By Lauren Parater and Cian McAlone, Co-editors

Imagination is about articulating a desire for a better world, picturing a life beyond what you know, and understanding how we can use creative practices as part of building a better future. In the pursuit of building new worlds, others must be laid to rest, whilst constantly gesturing towards the interconnectedness of our pasts, presents, and futures.

Our seed of imagination at the UN Refugee Agency’s Innovation Service has manifested in Project Unsung. Project Unsung is an initiative to nurture the narratives, the stories, the relationships, and the values that we believe are required for the future of humanitarian work. Project Unsung is also our compost pile, it is where we layer different ways of being, different creative forms and mediums, different ways of seeing the world, and discovering where we can find connections among them to inform our work. 

Within Project Unsung, we have used storytelling, design, and speculation to help us map a constellation of how our work might shift in the face of more complex and overlapping crises whilst intentionally working towards more just futures.

In the first iteration of this project, we focused on the theme of renewal, locating the initial ideas for possible and renewed understandings of our work in the ashes of a global pandemic, accelerating ecological loss and displacement, grasping for narratives to help us make meaning of the world we were encountering. We understood deeply that stories were one lens for sensemaking across this novel landscape and that they could help us better investigate patterns, cohere ideas, transform our worldviews and imagine something different.

“Displacement is a memory of violence that makes the future history to come.”

As you wind your way through the memories, histories, and futures in Project Unsung, the threads of analysis and imagination unveil new narratives for humanitarian action. The narrative visions supplant the myths of the benevolent saviour and the rational hero, to call for solidaristic relationships rooted in belonging and justice. 

For this much is true: the stories we tell of humanitarian work have the imprint of history’s unravelling since the Second World War. Histories of colonialism and oppression, environmental exploitation and technological development manifest in subtle but irrefutable ways. The act of imagination presents a rupture with these realities, where tomorrow is conjured out of the speculation of today.   

In Project Unsung, the stories of humanitarianism seek new origins. Through reconciliation with nature, through principles of plurality, renewal, and intergenerational responsibility, innovation opens into a fresh expanse. Poetry poses questions to whiteness. Science fiction elevates indigenous technologies. Essays account for our interdependence. The art and the artefacts have the unsung visions start to sing.

In navigating the work of this project, the reader should expect more questions than commands, more possibilities than policies. The collaborators demonstrate that our world is constantly in the making, and, as you return to your own place of action, we hope that you take this spirit of renewal with you. We hope you find the story of the world you wish to be. 

Project Unsung is a beginning, a seed that will constantly need to be revisited, revalued, deconstructed, and challenged to understand if the assumptions and narratives it operates within make sense. Situated at this point, we know it has brought a precise compass to themes we need to continue to navigate in relation to futures we’re working towards, specifically: the role of power, belonging and the ecological crisis in the context of our work.

Ultimately, we believe that a new way of seeing the world can help us find a new way of valuing it. More than ever, we’re called to build something better, and this will require not only imagination but manifesting our desired futures into present practices. We welcome you to this invitation of possibility and imagining otherwise.

This page is part of UNHCR’s Project Unsung collection and portfolio. Project Unsung is a speculative storytelling project that brings together creative collaborators from around the world to help reimagine the humanitarian sector. To discover move about the initiative and other contributions in the collection, you can go to the project website here.