The Imagination and Perception in Risk

safety nothing happensThere is little discussion in the safety industry about Imagination or Wisdom. This is because the paradigms of rationalism and behaviourism that characterize the industry ‘belittle’ the activity and significance of Wisdom and Imagination. It is understandable that Safety should dismiss even fear the importance of Imagination and Wisdom, because Imagination and Wisdom cannot be ‘controlled’ nor ‘measured’. Nothing is more threatening to the cult of zero than a lack of control and measurement. It is a strange paradox that this industry consumed with compliance and zero, should be so evasive about the essentials of Imagination and Wisdom when considering risk.

If you want to evaluate a profession you need to analyse what it is noisy about and what its silences are. The silences of Safety make it clear that it has a long way to go before it could be considered professional. Noisy about zero and silent on Wisdom, says much.

The foundation of all risk and uncertainty is bound up in two simple questions: what-if? If-then? One cannot engage in these questions without invoking the Imagination and Wisdom. Yet, rationalism and behaviourism don’t seek to engage in these questions but rather enjoy the questions: what-is? why-then? These questions naturally lead the safety industry into a culture of interrogation and blame.

At the root of the word ‘imagination’ is the notion of ‘image’, invoking a semiotic understanding of creating something symbolic, sign-ificant or meaningful (semiosis). This is where we get the concept of imagery. All memory, dreams and perception involve imagery however, not all images are imaginations.

Of course, imagination takes us into the domain of the real and unreal. I can imagine what it’s like to fall off a cliff, I can even physically jump in a dream from that imagination yet it isn’t physically real. However, the symbolism/myth of the dream is real to me, hence I jump as if it is real experientially. The recurrence of such a dream is also meaningful as a symbol/myth of a fear of heights and dying. We devalue our dreaming to our own mis-education.

Imagination also takes us into its necessity in learning, creativity, innovation and discovery. There is no learning without Imagination and no Wisdom without risk. This is why there is no such thing as ‘machine learning’, machines cannot imagine, dream or be wise. Machines have no unconscious or imagination, the regeneration of algorithms is not learning. Without embodiment there is no learning. So, don’t look to Alexa for Wisdom or Imagination.

One of the joys of imagination is to flee the current constraints one finds oneself in. Whilst I can be physically present in a boring task I can unconsciously imagine and day dream (lucid dream) in another bodily state whilst undertaking a high risk task. Both unconscious and conscious states coexists in dialectic in most tasks that are repetitive and routine/habitual. This is captured in the principle of One Brain and Three Minds ( ). In this way humans demonstrate the coexistence of the conscious-unconscious dialectic in being. Humans find it hard to be fully conscious for very long, we don’t realize we have ‘drifted off’ until we jolt ‘back in’. Most of the time humans are physically in the world but mentally/mindfully out of it, without any reference to medication.

One Brain Three Minds Supplementary from Human Dymensions on Vimeo.

Imagination and dreaming share much in common and are associated together in the Wisdom Literature (Joel2:28, ). Imagination allows us to re-shape what is real and to think of what-isn’t but could-be. In the depth of Imagination we embrace poetics, song, dance, drama, art and music that allow us to ‘see’ the world differently. This ‘seeing’ is not so much physical but is more perceptual. In the depths of Imagination we can experience the could-be’s and might-be’s, even of things that shouldn’t-be. We sometimes play with moral dilemmas and ethical tensions in our imaginations. Imagination embodies the tendency to flee the world but also to shape it. How are we able to manage this paradox?

  1. The first step in managing the paradox of Imagination is not to deny it nor, to deny the reality of lucid dreaming. The idea that humans sit or stand at a task hours on end in ‘concentrated consciousness’ is simply fanciful.
  2. The second thing we need to do is not be silent about the Imagination and Wisdom. We need to ‘tune down’ the noise on zero, metrics, numerics, science and behaviourism and ‘tune up’ our discussions on Imagination, Wisdom and Transcendence.
  3. The third thing we need to consider is what constrains Imagination? If thinking about risk relies on imagining what might happen, then surely it ought to be something we need to exercise and practice. One thing is for sure, checklist thinking and dumb down thinking don’t foster a lively and helpful imagination. Of course there is no mention of Poetics, the Imagination or Wisdom in the AIHS BoK, such a critical element even to the consideration of Ethics. What a sad mechanical activity is Safety. Just imagine what a transdisciplinary approach to risk might offer the process?
  4. The forth (not fourth) thing we need to consider is leaning more about play. Why is it that we encourage children to learn so much through play and then suppress such an approach to learning after the age of 12? There is something strangely prophetic about the nature of play, it strengthens discovery, exploration and seeing things differently. Often when things go wrong people express this inability to imagine such an outcome. We would do well to think and play more like children at times.

  5. The fifth thing we need to do is embrace the works of Jung, the champion of the imagination. A reading of Jung is a good starting point for exploring dreams, visions and self-discovery. If the world of risk considered for a second the meaning of the Collective Unconscious it might get a much better idea of how to tackle the difficult issues we face in considering culture similarly, Lotman’s Semiophere.

  6. The sixth consideration ought to be the ability to visualize. Visualisation is a critical aspect of all risk analysis and brings the unreal into the real, invoking possibilities and transitions. The safety industry would be far better for dumping the useless coloured risk matrix that constrains Imagination and spending more time discussing shared imaginings through an Engagement Board ( ). Inquiry through interconnecting imagination across Workspace, Headspace and Groupspace is something all my clients have found much more helpful than traditional orthodox safety processes.

Interview Dr Rob Long with Brian Darlington re WS, HS, GS and Mondi Engagement Boards from CLLR on Vimeo.

  1. Of course, when we embrace a trans-disciplinary approach to risk we develop a new language and discourse. This is what Ricoeur calls the ‘Hermeneutics of Imagination’. Whilst Ricoeur is very heavy reading we can understand his critical point. Ricoeur makes clear that society remains captivated by Cartesian reductionist approaches to knowledge, moreso the safety industry. One of the wonderful aspects of a Poststructuralist Feminist Ethic is the liberation from Cartesian Ethic to an Ethic of Imagination. One thing is for sure, you won’t find such an Ethic in the masculinst deontological ethic of the AIHS BoK. It is clear that Feminist Ethics welcomes the Imagination and Wisdom in Poetics as an essential to ontology.
  2. An eighth factor associated with Imagination and Wisdom is the true meaning of Education. Training is not Education and replication of ‘technique’ (Ellul) is not Education. One of the greatest challenges facing the safety industry is a willingness to be open to Education. In Education one needs to step away from the reproduction of ‘safe’ knowledge and the regurgitation and replication of compliances. Unfortunately, the industry is yet to be open to Education, building its fortress against all it fears and demonizing anything that challenges its stasis. This of course is stamped with the imprimatur of zero, the shibboleth of an absolute that cannot give ground and can only converse once ‘the other’ has compromised with it. Nothing kills conversation, Education and learning like Zero.
  3. The next step in tackling the paradox of Imagination is sharing. An Imagination bottled up is not much use, but an Imagination shared opens up possibilities and learning however, sharing imaginations is a risk. We don’t share what we imagine with someone who we don’t trust, who holds a punitive framework anchored to zero. No, in such a culture we keep what we imagine to ourselves closing off any opportunity to learning socially. Instead Safety anchors to the checklist, that bastion of statsis.
  4. The final (but not the last) thing we need to consider are the elements of Fantasy and Hope embedded in the risk to imagine. One of the central aspects of Imagination is its dynamic in facilitating Hope and Justice. When in the depths of a lockdown, when the liveliness of ‘being’ is shut, when stasis seems all there is, when ‘marking time’ facilitates depression – we have our Imagination however feeble or poorly exorcised. We realize this Hope and Promise of Justice in the Imaginations of musicians and poets during times of slavery and oppression. We symbolize Hope ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’ (Psalm 137) and ‘Sweet Chariot’ ( or ‘The Times They Are A Changing’ ( and so too I imagine a time when Safety might transform and step beyond its current malaise. It won’t do so without a painful conversion and the embracing of Wisdom and Imagination.
Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

2 Replies to “The Imagination and Perception in Risk”

  1. Excellent article – I found the following quote particularly stimulating, If you want to evaluate a profession you need to analyse what it is noisy about and what its silences are.” My husband and I do Learning Reviews for companies and agencies around the world – both on ‘accidents’ and on normal work events. This concept about noise and silence is critical to the network of influences that surround events. We utilize a Network of Influences Map (like a mind map) to help pull out these influences that often hide within an organization, particularly from the eyes of those closest to the work. Thank you for the inspiration!

    1. Thanks for the feeback Crista. Yes, the amplification and attenuation of risk is a huge issue and something the safety world knows little about, such a closed discipline. What the industry amplifies and attenuates is an indictment on it with so much noise about things that don’t work and complete silence on so much that is critical to the humanisng and professional nature of tackling risk.

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