“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” A familiar and rather provocative quote from Albert Einstein, which got me thinking about how imagination–the importance of seeing how things can be different–is a powerful force for all of us. This is something to pay attention to as we enter a new academic year.

To Repair the World by Paul Farmer is a collection of speeches aimed at inspiring young people to tackle some of the greatest challenges of the 21st century: global poverty, disease, access to health care, equity, universal education and human rights. One in particular, Countering Failures of Imagination, discusses how failures in imagination by health care professionals have undermined global efforts to respond to AIDS, TB, cancer and other modern plagues. One example Dr. Farmer personally countered was the assumption that the only health care possible in rural Haiti had to be poor in quality because of the magnitude of the poverty and the great burden of disease there.

Paul Farmer refused to buy into this particular failure of imagination, and as a result, founded Partners in Health, which built a quality hospital in the poorest area of the poorest country in the western hemisphere, Haiti. Through daring to imagine a different outcome, and by not settling for easy answers, Partners In Health has experienced groundbreaking successes in treating diseases of the poor.

Another example is set in a different time and place–London, England in 1665. In this case, imagining how things could be different didn’t cure a disease, but did lead to an important innovation that is with us to this day.

London, England, in 1665, was still suffering in the last year of the great plague, which swept through Europe, killing in London alone, between 75, and 100,000 people. The rate at which people were dying was outstripping the ability of the city to bury the bodies, and no one had any idea of exactly who had died and who was still alive.

As the death toll rose, some families discovered they could claim that certain family members were dead and thus avoid tax payment. The king grew frustrated with this, and through a leap of imagination came the innovative idea that one had to prove death with a certificate. Bills of Mortality came about, allowing authorities to track who had died, and hence a record keeping system was born for deaths and eventually for births as well.

Having taken that first leap of imagination, somebody else later suggested, “Each week, why don’t we write down all the reasons people died this week, and we’ll issue that as a weekly summary for the king.” Which indeed happened, and all of this eventually led to public health records, and the very helpful practice of using statistics to understand information about health, something that informs so much or our current decision-making today.

imaginationWhat does imagination look like? To be bold, to think big, to question, not to accept the status quo or lowered expectations for ourselves or for others. Our young people are creative, they have ideas, energy, enthusiasm, and because they are not yet “in the system,” their ideas are fresh, and out of the box, allowing them to imagine solutions for global poverty, health care, global warming, and water shortages. Our young people want the world to be a better place for all, and to help make it better.

L  Frank Baum, best known for writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,  offers the following, and I think is good food for thought and action.

“Imagination has brought mankind through the dark ages to its present state of civilization. Imagination led Columbus to discover America. Imagination led Franklin to discover electricity. Imagination has given us the steam engine, the telephone, the talking-machine, and the automobile; for these things had to be dreamed of before they became realities. So I believe that dreams– daydreams, you know, with your eyes wide open and your brain machinery whizzing– are likely to lead to the betterment of the world.”

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