This is the time to celebrate the gift of human imagination

Griet Bouwen

Did you know that there is a link between anxiety and imagination? I didn’t. It was while listening to Rob Hopkins, one of the founders of the Transition Network, that this knowledge surprisingly found a straight way to my heart. The more anxiety we experience, the lesser place in our brains is open for imagination. Fear makes our hippocampus – that little miraculous organ in both the left and right side of our brain – shrink. Bad luck for our human imagination, because this kind of playful thinking relies on exactly the same part of our brain. The good news is: we can spark our imagination again. And the urgent call is: we cannot wait any longer to do all the efforts to create space and places where our imagination is invited and welcomed. We’ll need it to build a resilient world in the face of climate change. Rob recently spoke at the summit Travel to Tomorrow (VISITFLANDERS). The question that came to sit with me while listening to dozens of transition stories Rob told there was: what is the thing VISITFLANDERS can start doing here, now and urgently? I kindly asked him to chat a bit further afterwards. He agreed.

Strolling through the old streets and squares of Bruges, Rob told me about the city of Preston and how they began mapping where all their public money was spent. They found out that it was just 4% that was spent locally. It drove them to reimagine the local economy. Now also the local universities, schools and hospitals have changed how they operate. Their aim is to spend their money in the local community as much as possible. They have created at least 12.000 new local jobs as a result of this different approach, and have since been voted the ‘Most Improved City in the UK’. “This could be a powerful example for what is possible in tourism”, Rob says.
(Curious to read more? Find out here).

An impressive story, for sure. Meanwhile, we found a – not so quiet but convivial – square. We sat down at a table outside and ordered a beer, a heavenly product of timeless Belgian pride. Immersed in the liveliness of one of Flanders’ most famous cities, visited by almost eight million visitors a year, Rob summarized and deepened the message he brought to the tourism professionals attending the Travel to Tomorrow summit. I sat, listened and asked, so I can tell you, kind and patient reader (at least patient enough to read these words so far, thanks!) what’s on our plate for the next weeks, months and years. What does the tourism sector as a whole and VISITFLANDERS in particular need to do? That is: if we are aware of the fact that we need to act in the face of climate change.

“First: tell the truth”, Rob says. “Our world and humanity are in the middle of an existential crisis. Climate urgency is real. So, say in public you are worried about climate change, and dare to be bold.” Thanks Rob, for reminding us that we actually can be brave if we choose to. That if we choose not to be crystal clear on what we believe, this is another act of fear. So, maybe this can indeed be a first step to unbind our imagination.

And beyond this first act of bravery, be as supportive as you can be towards other brave people. If you see someone in your organisation or community who tries to make a change, who dreams about a project to lower carbon emissions in whatever way, who steps up to tell the truth: support him or her! “Every courageous person who wants to do things differently, needs the active support of at least three others in their circle of friends and colleagues”, says Rob.

So, when you pass the first two ‘tests’ – I’m joking now. Aren’t we living in a world that bombards us with steps and tests to achieve our goals? I wouldn’t dare to add even more pressure – you probably start to notice that others reflect your bravery back to you. That people become curious, or that your messages cause jitters. You’ll see that you are not the only person or organisation who worries about the future. That’s the moment you begin to see opportunities, because they are everywhere. “We really are living in a historical era in time”, Rob says. “So here we are, in the midst of chances to make big changes. This is a big opportunity for all of us.”

Oh, and we could even expand our senses – and therefore our imagination – if we travel to discover. Doesn’t that sound great to you, as someone who loves the tourism sector? But when I say ‘to travel’, I don’t mean to just go away from your day-to-day life for leisure time only. I mean: go out and experience what other people are doing already to make a change. Go, visit, see, smell, look around and get a sense of what is already out there. When seeing what great initiatives people are taking to create resilience, lower their footprint, gather as communities, colour their life spaces, grow their own food, set up localised economies, invite guests in,… then you really can envision the change you can also make. Oh, and don’t forget to tell the stories of what you have seen to other people. Gather stories and pictures and share them as widely as you can. What’s the point of that, you ask? Simple: by showing what is already bubbling in all the corners of society, we’ll spark our collective imagination even further.

All this bravery, support and curiosity will certainly lead to questions arising in your and other people’s hearts. ‘What if…’ we then dare to think.

…What if tourism was an agent of flourishing communities? What if all visitors of Flanders could easily travel to every corner of our region without a climate cost? What if our cities would be labs of the future that show our guests that life is even better when we have lowered our carbon emissions? What if the income of tourism could be a resource to invest in thriving local economies? What if our hotels and great museums become hubs of encounters between locals and visitors? What if visitors could experience a heartfelt welcome to our local community life, our local small-scale festivals, funfairs, parades and gatherings? What if every tourist were to leave Flanders with a fresh understanding that the transition is on its way, and that they also can make a change? What if they step onto the train back home with a clear idea on what they will adapt in their lives from the day they get home? How would our region be if tourism was the catalyst of a new, re-localised economy?

When we change the questions, we open new possibilities and spark dreams. When our dreams become statements, we’ll grow into another reality. Could this become a future where tourism is a true agent for the restoration of balance between human needs and life on earth? Is there another question that nourishes your hippocampus with imagination? What is it? Could it be an antibiotic for fear and worries?

Ah, there is one last point I must not forget to tell you: we need each other. So, for VISITFLANDERS and all other actors who are willing to own this challenge, Rob would say: “Bring people together and create the space and place for conversations and collaborative actions. Because it will be in the merging of wisdom, strengths, resources and energy of all of us, that the future is about to begin.”

So, let’s be brave. Let’s speak bold. Let’s support one another, discover activities in all corners of our region and tell their stories, show their attempts, learnings and results. And let’s inspire our conversations with brand new, imagination-sparking questions. And let’s boost collaborative action.

Then, we’ll see that we have changed the questions from ‘what if…’ in firmly articulated statements that don’t hold an ‘if’ anymore, but a strong belief in ‘when…’

Rob Hopkins

Rob Hopkins is one of the founders of the Transition Network. He blogs, tweets, writes books and does lots of public speaking about Transition and represents the movement at different events.

Griet Bouwen

Griet Bouwen