In Need of Transformation… Are we CreaTures of the Future?

In 2015, I represented the Arts and Humanities Research Council at a summit with environmental scientists, social scientists and humanities scholars from many parts of the world to determine research funding priorities. Throughout, I found I was raising my hand to observe that the group had, yet again, said ‘science and social science’ with no mention of the arts or humanities, particularly in defining valuable policy areas related to climate change, transformation and adaptation. 

Fast forward five years and nothing much has changed in that respect, though so many other aspects of the climate crisis are different. 

Around us grassroots organizations, from Transition Towns (see Rob Hopkins’ new book on imagination) to Extinction Rebellion (arguing that a new regenerative culture is needed), point out that the emergency we are facing needs multiple approaches. Scientists have stopped presenting themselves as impassive fact-finders to make impassioned pleas for action. Predictions about our chances of restraining the climate without full-scale system change are on the decline and the voices of both scientific consensus and imperiled communities are raised to argue for radical forms of adaptation. Intersections with fossil fuel funding, rampant capitalism, “extractivism”, racism, and the need for social and ecological justice have started to dominate discussion in activist camps.

In other words, a purely technical fix is off the cards. Behaviour change at the level of household recycling is clearly not enough. And the argument for rethinking north-western cultures to value resources and be more sensitive to life in all its forms has become pressing.

Luckily, while the focus has been on science and social science, hundreds of thousands of artists, community leaders, alternative designers, citizen groups, theatre makers, and creative practitioners of all sorts were devising practical responses to this pressing need to rethink relations in the world. I am one such design researcher, looking at how we might understand our world as designed-therefore-designable, to help people take action to change it. 

As well as devising transformative tools, I have been collating techniques from across the broad spread of creative practice that, together, appear to help creative practitioners move hearts as well as minds from ‘business-as-usual’ to a spirit of constructive change. 

A common thread of practice runs through some of what the arts and humanities are advocating to support radical change in cultures, despite the fact that the practitioners are called by different names and use different vocabularies. This common process makes quiet, slow transformations, helps people identify what is meaningful to them and inspires participants with a sense of purpose. It is not very discernible for a number of reasons:

  1. as mentioned, it goes by different names and with different stated goals,
  2. it is highly fragmented; it does not have a single community advocating for it, 
  3. unlike science, which appears more systematic, there is a lot of variation in starting points, reflecting different interests, cultures and traditions. This is because the process has to start with what is already meaningful to people and this varies widely. 

But for the last few years, colleagues and I have been identifying core components of the transformations possible as part of our research. The headlines so far include:

  • Starting with where people are already at;
  • Working in groups, ideally of existing relations that will endure;
  • Making time for reflection together on the world, and also on any emotional responses to what is going on;
  • Involving people as participants, not observers;
  • Imagining difference on a scale that is meaningful for the participants.

Now, we have funding to look at the detail. CreaTures, a 3M Euro project funded by the European Union and involving 5 countries, four universities and 6 creative organisations, launched this month. CreaTures stands for Creative Practices for Transformational Futures and it will spend 3 years researching which aspects of arts and creative practice are contributing across this fragmented, but rich and active, scene. With my team, I am leading part of the analysis, looking at existing work and identifying themes in what our partners are producing. 

We know the work of making cultural change is slow and patient. We know that time is running out for mitigation solutions that halt climate change and the instabilities it is bringing. Cultural change brings the promise of both mitigation (a world acting with care) and adaptation (populations adjusting for change). Humans are going to have to work together in some terrible conditions in the next few years – and finding fulfillment in that collaborative work will be one means of protecting social cohesion. It has never been more important to learn from the knowledge traditions that look to meaning, care and co-construction. The funding of CreaTures as a research project based entirely in the arts and humanities shows that perhaps the tide can be turned in policy too. We will be creating a framework with our partners to help evaluate these important practices and make them visible.  After all, funding creative practitioners across the globe is cheaper than installing most technological infrastructure and is, longer term, likely to result in more effective management of resources.

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