Department of Dreams

“The pandemic marks the end of an era and the beginning of another – one whose harshness must be mitigated by a spirit of generosity. An artist hunched over her sewing machine, a young person delivering groceries on his bicycle, a nurse suiting up for the ICU, a doctor heading to the Navajo nation, a graduate student hip-deep in Pyramid Lake catching trout for elders, a programmer setting up a website to organise a community: the work is underway. It can be the basis for the future, if we can recognise the value of these urges and actions, recognise that things can and must change profoundly, and if we can tell other stories about who we are, what we want and what is possible.”

—Rebecca Solnit, ‘The Way We Get Through This Is Together

In its earliest guise, Department of Dreams was an acknowledgement that when investing in the dark matter of large scale system change, we must also invest in the dream matter – the artists, writers, designers, dreamers and creative visionaries – those who dare to dream up bold new futures for humanity, and have the capacity to stretch our imaginations further than we ever thought possible. First outlined by Dark Matter Labs and brought forward as one of 10 key areas surfaced through our collective systems design lab back in 2018, the Department of Dreams now takes up its place as a long-term piece of work as part of CIVIC SQUARE’s broad mission that will be used in many different ways throughout our organisation and others to shape regenerative futures. The Department sits within the Neighbourhood Economics Lab in order to enable its continual development, and foster its crucial importance as an open tool and connector across different worlds.

It’s meaning has already begun to evolve at a pace in these early stages of CIVIC SQUARE, and in a reality compounded by a vast plurality of needs, circumstances, hopes, fears and longings locally and globally during this COVID-19 pandemic, we are activating the Department of Dreams in circumstances that are unfamiliar to all of us by deeply recognising the role of catalysing public and community dreaming, imagination and foresight, as well as personal and collective reflection, processing and loss. Working with visionary doers, thinkers, artists and designers, the purpose of the Department is to forge bold new regenerative futures that weave together the dreams of many. This is through four interconnected elements of work now, soon and across the next decade.

The role of dreaming is to help our brain process emotions, information and make connections whilst we sleep. Symbolic meaning and metaphorical insights linked to our subconscious worries, memories, ideas and desires can create vivid stories and extraordinary thoughtscapes to be decoded, or to remain a puzzle; one we often can’t hold in our conscious mind for long no matter how hard we try. It is also said that our dreams tend to reflect the people and things we most care about in the waking world, yet they need not be limited by the laws of physics; of adhering to the time and space we may expect, making them a rich playground for our minds to test, to tackle difficult subjects, and to do ‘impossible’ things. Dreams overlay, intertwine and make sense of some of our deepest relationships between ourselves, others and the environments we inhabit, making them an important site for unlocking who we want to be in the world and overcoming that which may block our way there.

There has been a deep crisis of imagination in England for some time. We have been stuck, unable to collectively imagine a future that is abundant; where if we win, we all win together. 2020 sees us in the midst of a very real, very tangible, very urgent collective crisis, yet we know that social, public and collective imagination is needed more than ever to radically re-imagine courageous, ambitious, hopeful short, medium and long term futures together. Imagination is the act of forming new ideas, or images or concepts beyond what we can see, touch and directly experience. Illustrators, animators, writers, film-makers, musicians, poets, philosophers and creative storytellers of every kind help nurture and stretch our imaginations throughout our lives, and imagination is a muscle that needs to be exercised often in order to keep our minds flexible, creative, and able to see beyond what is accepted, known, ‘normal’ or understood.

Dreaming and imagination are both important mechanisms for futures thinking and feeling, yet we can never truly know what lies ahead. The recent Global Foresight Summit raised awareness on futures literacy and strategic foresight across government policy-makers, business leaders, strategists, innovators, scientists, and researchers to help to prepare for decision-making under uncertainty and unpredictability. Foresight is how we anticipate, forecast, envision and speculatively design together for the futures we want to see. As well as looking forward and making informed predictions based on the signs, signals and data all around us, how can past wisdom and indigenous knowledge equip us with ways to navigate our collective futures and ensure deep resilience beyond our families and into our neighbourhoods, communities and wider commons? As Douglas Cardinal said, “The teachings of our elders are not about the past but about the future.” How do we look, plan and act ahead together in order to meaningfully be good ancestors to the generations that follow after us?

Who gets to shape the future? John Burgoyne asks: “At a time like this, though, who has the time, resources, and headspace to ‘imagine their world anew’? My fear is that those who will have the privilege of shaping the new normal will be people who have remained healthy, economically secure, and not burned out from crisis response.” Now more than ever before we must act in solidarity with and design side-by-side with those most facing interconnected injustice as a result of outdated, biased, inequitable systems, challenging existing power imbalances and deeply investing in those disproportionately affected by past, present and crises that will follow. We must create space for dealing with trauma and grief in order to process our shifting identities during this time, and resource instruments of healing and therapy of all kinds in order for dreaming and engaging meaningfully with the future to be a possibility for the many not the few. Imagination and identity are interior structures of consciousness, so in order to re-imagine our worlds we may need to re-imagine ourselves as part of them too. What might we need to leave behind in order to travel somewhere new?

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

—Arundhati Roy, ‘The Pandemic is a Portal

As we navigate beyond the initial emergency phase of COVID-19, so many things are true.

Interlinked within all of the pain and paradoxes of this time, all of our different versions of what we thought normal life was reconfiguring or coming to a complete halt heralds a time to see more things more clearly, to realise what matters to us, think about how the economy works and our relationship to our environment(s). The global coronavirus lockdown has caused global emissions to drop by 17%, meaning daily world carbon emissions haven’t been this low since 2006. The pandemic can be considered a periscope into the many climate-related crises that lie ahead for us, and how much world leaders consider climate change when planning their economic responses post COVID-19 is set to influence the global CO2 emissions paths for decades to come.

The pandemic brings real world, real economy experience of systems and their interdependence into practice that we can all see and feel. We are seeing unbelievable amounts of organising, communities coming together to support each other, and a collective recognition of what key crisis work looks like. This is a shared experience and tangible example of common goods, interdependence, systems thinking in action and what it means for our families and our neighbourhoods and together we must build on this. This is something we have been exploring at a neighbourhood scale through The Front Room during this time, exchanging examples of action and hope with local people through the earliest version of a place to come together, organise and grow resilience in Birmingham, our home city.

It will be true that we will need to react, rescue and provide relief for one another, as well as make and take space for rest, recovery, and repair. There will be a desire for retreat, recuperation, opportunity for reflection, and a role for reorganising, repurposing and redesign. We will need to fight for a reframing, reimagination of bold futures, and a resistance against injustice and damaging practices of all kinds. We must fiercely remember those who are no longer with us, and rebuild our homes, our communities and our hearts. We must respect the wisdom of those who came before us, and take responsibility for our own role as ancestors to future generations.

For all of us, our responses, emotions and phases of being, processing and doing will come at different times, in different ways, and will shift, change, swell and shrink across months, weeks, days, even minutes, but all of these multiple dimensions in ourselves, and across all of shared paradigms, are true. There will be millions of nuanced yet connected realities. There will be patterns of experience, but no two will be precisely the same, so no one definition, story or kind of support will be more relevant, nor matter more, than another, even though we will continuously be manipulated and divided into believing that. Many will tell us that there is one ideology of solution, only one way or one route to the future, or that coronavirus didn’t discriminate, yet we know this to be falsely reductionist. Many will feel useless, as if their contribution perhaps no longer matters, when it matters more than ever.

[Longer form provocation available to read here]

We believe there is real hope for a brighter collective future, but it can’t be decided by a few people through a few frames. Through an online festival of activity, creative commissions, open call, working cohort, and site-specific projects, Department of Dreams will be opening up Re_ throughout June for many people to share, participate and put to use in their places. We’d love to invite you to explore this activity, to connect and design and participate, and interpret this plural framing in your own ways.

1 / Online Festival

Wednesday 17th – Sunday 21st June 2020
Across 5 days we will explore multiple realities and futures together through a many and varied collection of talks, conversations, workshops and creative interventions of all kinds. RSVP here and save the date, with schedule and more details to follow.

2 / Dream Fund

We will be investing in the collective dream matter through an ongoing fund and distributed collection of commissions across a range of disciplines and mediums, prioritising getting funds to a range of incredible practitioners at the fringes of support across the immediate and longer term. The commissions will take the form of provocations, interpretations, and open frameworks that can be reused, reconfigured and reinterpreted by anyone. Got an idea / interested in connecting? Send us a message to

Looking to invest in unlocking community capacities to dream? Contact about contributing to the Dream Fund which will be directly redistributed quickly to our ever-expanding ecosystem of incredible people working at the intersections and gaps between traditional models, in creative, caring ways that are deeply embedded and necessary to reimagine regenerative futures that leave no-one behind.

3 / Dream Library

Drawing together a range of existing references, contributions, and new materials from throughout the festival and commissions, the Dream Library will be the beginnings of a shared galaxy of knowledge, inspiration, questions and practical ideas hosted online for anyone to make use of and contribute to. As well as drawing upon resources and links shared during the month, you can tag #deptofdreams anywhere you see, share or create content that you’d like to include.

4 / Re_Collective

We will be convening a cohort of pioneering leaders from across the West Midlands who are exploring, building and fighting for a just recovery alongside their communities, in partnership with UnLtd.

5 / Re_imagine The Street

COVID-19 has shown us for so many reasons why we need to reimagine our streets, not just for physical distancing that will be required for a long time, but to encourage play, cycling, growing, reclaim space, air quality, biodiversity, connection, celebration and much more. Working together with a range of people, we will be kickstarting an ambitious site-specific project to inspire the joyful reimagination of a street in Birmingham.

A huge thank you to everyone who is keeping our hearts hopeful, sharing their knowledge, their challenges; their joy, resilience and creativity so generously, and to everyone that we cannot wait to connect with through this season of activity, at such a strange and challenging time, but also one full of possibility and magic too.

If you’d like to stay connected for forthcoming updates, sign up to our newsletter or follow and share via #DeptofDreams. Get in touch with us at to get involved, ask questions, or share something so illuminating that it’s stopping you from sleeping, because that’s kind of our department.

“The courage it takes to have a dream is the actual freedom of it all.”

—Jason Reynolds