Navigating future culture

Last month I was at an interesting conference called Rising Tide: Navigating the Future of Cultural Learning*.

*A quick note on what Cultural Learning is: In the UK it embraces the Arts but also history, diverse cultural heritage, digital creativity, science engagement, design and the built environment, and its provision mainly for Children and Young People but also for their communities and for lifelong learning.

You can see here what the speakers thought were the major challenges of navigating the future. Their provocations could be boiled down to these:

We need a 21st Century enlightenment for tomorrow’s children, and it should be our ambition as a country that all work should be fair and purposeful.

We need to bend the rules on how we might label things, people, and subjects of study, and learn from people practising outside the mainstream.

We must help children become active, tolerant and loving global citizens, with access to truthful information.

We must hold fast to belief in the power of the arts to enable nuanced, free and radical expression.

And, a question: How, through culture, will we build the scholars that will thrive in the future?

There were other contributors too, for example, Baroness Lola Young as conference host, who mused on the title ‘Rising Tide’, seeing it as a positive movement, an upswell of the voice of young people perhaps.

Tim Etchell’s The Future Will be Confusing

I felt that these were all bolder than I was used to hearing at such a conference (big tick) but at the same time, still not getting to what matters (big cross). This got me thinking, if I was asked to issue a provocation about navigating the future of culture and education, what would I say?

I’d want to say: The future in every respect, and therefore in terms of culture and education, is on current indications likely to be more confusing and dreadful than you can imagine, so we must firmly establish all the opportunities for young people to be extraordinarily imaginative, practically skilled, analytical and empathetic, in ways that are ecological, flexible and collaborative.

But how much more extraordinary do these capacities have to be? How can we make extraordinary accelerated learning happen? And how can we start to imagine just how much more confusing and dreadful this future will be than we can imagine? And how can we overcome this imagination challenge with energy and hope, so that we can involve young people and resist the dreadfulness?

The typical approach to imagining the future is to create scenarios, with limited defining characteristics. These are often limited by a matrix with two axes. For example:

This approach is helpful as it scaffolds a framework for our imagining. But it can also feel inadequate for complex and critically uncertain situations. We could base our scenarios on many specific technology, social or political trends e.g. people stop reading and only listen to content, or automation replaces many jobs, or cybersecurity becomes so threatening that we stop using the internet. And scenarios vary between different countries/regions, and that can lead to ideological differences and conflict.

But all of these significant trends and ideological differences pale into insignificance when set in the geophysical context which is rapidly and critically changing.

Future scenarios that we envisage, to be as realistic as we can manage, should be:


However, we don’t even think like this:

“TREND + TREND (climate change + other breached boundaries).”

No, we think about the future like this:

“TREND! TREND! TREND! Yay! Lists! Progress!”

We not only bracket out the geophysical factors, we make them disappear, or we push them further down a list of issues, as if they are not part of the system, not part of our world. But what we must consider is the ways that these geophysical elements exponentially multiply and explosively disrupt the trends we are considering.

Perhaps the first thing I would show is what should be headline news every day. A trillion ton iceberg has broken off Antarctica. There has been a wealth of consensus research this year announcing that the state of the climate is greatly more alarming than the IPCC position, that tipping points for feedback effects have been passed, that we will see a much more rapid increase in more severe floods, fires, storms, drought, disease, earthquakes and starvation as a result. We are heading for the warmest climate in half a billion years. This New York magazine article tells it like it is most likely to be: “parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.” Wallace-Wells lays out our schedule in a tour of the near future: Heat death, the end of food, climate plagues, unbreathable air, perpetual war, permanent economic collapse and poisoned oceans. He does end by hoping/assuming that we will find our way to engineer the planet out of the worst of it. (Yes, I know there has been a backlash to this article, and it does squeeze the worst cases into a small space without much room for stories of variability. But the truth is that climate catastrophe began to unfold in the 70s and the Sixth Mass Extinction is underway, however you try to varnish or qualify it.)

It does not help that Trump has pulled out of the already ineffectual Paris Agreement, and is getting ever cosier with Russia, a country intent on plundering oil while its Siberian tundra already burns in mega-fires and belches methane. The fossil fuel lobby, along with other ecocidal industrialists, are holding the reins of power across these two hyper-nations and exerting pressure using cyber-warfare and media corruption amongst other tools in order to weaken the EU and other international mechanisms of regulation. Brexit is one result of this interference, this coup, and I haven’t even got started on the chaotic possibilities of Brexit.

Still screenshot (no video there) From the Washington Post

I don’t know though. Would you be brave enough to open your conference speech with an image of an iceberg that will rise sea levels faster than we expected, even if the event title was called Rising Tide? If asked to speak on climate change, and outside a context of cultural or educational organisations, I don’t hesitate. If asked to speak on culture or arts education, I erase it more than I feel is desirable. I worry that looking directly at it will be too alarming, too distracting, too paralysing, and basically, not what was asked for.

I know it is totally appropriate, logically, to lead the hyper-sized elephant of climate change (and, the other breached planetary boundaries) into the room and to keep pointing to it. But what about the etiquette? What about fitting in with the culture of the group? What about sensitivity to people’s emotional needs?

It seems to me that in being bold, imagining a multitude of possible solutions to the wicked problems we face, we are going to breach some etiquette. In thinking about the needs of people globally, we may upset our colleagues, our family, our community. And the more that right-wing agitators, supported by the mainstream media, scream in anger at foreign aid, climate action and care for refugees, the harder it will be not to offend some people.

Daily Mail front page against climate disaster aid

It comes down to what the dominant framing is about what ‘good’ looks like. Most good actions that people feel most able to take, and are generally praised for, are in the top left of this matrix: Human-centric and micro or local.

It is a stretch for most people to shift into meaningful actions for other people on a large scale (e.g. into the top right square, beyond national borders or working politically to combat social injustice), or with an ecological mindset (e.g. into the bottom left square, embracing other species along with humans as deserving of rights, or working systematically to ensure eco-social justice). It is such a great stretch for people to move into the bottom right square, which is the square where we needed to be 40 years ago to combat catastrophic environmental change, that the few people who are driven to be there spend most of their efforts trying to find ways to persuade others to shift even into the top left square, or to find ways to survive in work that is unrecognised and unfunded at best, and risking murder and imprisonment in some countries.

So, coming back to the question about how we might navigate the future of cultural learning, here are some suggestions:

  1. We need to learn from other contexts that have suffered great uncertainty and deprivation, in the past or elsewhere in the world. What role has culture and creative learning played? How has it survived? The places where it has not thrived, despite war and famine, is where extremist ideologies have repressed free expression and joyful creativity. This tells us that we must protect our rights to expression above all.
  2. Rather than trying to predict the future in terms of fixed and new types of jobs or creative practices, we need to think about nurturing capacities or ‘permanent skills’ which young people can adapt to changing contexts. These contexts will almost undoubtedly require them to step up to tackle grand challenges or wicked problems. These will include dealing with climate disasters, producing food, regenerating ecosystems, devising new technologies that reduce waste and pollution, defusing conflict and caring for the sick. This will require the kinds of imaginative and emotional labour that a rich cultural education can enhance.
  3. We need to reconnect to places, to stop thinking of place-making as regeneration for financial capital and instead think of it as nurturing cultural and ecological capital for the sake of peaceful, healthy and co-operative communities. In other words, rather than going places and navigating the world — as perhaps we did in growing the British Empire and a globalised economy — we need to start going back to our own places.

Rather than navigating a future, we need to build it and to establish strong foundations in our communities, where culture and creativity are valued along with the more material resources that we need to thrive in body, mind and spirit.