The power of imagination

- Let us use the power that, more than anything else, makes us human, the power of imagination.

Thus sounded the call by Elsebeth Gerner Nielsen, Rector of Design School Kolding, from the pulpit of Sdr. Stenderup Church where she recently spoke about the importance of design in making the world more meaningful.

Read Elsebeth’s sermon here:
Today’s reading is from the Prophet Isaiah who writes: In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths. ’For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the Lord. Isa 2,2-5.

Annual military spending by all countries in the world amounts to 1800 billion dollars (98000 billion kroner). That amount could ensure schooling for the 58 million children who currently do not attend school, or feed the 870 million people, who go to bed hungry every night. We could save the world from misery. The millions of refugees wandering around the world and are unwanted everywhere could live peacefully in their own countries with their families.

Hence it is a really uplifting scenario that Isaiah is painting in today’s reading: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the Lord!” Close your eyes and imagine the world Isaiah is conjuring up.

Imagine – as John Lennon sings, a world where the politicians need not spend time deciding what lobbyists to listen to when it comes to the purchase of new airplanes for the military; or where the political parties need not fight over who can chase the most refugees from this country where, incidentally, few have too much and fewer too little.

The hymn writer Jens Rosendahl also imagined another world… indeed he had seen it. In hymn 28 he writes: In the deep of my heart I have seen the land of transfiguration where every image was perfect, and happiness eternal and true, but only as a glimpse like a flash of light that swept over water and fields. In a glance my land lay transfigured as the land of life and love.

Pure utopia, we may choose to think. My goodness, how naïve can Jens Rosendahl, Isaiah and Our Lord be! Well, that is true if we stick to reality and believe that reality and the physical world is the only thing we need to relate to.

But why only concern ourselves with reality, considering how brutal it is? Why only relate to a reality where walls are being built and barbed wire is erected like never before? We could also choose a totally different path – that is utilizing the power that, more than anything else, makes us human: our imagination.

Unlike animals, human beings can imagine something that does not exist, something that is not real, or rather something that is not real yet, but could be. Human beings can dream. We can fantasize. We can conjure up the future. We can create utopias. Unlike animals, we need not be at the mercy of instincts, in other words: We are born free.

What Isaiah urges us to do in today’s reading is using our freedom, use our imagination to create a better world. We are encouraged to dream up another world. It is not easy. Since the birth of modernity people have looked askance at the dreamers. Modern society has relied on the rational human being, on reason and gravity. The dreaming and imaginative human being has been relegated to the arts and the church. The engineer and the economist have had the final say – at the expense of the theologian and the artist – and the designer, I feel like adding.

They control the way of the world and believe that we should basically stick to reality. With Isaiah I urge you to do the exact opposite. Let us use this amazing power as human beings – our imagination – to create new products, systems, utopias, alternatives. Let us escape our self-made prisons. Let us apply our inherent freedom for the benefit of a world that is never satisfied with a development that is merely a mechanical projection of the reality we know.

There are some people who are masters at this. Some of them study and work at Design School Kolding where I am also working. Here imagination is the most important raw material. Thanks to our students’ excellent ability to imagine things, services and systems that have not been invented yet, new things are being created that most often contribute to a better life.

Let me mention some examples: A couple of years ago, Skansebakken, an institution catering to the needs of the mentally and physically handicapped, invited us to figure out how more people would want to become regular visitors to Skansebakken. We discovered that it was a matter of convincing the staff to view their jobs differently: Rather than focusing solely on the needs of the individual resident they had to contribute to making Skansebakken appear hospitable and create positive relations between the residents and people who came from outside.

We also designed a private Facebook profile for each resident so that visitors could quickly familiarize themselves with whom they were meeting. Inviting more guests to the institution succeeded beyond all expectations, because we managed to have the Skansebakken staff use their imagination; we made them see beyond the reality they were in. Suddenly they noticed lots of opportunities they had not paid attention to before.

A considerable part of what we are doing today at Design School Kolding is concerned with strengthening the citizens’ and the users’ own imagination, making them dream and hence be creative. Sometimes we say that we are designing imagination. We do that once in a while when we give our students the specific assignment to design something unrealistic. We call it radical design. The reason we do this is that we know that this is the way to create a new reality, but it may also lead to new huge sales successes in the long term.

One year we asked the students to read Kaspar Colling’s book Mount Kopenhagen, which describes a utopia: There is a huge mountain in Copenhagen where entirely new communities live. The students were asked to design services and products which had their origins in that utopia – the objective being to try to bridge the gap between reality and utopia.

It is interesting that Bjarke Ingels and his Danish architecture firm BIG are currently building a mountain, or rather a ski jump as part of an incineration plant on Amager, Denmark, the Temple Mount of our time. Utopias can indeed inspire reality and the future.

Dreams and imagination – in other words what constitutes humanity – can move our world to become a better place. If enough of us share the same dream the chance is that it will become reality. Genesis 01:27 says "So God created man in his [own] image.” God imagined what man should look like and created him (and her) with the same ability as God has: The ability to create images, the ability to dream, the ability to see things that are not there, for example a world where we live in peace with each other, where weapons are beaten into pruning-hooks.

Release the dreams, as John Lennon sings, ”You may say I'm a dreamer / But I`m not the only one / I hope someday you´ll join us / And the world will live as one”