding to this superficial trends.  These are the futures that have been served to us that we have to overcome.

Everyone is looking at trends and saying, “Okay, so I’m going to build a strategy, product, service or regulatory environment off the back of these trends and I’m going to respond, and I’m going to design for that.”  It’s very false, short-sighted futuring.  But it is what is creating the world because that is essentially the way all the decisions are being made within a corporate market driven landscape.  But then it comes down to a consumer level and all of a sudden you’re behaving in this particular way and you’re responding to this future that’s been served to you.

So that is very top-down, dictated, pre-determined futuring.  On the flip side, the disenfranchised – so for example these women in this local community that don’t really have mobile phones or computers, all they are thinking about is putting food on the plate for their children and their husband when they come back from work – they aren’t thinking about the future at all.  They don’t exist within that market driven context.

They feel that they have no power to think about it.  They’re being fed the future just as much as anyone else.  It’s just a different kind of future.  So in every regard, in every context, whether you are empowered or disempowered, I think we need to create these narratives where you can actually think about other ways of being in the world.  Because right now, it’s very much being served to us.

So when we met at Dartington and I gave that little thing before the food, so you got a bit of a sense of where I’m coming from with this, I wondered just if there was anything that you thought about imagination and about this sort of reflection about imagination that I haven’t asked you the right question to elicit your thoughts on?

Good question.  I’ve thought a lot about what you said about “outsourcing imagination”.  I guess in this corporate market driven narrative that is very much what’s been happening, because people are outsourcing their imagination to people like myself to vision the future, so that they can make decisions that work.  And some people in my position are taking advantage of that position. If people and organisations are outsourcing their imagination to people like me, it is our responsibility to help them utilise their own imagination in the right way.

On the other side, beyond this market-driven context I remember you talking about toys and toys being used to outsource imagination.  Coming back to where I am in this context where kids aren’t playing with phones, I think that there is a real risk for communities that exist within technology-centric narratives that we are very quickly moving towards a place that is very dull, a place we don’t necessarily want to be in.  Because, yes, I agree that society and technology are accelerating the de-imagination of our children – our future, it’s scary when we start messing with the cerebral development of future humans.

But it is really interesting when you look outside of that context, where the narrative isn’t techno-centric and where kids are playing more.  They are 100% flexing that muscle that is the imagination, and it’s just how can that be…  There is an opportunity for how you guide that imagination into the right direction within the context where people play.  In the context where people don’t play, I think it’s a much harder question.  To overcome the addiction to technology in kids and adults in the Western context is a very pressing issue.  But it could be just because of my context and how I’m very close to thinking about imagination and play on a daily basis.  But what I’ve seen is that there is this call for imagination.  You’re obviously looking into it.  But everywhere I look, I feel that there is this mass realisation that we’re going to go nowhere if we can’t start thinking in different ways, and to start thinking in different ways we need to re-engage our imagination.

I really like that someone said something in Arturo Escobar’s Designs for the Pluriverse around that the imagination is a muscle and it needs to be exercised.  So how do we exercise the imagination?  We very much need to stop outsourcing our imagination to be able to exercise our imagination, and I’m really interested in how we do that, and I think theatre is one example of how to flex that muscle.



  1. Tony Buck
    September 5, 2018

    Great discussion and thanks for the lead to ‘Designs for the Pluriverse’ which I just ordered from DukePress books

  2. Nick
    September 12, 2018

    Very interesting discussion but found this comment very untrue:
    “Even though the indigenous communities here are extremely repressed, there are some that are thriving, connected and celebrated by everyone, and it’s a beautiful thing because they are extremely intelligent people. In Australia on the other hand that does not exist”. They certainly do exist and are very inspiring, perhaps she needs to do a bit more travel. That kind of comment continues the solely negative narrative of how we talk about current aboriginal culture, society & communities.

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