It’s time to imagine better: making a new social care reality happen.

I have been through in Edinburgh a fair bit this week and on one day found that I had a lunchtime hour to spare on Princes Street – I then remembered that the new Scottish Galleries had just opened in the refurbished National Galleries. I popped in and I wish I had had the whole afternoon free. This is a must see if you are in Edinburgh and definitely a reason for us west coasters to travel through!

Personally, I think the designers and curators have done an amazing job in making the new space accessible and intriguing. But of course, what matters most are the art works. There is something for everyone on display, though still admittedly but a small percentage of the treasures of the National collection. Personal loves were the seascapes of William McTaggart, the breathtaking spirituality of Margaret MacDonald Macintosh, the display of the Celtic revival and most of all the vibrant beauty of the works of Phoebe Traquair. I’ve see her works in situ in Edinburgh over the years but this was the most coherent museum exposition I’d come across.

Phoebe Anna Traquair (1852-1936) has pride of place in one part of the new galleries. She was an Irish born artist who was a major contributor within the Arts and Crafts movement not least in her adopted Edinburgh where her skills as an embroiderer, painter and jewellery maker flourished.

I find artistic imagination both inspiring and thought provoking. The success of this new gallery is that it allows you to find your own interpretation and sit comfortably with it. It doesn’t treat the viewer as in need of introduction and education but as capable of their own mature personal insight. One of the problems of some modern gallery refits (and I think especially here of my beloved Glasgow Kelvingrove which I visited almost weekly as I grew up) is that sometimes they are so earnest in their desire to inform that they crowd out personal perspective and treat you like a child. But I am sorry – I do not want my imagination to be curated by somebody else’s interpretation. The National Gallery in Edinburgh brilliantly granted me space to be inspired and to imagine.

Imagination is an intriguing phenomenon. It possesses an astonishingly powerful capacity. It is the energy that sources through the veins of inventors, it is the spirit that turns an impossible ask into an achievable task, it is the fire which burns away the sameness of the known and lets the human mind and collective society dare to be and do differently.

Our neurological ability to imagine is controlled by the neocortex and thalamus alongside the brain’s other functions such as consciousness and abstract thought. The developing discipline of neuroscience is leading us to discover fascinating insights into the power of imagination for human individuals. It recognises that the food and fuel of our imagination is our experience and memory – the new and innovative is birthed from our openness and awareness to the world around and within us, but is not constrained by any sense of traditional ‘knowledge.’

Albert Einstein famously said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

As such imagination is an art and science which I strongly believe should not be left to be the preserve of artists and creatives alone. It desperately needs to become a key skill and attribute of the many not the few and most especially of our political leadership. The recent writings of Geoff Mulgan have sought to argue for the critical importance of our politicians being schooled in the science and art of imagination.

I thought of the necessity of political imagination, of leaders going beyond the predictable safety of the known to adventure into imagination, as I sat giving evidence at the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday as its Health and Social Care Committee explored the plans for a National Care Service and considered the current state of social care. Away from the technicalities and mechanics of a parliamentary bill and all potential amendments to that, away from engagement of all stakeholders and political parties and the centrality of the voice of those who use support and care services, what struck me during the whole session was the singular lack of exciting vision and imagination.

We have a unique opportunity to dream bigger and build a social care community in Scotland, one which advances the human rights and dignity of individuals. We have an opportunity to imagine bigger and better and yet what I see and hear around me is a limiting of vision and a boundarying of possibility.

I also thought of imagination but in a much more positive vein when I had the pleasure of taking part in a design workshop run by the RSA and Scottish Care on Wednesday in Glasgow Caledonian University. A room full of designers, social care creatives and frontline staff who together dared to dream about a better social care world in Scotland. It was not a diet of pie in the sky but rather was rooted reality trying to re-shape possibility. I’m looking forward to the work of this ‘Social Care Emergency’ project over the next few months because it has an honest energy and optimism about it.

But back to my Edinburgh hour – the Phoebe Traquair painting that drew me in most of all and had me gazing for a long time was ‘The Awakening.’ Painted in 1904 the museum card states:

‘This mysterious image represents the awakening of the human spirit. An angel points, with an arrow, to several figures sleeping in a meadow. They are partially bathed in the light of a rainbow, signifying better times to come…’

Scotland’s social care sector badly needs the illumination of imagination that can bathe our current reality in rainbow hope of better times to come. That will only be achieved not through the predictable mundanity of closed room discussions like the Verity House Agreement between COSLA and the Scottish Government but by an adventurous collective re-imagination of possibility. I don’t think given the reality of these challenging times that we have any alternative but to get around an inclusive table and do the work of imagining a better social care system and I’m convinced that that work should start afresh now.

In a week where the challenges and promises of AI has been much in the news, one of the few things I suspect that distinguishes us from ‘the machine’ is our art of imagination, the science of dreaming differently and creating afresh; the bringing together of spirits and hearts to re-shape reality. Whether it is social care or any other issue we are, I believe, best served by fostering our imagination rather than a sole reliance on ‘knowledge’ and I for one want to spend more time in places and spaces that feed my imagination.

Donald Macaskill