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Creativity and imagination: Design approaches and Constructionist views in research

Celiane Camargo-Borges, Imagineering Academy, Breda University of Applied Sciences

Not taking data and knowledge as objective and neutral production but making space for #creativity and #imagination in the research process is certainly an idea and practice that can transform our understanding of research and science. Creativity and imagination in research refers to the capacity of the researcher to be curious and open-minded immersing him/herself in the #complexity of a place and of people. It is about exploring and investigating a topic beyond what is given (the data), creating an unimagined future together with organizations and/or communities. It is about moving away from the logic of either/or and promoting a variety of rich meanings and knowledge related to the topic investigated. How to embrace such ideas of creativity and imagination in research for forming new futures?

To answer this question I propose a combination of #design approaches with the epistemology of #socialconstruction, which can offer new possibilities in framing, reframing and “doing” research that value and endorse creativity and imagination. Both favor #pluralism; multiple voices, methods and values as well as encourage diversity in order to broaden our understanding of social realities.

Social Constructionist ideas encourage creativity and imagination in research, producing a more relationship-centered approach and context-related directions (see for a more in-depth read: Camargo-Borges 2017). Design, on the other hand is a sense-making activity in which the process of collecting/co-creating perceptions and experiences with people will produce what make sense for them, therefore new knowledge. Thus, instead of a linear and objective approach to research, both design and social construction invite participation, interaction and engagement in research and become an appealing combination to apply creativity and imagination.  

When developing a research combining the design approach with a constructionist view some core principles should be taken into account. These principles can guide decision-making during the research process (see for a more in-depth read: Bodiford & Camargo-Borges, 2014):

  • Embrace research as relational and collaborative. This principle puts relationships central and considers research as a collaborative journey. The invitation is to conduct research with and not for others. Participants are invited to bring their skills, knowledge, interests, experiences, and stories together to co-create the research/design process. As we engage in relational and collaborative endeavors, there is a move from the researcher/designer-as-expert to the researcher/designer-as-offering-expertise.
  • Research is useful and generative. The focus is on how the researcher engages in the investigation, aiming to create generative possibilities. As participants come together throughout the process, new understandings, new meanings, and new opportunities are co-created. Ultimately, the creative process produces meaningful solutions, appreciating each system as unique and embracing future possibilities.
  • Inquiry is organic and dynamic (or emergent). This principle emphasizes research as a fluid and dynamic process that unfolds as participants engage. While there is an emergent and organic nature to this way of thinking about research, this is not to say that there is no framework to conduct the inquiry, as having an articulated purpose is also important.
  • Engage in complexity and multiplicity. Designing a research from a constructionist perspective avoids causal or dualistic positions and engages complexity and multiplicity as rich, new soils for knowledge as action. Embracing complexity and multiplicity expands the view to involve the whole system, appreciating the many different voices involved and welcoming other opinions and points of view to multiply new options and enhance plurality.

These four principles have shaped a collaborative project between Dominican University in the U.S. and Health Nest Uganda (HENU) which I joined in February 2018 with a group of researchers. The research focused on strengthening health and health services from the point of older persons and health professionals. Our core question was: “What are the best practices, the best stories, the best resources that the community can support and expand?”

In this research, we worked together with students from the Dominican University, Chicago who were there to learn research in context, local partners (NGO and local hospitals) along with older persons, their families, health professionals, and the community in general to explore new possibilities on the topic. With a design and constructionist view in mind (and in action) we weren’t just interested in collecting data and knowledge, but also to co-create new knowledge, to be creative enough to engage and mobilize people to engage, reflect, and build upon existing strengths to improve health across the life course.

Our collaborative design research followed the #designthinking phases with the constructionist flavor, paying attention to the four principles mentioned above:  

Inspiration: Framing. Exploring the topic more deeply embracing all different perspectives (complexity & multiplicity principle), framing research questions, and preparing to work as a team. The general topic was defined together with the Older Persons Groups that identified four areas of health that were most important to them as they were already working to promote healthy and active lifestyles for themselves, their families, and their communities (relational & collaborative principle). The four areas were: Improve nutrition (aiming at gardens in every home); increase physical activity; sanitation and hygiene; and regular check ups in the community by the community.

Ideation: Data collection. The research teams visited the homes of old persons, health clinics and hospitals and engaged in Appreciative Conversations about the stories and actions people were taking to improve their own health, the health of their families, and the health of their communities (useful & generative principle). The invitation for the research was to collect success stories on the four areas, collecting different perspectives on how people were addressing challenges (complexity & multiplicity principle), and how people want to move forward.

Implementation: Making sense of data and creating action. Data from the Appreciative Conversations grew as conversations and interviews were happening (organic & dynamic principle) and then analyzed in order to develop possible themes for further exploration. Besides co-creating data and opportunities for action, on the last day of research, the research team, members of the Older Persons Groups, and the health clinic staff came back together to make sense of the themes, share stories around the themes, and develop action plans to strengthen health and services for older persons, their families, and their community (relational & collaborative as well as useful & generaltive principles). These included actions around strengthening family and intergenerational relationships, supporting family and community carers, promoting clinic community collaboration, supporting health professional and service development, increasing engagement and awareness and supporting healthy living practices, and increasing engagement and empowering Older Persons Groups. These action plans will be communicated back to the broader community for their ongoing input and engagement.

This research in #Uganda is an illustration of the ways in which #designthinking combined with a Social Construction epistemology can enact creativity and imagination during a research process. The four principles can act as guidance to assure the co-creation of knowledge among all participants, it supports generative action which eventually will lead to #innovation. Embracing creativity and imagination in research can be a powerful way to form new preferred futures with all involved.

Interested in more? Please visit:

For more in-depth reading:

Bodiford, K. and Camargo-Borges, C., (2014) "Bridging Research and Practice: Designing Research in Daily Practice," AI Practitioner.

Camargo-Borges, C.  (2017). Creativity and Imagination: Research as World Making! in: “Handbook of Arts-Based Research”, Patricia Leavy (editor). Guilford Press. Part I, chapter VI, Pages 88-100.