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by Tom Atlee


(Note: This article was compiled from bits and pieces written between 1997-2007 and majorly overhauled in March 2007.)


Imagineering embraces any use of imaginative narrative to realize, create, or catalyze in real life the potentials we are imagining.

It often involves complete stories, in any form. But it can also involve one or more story elements -- metaphors, images, themes, perspectives, conflicts, problems, questions, goals, knowledge, possibilities, and imagined characters, situations, plots, events, resolutions, dialogue, etc.

Imagineers use these story elements consciously to inspire and guide people to reshape their consciousness, their lives, and their social and physical circumstances.

(Note: I had thought I'd coined the term back in 1988 when I first used it, but I've since learned that Disney uses the word differently to refer to the creation of realistic theme parks. I want to make the distinction clear: I'm talking about using imagination to create and reshape the theme park we call real life.)

Imagineering fiction

Although imagineering comes in many forms, I have my favorite. Most often when I speak of imagineering, I am referring to the use of fiction -- including a kind of visionary "journalism" ("reporting back from the future") -- to empower people to actually live out -- or into -- a particular story, vision, or possibility.

Here are a few of my favorite examples:

  • Edward Abby's novel The Monkeywrench Gang has been credited with birthing EarthFirst! as a self-organized movement, with readers just doing what the characters in the book do and then going on to create more ways to "monkeywrench" on behalf of nature.
  • Federal office building bomber Timothy McVeigh and a number of race war promoters have apparently been inspired by white supremicist William Pierce's novel The Turner Diaries.
  • Some tax protesters dressed themselves up as V from the movie V for Vendetta to demonstrate and petition in Washington, DC.
  • Hundreds of communards have been inspired to build utopian communities based on B. F. Skinner's novelWalden Two, although the communities that survived have shifted from Skinner's original model.

Some imagineering pieces do not notably impact reality -- perhaps they emerge before their time or are suppressed or systematically panned -- but they are clearly designed to inspire people to live into them.

  • The 1987 movie Amazing Grace and Chuck depicts a 12-year-old little league pitcher, Chuck, who stops playing baseball when he learns about nuclear weapons. A major basketball player, Amazing Grace, joins him, followed by other major sports figures, precipitating a crisis in response to which Chuck goes publicly silent -- and millions of other kids join him in a spontaneous, rapidly spreading and ultimately successful international children's uprising for nuclear disarmament.
  • In 1981 Ernest Callenbach followed up his famous 1975 novel Ecotopia with a prequel, Ecotopia Emerging, which gives a very believable and do-able blueprint for how an independent eco-secessionist movement might emerge, tucked in amongst eerily familiar "news stories".

Imagineering with role models and local experiments

Imagineering can start with a real-life activity specifically crafted to inspire imitation. Lately such intentional efforts to generate mimicry have been successfully using the web and video -- specifically YouTube -- to spread their memes.

  • Complaints Choirs -- Ordinary citizens gathering to publicly sing 5-15 minute litanies of complaints -- poginant mixtures of serious and hilarious -- about their lives, their societies, and life in general. Complaints choirs have been popping up all over the world, dancing and deadpanning. You can watch videos of several of them -- each uniquely reflective of their culture..
  • The Free Hugs campaign -- in which people walk city streets with signs saying "Free Hugs" and hug anyone who comes up to them -- has triggered a number of responses, like this and this -- as well as other videoed free hug initiatives around the world including Venezuela and Israel and Korea and Korea again, and Tokyo (see here for more).
  • The Great Silent Grandmother Gathering started out as a children's story for adults and became an international movement for Mothers Day vigils.

Imagineered futures

In broader imagineering visions, a number of eco-futurists have painted vivid pictures of societal scenarios we could live into, making once unimaginably better worlds seem siddenly possible. Here are just a few:

Imagineering for Networking

Imagineering can also be used to provide a narrative infrastructure to support network-based organizing. In 1988 I did a participatory imagineering experiment at a Green Gathering: With a few friends, I created a small journal called The Ecotopian Grapevine Gazette (EGG), which contained news articles about neat things that hadn't happened yet -- but which we wanted to have happen -- written AS IF they had happened. At the end of each article, we put a contact name people could contact if they wanted to join together to make that story a reality. 

Amazing to me in 1988, there was little response to the EGG at the Green Gathering, and until 2008 the idea hadn't taken off with anyone I've mentioned it to in the intervening years. However, I have a feeling that the time is ripening for this approach -- imagining a desired future event, phenomenon, book, activity, organization, community, etc., and then writing about it as if it has already happened, and providing contact information for those who want to make it happen -- perhaps in the form of a participatory online journal (or even a "classifieds" kind of service like CraigsList), possibly linked into virtual practice spaces like Second Life, personal networking sites like Zaadz, meetup gatherings, videos like Climate: A Crisis Averted, funding networks like, and make-a-difference online communities like Omidyar.Net, as well as the general blogging world, etc. It would be fabulous if the vast networking database called WISEREarth would include an imagineering function where people could imagine organizations they'd like to see, and be helped to find each other to make it happen.

The latest breakthrough in this is the new imagineering faux-Google news website which announces positive news you can click on to help it happen. Although it isn't yet participatory, it is exactly the kind of thing I imagine becoming participtory. Having the folks at WISEREarth pick up on this and work with the folks at would be a brilliant leap forward.


Imagineering has three elements -- story, vision, and guidance. A story tends to be more powerful than data and ideas partly because we can place ourselves in it vicariously and sense our own reactions and roles, real and potential. It is almost like we are practicing for a different future. Vision adds to the power because it points us in a direction and paints a picture of possibility. We can only create what we can imagine. This pulls us into the creative tension between "what is" and "what could be", inspiring us to action. Imagineering combines story and vision, infusing them with guidance that gives people what they need to make the story a reality -- motivations and rationales, role models, compelling drama, realistic situations, appropriate values struggles, all the necessary instructions and precautions -- and sometimes even resources and compatriots -- to help their beloved product of imagination blossom in the world around them.



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