Radical Imagination in Transition: Bridging social arts and transition practices

A vision by Julia de Koning and Steve Elbers

Can social art practices infused with radical imagination empower transformative research practices? What happens when we try to build a bridge between social artists and transformative researchers? What intersections between academia and social art practices already exist? What can these practices learn from each other? Read our vision.


Just transitions, radical imagination, and social art practices

As we grapple with issues such as climate change, social inequality, and global health crises, the imperative for just transitions becomes more critical than ever. Transformative research is aimed at contributing to addressing these societal problems and demonstrating a clear commitment to engaging with society [1]. To address these societal problems in research, it is important to use new ways of doing research and with this, have radical new ideas of envisioning the future.

Thus, radical imagination emerges as a vital force [2]. Radical imagination is the ability to imagine the world, life, and social institutions not as they are but as they could be, often in a more just, equitable, and sustainable way [3]. It is a crucial aspect of social movements, as it allows individuals and groups to envision a better future and work towards creating it [4].

Artists and designers working with a wide range of disciplines, like visual arts, performing arts, or fashion, are masters of imagining. By using their imagination, artists can create innovative art practices with a real social value, encompassing meaningful improvements in the lives and well-being of (non)humans [5]. There is a wide variety of art practices. In a social art (or socially engaged art and design) practice, changes in society give rise to initiatives and involve individual people, communities, and organizations in the artistic process [6]. Such practices adopt a personal, open-minded perspective with social involvement, exploring unconventional angles [7].

An example of such a social art practice is ‘Huis van de Toekomst’, in which a team of artists (including Melle Smets, Klaas Burger, Bart Groenewegen), residents, and researchers are looking for different ways to turn social inequality into a resilient force by using manpower in energy-transition in a Rotterdam community [8].

Social art practitioners can rearrange the rules of the game uniquely, on a small and large scale, personal and structural. This creates different roles and relationships between the maker, audience, and other stakeholders [9], and different views of the world and meaningful changes.


Radical Imagination in Transition: The Project

Can social art practices infused with radical imagination empower transformative research practices? What happens when we try to build a bridge between social artists and transformative researchers? What intersections between academia and social art practices already exist? What can these practices learn from each other?

In the radical imagination in transition project, we try to address these questions. We hypothesize that social art practices can strengthen scientific initiatives aimed at changing existing power structures, deepening rooted solidarity with collective action, and empowering less privileged identities. The alternative perspectives artists offer, have the potency of shifting perspectives and strengthening the transformative force, to move to justice. We want to explore where radical imagination already takes shape within science, and investigate how artists, through their unique processes and techniques, generate knowledge that could be deemed "robust" according to scientific standards. Therefore the “Radical Imagination in Transition” project seeks to create a (stronger) connection between arts and transition practices.

Staging Wood is an example of radical imagination in which a coalition of artists, thinkers, local artisans, scientists, islanders, forest managers, and activists, try to find ways to let the forest itself form the basis for new, just ways of thinking, working, and producing [10].

The project is dedicated to exploring the transformative potential of connecting social art practices infused with radical imagination, with scientific transition practices. We want to explore what art and transition practices can learn from each other, what windows of opportunities are present in this realm, and in which way we can make use of them. Through these efforts, the initiative seeks to energize and strengthen transformative (art) movements, and radical imagination, and ultimately move towards a more just world. In pursuit of our objectives, we have outlined four key goals for this project:

  1. Build a bridge between social art practices and (scientific) transition practices

    By facilitating dialogue and collaboration we aim to contribute to create (stronger) connections between social art practices, with the force of radical imagination and transition practices.

  2. Give an impulse to transformative movements 

    By bridging social art practices and (scientific) transition practice and determining bridging tools and methods, we aim to increase the transformative potential of the practices. We believe that both sides can learn from and support each other in strengthening radical visions of futures.

  3. Enlarge the range of the Erasmus University Rotterdam 

    By connecting with the mycelium of existing potentially transformative art practices in Rotterdam and beyond, their stakeholders and communities, we aim to enlarge the range of the EUR. It is our belief that these ‘participative’ social art practices contribute to, strengthen, and diversify social practice in academic work aimed at social impacts.

  4. Create a long-term network of artists and scientists

     Our goal is to create an effect that will last longer than the project itself. We aim to create a setup of collaboration and inspiration that will have a snowball effect on transition practices in arts and science.

In alignment with our goals, the initiative is guided by four core values. First, the setup and process of the project need to be inclusive. We want to ensure that the initiative is accessible and involves the active participation of a diverse range of voices, fostering inclusivity throughout its development and execution. Secondly, we recognize the power of language in our project, and the dynamic nature of values, emphasizing their role in shaping perspectives and driving meaningful change. The language of social artists and transformative researchers may differ, which can cause for tensions that can counteract our efforts to bridge both parties. We acknowledge that it is our responsibility to also bridge these differences and with this, our language in the project may change over time. Thirdly, in our work the focus will be not just be on objectives, but also the process itself. Lastly, we acknowledge the importance of allowing for thoughtful consideration and reflection, recognizing that meaningful change requires time and space for exploration.

This vision paper is a work in progress. During the project year 2024, it will be updated with insights, discussed, and grow reflexively.


1 Kump, B., Wittmayer, J., Bogner, K., & Beekman, M. (2023). Navigating force conflicts: A case study on strategies of transformative research in the current academic system. Journal of Cleaner Production, 412, 137374. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2023.13737Opens external

2 Demos, T. J. (2023). Radical futurisms: Ecologies of Collapse, Chronopolitics, and Justice-to-Come. MIT Press.

3 Khasnabish, A., & Haiven, M. (2014, 22 July). Why social movements need the radical imagination. openDemocracy from https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/transformation/why-social-movements-ne…Opens external

4 Haiven, M., & Khasnabish, A. (2014). The radical imagination: Social Movement Research in the Age of Austerity.

5 Galafassi, D., (2018). The Transformative Imagination, Re-imagining the world towards sustainability

6 Trienekens, S. (2020). Participatieve kunst. Gewoon kunst in moeilijke omstandigheden.

7 Lenz, T. (2022). Radicale Verbeelding, explorerend onderzoek naar sociale kunstpraktijken.

8 Huis van de Toekomst. (n.d.). https://www.huisvandetoekomst.org/Opens external

9 Oosterling, H. a. F. (2020). Verzet in ecopanische tijden: van ego-emancipatie naar eco-emancipatie.

10 Verhalen – StagingWood. (n.d.). https://stagingwood.org/stories/phase/ontkiemen/

More information

About the Design Impact Transition (DIT) platform   

The Design Impact Transition (DIT) platform is a strategic initiative that creates infrastructures for transformative academic work at Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR). If you want to learn more about similar initiatives organised by the Design Impact Transition Platform, or if you would like to get involved in transforming education and academia, please send an email to dit@eur.nl.   

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