Practicing Civic Imagination
MC Abbott (she/her) is a 2022 Summer Fellow with the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, working with the Office of Recovery Services to explore a thoughtful public space design approach for the Mass. Ave. and Melnea Cass area.
“Is city government the space to help us imagine another world?”
Reverend Mariama White-Hammond, Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space for the City of Boston, posed this question as a provocation for MONUM Fellows in our second week on the job. With “Chief Chats”, MONUM Fellows are granted access to the first-person insight of city leaders by way of intimate conversations with heads of departments and offices across the spectrum of city government. This particular almost-rhetorical, nearly-existential question was offered by Reverend Mariama as a follow up to her familiar, yet bold position that our climate crisis is not a technological crisis, but a deeply social one.
For Reverend Mariama, the space to imagine another world is not in city government, but in her faith. While government provides the opportunity to operationalize a vision, Reverend Mariama claims, it’s in her spiritual practice that she — in community — engages with the meaty question of what kind of society we want to be.
When I started my fellowship with MONUM just three weeks ago, I was overwhelmed by the hyper-accomplished multi-hyphenates of the MONUM staff: documentary filmmaker-team chair, mural artist-director of civic design, photographer-housing innovation fellow, writer-technologist. Frantically, I wondered, how do these people deliver meaningful innovation projects within city government AND have a whole other creative side hustle? But, maybe that is the dirty secret of civic innovation work: to sustain oneself as an innovator in a public service context requires a part-time practice in imagination.
A practice in imagination, as I’m calling it here for lack of better nomenclature, isn’t simply about work-life balance (albeit inevitably relevant to the countless conversations about burnout we’ve had these last few years). Instead, what if we thought of imagination as a form of infrastructure, in that it simultaneously enables a set of possibilities while denying others. What follows an “imagination as infrastructure” logic is this: the more developed our civic imagination, the more expansive our possibilities as a society.
In my career, the office was always the place where I imagined another world. Working in design contexts for the last 5+ years, my daily labor was a practice of generative creativity, working in partnership with designers to invent, prototype, and test new concepts for our tech clients. This nearly black-box way of working is an incompatible fantasy with the work of civic design and innovation, the heart of which, I’m learning, is the difficult work of relationship-building.
I came to MONUM to see if I could see myself in City Hall in the midst of a grander career change aimed at narrowing the gap between my values and my actions. My first insight on the job as a Summer Fellow is that a commitment to a career in civic innovation will require the intentional cultivation of a practice in imagination beyond the walls of City Hall. The work of building our imagination infrastructure is the work necessary to actualize a more just future. So, as I plug away at the research and relationship-building critical to my MONUM project, I’m also researching starter sewing machines (Facebook Marketplace!), sci-fi writing workshops (great resources available through BPL!), and whether my lease and new roommates can accommodate an at-home pottery wheel (“no”).
MC Abbott is interested in how leadership, technology, and design intersect to innovate in response to challenges at the scale of the city and region. She is particularly motivated by the climate crisis and the normative question of what role technology should play in confronting it: what frameworks of knowledge, models of governance, and collective norms are necessary to facilitate meaningful, significant, and just political action. With a BA in Postcolonial Studies (New York University), an MBA in Design Strategy (California College of the Arts), and 5+ years of innovation consulting for private and public sector clients, she now pursues a Master in Urban Planning from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Hailing from Sacramento, California, she has fallen in love with Boston’s vast network of parks and waterfronts, but is still trying to understand humidity.
About the Fellowship:
The New Urban Mechanics Summer Fellowship is designed for entrepreneurial students and professionals interested in working in public service. During this highly selective eight-week program, summer fellows work as a team and on their own projects, generating and implementing creative and thoughtful new prototypes to benefit the City of Boston.