Part 1. A carbon-neutral art museum through speculation with future citizens
The Museum-Carbon-Project of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, Korea (MMCA hereinafter) aimed at addressing the adversarial impact of the museum’s activities on climate change through a series of multidisciplinary events from August to November 2022. We, designers of New Design Studio (NDS hereinafter), got involved as one of 15 participating teams and worked out a series of workshops to help MMCA become carbon-neutral involving its constituents — citizens. Entitled as Carbon Neutral MMCA Imagined by Citizens (시민이 상상하는 국립현대미술관의 탄소중립 in Korean), the workshops engaged 164 people from all walks of life, along with 10 museum staff and 4 museum foundation employees. The project as a whole started in March and finished in November with the workshops taking place between August and November. With a series of posts on Medium, we share our project story and the artifacts we created to inspire other designers, artists, curators, and public servants alike working to make our society a bit more sustainable. The three posts are as follows: the first post (this one) is an overall introduction to the project, the second will show how we created the props used in our workshops, and the final one will be about our policy suggestions for MMCA’s carbon neutrality transition. Now, let’s kick things off with the first one!
By the end of 2021, we got a call from Yonghee Sung, one of the curators of MMCA. Sung told us that he and his colleagues were planning a multidisciplinary art project for 2022 to help explore what the museum’s carbon neutrality would look like. We were asked (1) to run workshops with visitors as a form of artistic experience and (2) to devise policy ideas that MMCA could use in the long run. It was an appealing opportunity for us to help MMCA build a carbon neutrality transition strategy as it is the most prominent public art museum in South Korea that not only collects, preserves, and exhibits artworks but also conducts academic research and promotes international exchanges. At the same time, it was challenging to strike a balance between designing a series of workshops that generates practical policy ideas and making it a solid art form at the same time.
Existing cases from around the world — perhaps too technical?
With growing awareness about climate change and its consequences, there has recently been a significant number of cases from (art) museums around the world that were making efforts to respond to climate change. For example, CIMAM, the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art, published an online toolkit to help contemporary art museum professionals start implementing the necessary changes to go carbon neutral. The toolkit helps chart relevant and practical information that art museums can immediately refer to and utilize. Meanwhile, the German Federal Cultural Foundation (Kulturstiftung des Bundes) ran a pilot project aiming at reducing carbon footprints by first measuring carbon emission rates and then creating a networking system of 19 local art institutions actively exchanging knowledge with each other.
While the above efforts are meaningful steps towards making museums more sustainable with varying approaches, most of the cases approached the problem from technical perspectives, such as saving energy, reducing waste, replacing light bulbs, or using reusable modular walls for exhibition halls. These are important to mitigate the environmental impact, but they do not cover everything related to sustainability transitions that call for radical shifts in all areas of society — for instance, behavior and practice-oriented ones. Scholars of design for sustainability transitions argue that the approaches should be transdisciplinary and aim at innovation at the societal and long-term levels (e.g., Gaziulusoy and Erdogan Öztekin, 2019). We thought the transition of an art museum towards carbon neutrality should be no different. This was our fundamental point of view.
Approach 1: Multiple rounds of participation in relay
When we started working with MMCA, we knew that we needed to engage with as many people as possible to invite a wide spectrum of perspectives and ensure the legitimacy of the eventual policy suggestions. That’s why we included not only museum-goers but also citizens of all ages in our workshops. We figured that, by getting people to think outside the box and together digging into the social and behavioral aspects of achieving carbon neutrality, we could come up with fresh ideas.
We had three big groups on board: museum staff, citizens, and us designers. Now, the big question was: “How do we facilitate, empower, and delegate through our workshops in such a way that each group’s unique positions and capabilities would be leveraged to the fullest in helping the museum achieve carbon neutrality?” We started by strategically identifying the unique roles of each group.
First, the museum staff are the experts on the ins and outs of the museum’s current system. They were our partners in crime in this project and decision- and policy-makers within the museum. Second, citizens are the experts in their own everyday lives, and have the potential to come up with fresh and diverse ideas from diverse perspectives and backgrounds. And finally, as designers, we come in with novel processes and visual materials to facilitate convivial interactions, visceral imaginations, and sometimes difficult discussions between the participants.
Once we laid out the strengths and roles of each participant group, we were then able to design the steps in which different workshops were connected in a meaningful way (check out Figure 2). The whole process formed a relay, where each group would build upon the previous group’s work. Our goal was to come up with policy suggestions while shifting the mindsets of the participants and hopefully also their behaviors through the discussions that take place throughout the workshops.
Approach 2: Future speculation starting with children
When we settled on the idea of relay workshops, we had three questions; (1) Whom should we involve to gain legitimacy in suggesting museum policy toward carbon neutrality? (2) How do we help the participants come up with meaningful opinions despite the complexity of the problems? (3) How do we gather opinions from citizens and translate them into policy ideas to deliver to the museum staff?
When we first set up the workshop, we strongly wanted to involve children. They’re the ones who will be most and longest affected by climate change, but they don’t have any agencies — political or otherwise — to change the world. We wanted to give them a voice and get their ideas for the museum.
However, we couldn’t just ask them direct questions — like “What would be the preferable future of MMCA toward carbon neutrality and what policy they need?” They might not have any direct answers, and that could harm the whole collaborative process. Plus, since we have a wide range of age groups in the mix, we wanted to make sure everyone felt included and engaged in a playful way.
We decided to invite the young participants to 2081 because no one can guarantee what the future will be like and therefore any idea, even somewhat ridiculous ones, can be acceptable. The teens and adults were brought to a nearer future, 2061, to imagine the museum trying to achieve carbon neutrality and come up with more feasible ideas. The ways in which the workshops are connected express our artistic — critical and political — message; designing imagination for the far future affects the nearer future, which empowers the unempowered to have agency shaping their own future.
Approach 3: Structured workshop sessions for imagination and constructive discussion
When designing the workshop session, we needed to be subtle and considerate in facilitating critical discussions relying on each participant’s imagination. Our strategy was to organize workshop sessions step-by-step, beginning with immersing participants in the far future and drawing people to form their own opinions about the museum’s policy in the midst of the climate crisis era. Each workshop was organized in the following order: (1) inviting participants to imagine the future of their own and their loved ones’ for empathy, (2) envisioning in their daily lives the expected changes caused by the climate crisis and its socio-cultural impacts, and (3) empowering participants to have a voice on the museum policy.
With children, we traveled to 2081 by yelling a spell from an old anime to travel to the future. Young participants imagined a day in life with their own hopes and dreams. To enable this, we told a story about a day of a fictitious character in a world that has become more inconvenient and frustrating due to climate change. After experiencing the possible changes, the young participants re-imagined their future, thinking about how it would be if the world were like the story we provided. They explored — physically moving around — MMCA in 2022 with critical eyes as future citizens to identify wastefulness in the ways the museum is run. They took instant photos to capture and problematize environmentally harmful behaviors to save their daily joys and dreams of the future. After returning to the workshop venue, they wrote a letter to adults of the present and the current museum staff with their own reflections, feelings, and demands for necessary change.
With more mature participants — teens and adults — we tasked them more directly to imagine and discuss the future of the museum. As we did with children, these participants were asked to imagine their own future and comprehend the change in the world — this time with fictitious newspaper articles (check out Figure 5). Based on their backgrounds and interests, the participants expressed their own perspectives and imagined the future of MMCA in teams. We provided the participants with four extreme scenarios we developed from the insights from earlier workshops with the children: Involuntarily closed MMCA when the carbon emission hits a set limit; MMCA opens only those exhibitions that are selected by the citizenry; Fully digitalized museum; 100% zero waste museum (read more about these in our second post). These four scenarios show how carbon neutrality can be achieved in four extreme ways, which works as a conversation starter for discussions we would not ordinarily have. With the people around the same table, the participants critically examined them and discussed what they meant to the museum and the people involved. They also discussed possible futures and the responsibility of MMCA for the broader ecosystem — the art scene in Korea and beyond.
Approach 4: Delivering the insights to MMCA in a structured framework for action and future references
After having engaged with 164 participants through twelve workshop sessions, we analyzed the discussions around each table and the letters written to MMCA staff of today. We synthesized a total of 624 insights, from which we generated a total of 104 policy ideas. In order to make them useful for MMCA, we used the Government as a System framework, which the UK Policy Lab created for open and proactive policy making environment.
Given the massive amounts of insights and ideas unearthed during our workshops, we further mapped them onto three of the framework mentioned above — (1) What MMCA is already doing well, (2) What MMCA should actualize in the near future, (3) What MMCA should consider in the long run (read more about these in our third post). The idea was to make it easier for the museum staff and the director to digest a large amount of information and make them consider what should be done in the near future.
We brought the outcomes above to a meeting with the director and a few of the staff of the exhibition team of MMCA on November 23, 2022. With those policy ideas mapped to the framework, we asked the meeting participants to move the ideas on the post-its while discussing their action plans. The director and museum staff were pleased with the ease of browsing all the insights at a glance and each idea mapped for the appropriate policy tools and steps, and shared their own insights on what can be done in their future steps. This was a highlight of the project, and we were happy to deliver what we had promised to the workshop participants — conveying the voices of citizens to the decision-makers with the agency for change.
As a policy design experiment to envision possible futures with citizens and build strategies towards a more sustainable future with the MMCA staff, the project follows the logic of the “participatory futuring” at large. Initially inspired by the speculative design projects by the likes of Dunne and Raby, we thought it would be great to let citizen participants explore possible futures of the museum, society, and themselves in the context of the climate crisis that we all anticipate is highly likely to happen. Our thinking was that this approach would help provoke critical reflections and debates about our shared future.
Le Guin once said, “The future is a sterile lab for trying out ideas in, a means of thinking about reality, a method” (Gunn, 2014). By using the future as a point of reference to step back to the present, we hoped to make it easier for our workshop participants — ordinary people without elite science or engineering education — to deliberate on the policy agenda surrounding the museum’s carbon neutrality in an approachable and playful way. We tasked citizen participants with envisioning the future and letting their hopes, preferences, values, expectations, worries, and new ideas surface in having engaging discussions. This was a building process and the ideas generated in the earlier sessions became resources to determine and drive the direction of the policy change for the sustainability transitions of the museum in the later sessions.
We admit that we were rather ambitious in aiming to cover all age groups, far futures, and multi-stakeholders, the practice was full of unexpected challenges and discrepancies. Sometimes it overwhelmed us, but it was a joyful and meaningful journey to experiment with new approaches. As we are not only a service and policy design studio but also a design research lab seeking to change the world for the better — especially together with people — we witnessed in this journey new possibilities of applying new tools and approaches. We believe stronger than before that the ways in which we engage with people and the tools we create and use in doing so can be beneficial to imagine a multitude of futures and create a more legitimate policy to a preferred one. This is why we’re disseminating our experiences and desire to develop these further.
Albeit small, our hope is becoming a reality. We just are kicking off a project to further develop the line of work we’ve done with MMCA into an educational program for Gwacheon National Science Museum, the largest and most important science museum in South Korea. We are also in discussion with a government agency to explore the ways in which the efforts to make carbon neutrality a discourse and agenda in the Korean art scene. All of these are really exciting opportunities for us as a design studio and research group, as well as our society as a whole as we need more fresh approaches and experimentation for a more sustainable world, not less.
In our next post, we share the artifacts we designed for the citizens’ workshop and our intent behind them to a greater extent. And in our third and final post, we share the project outcome in more detail and introduce the framework we borrowed from the UK Policy Lab — and a Korean translation of it!
To learn more about the MMCA Museum-Carbon-Project and all fifteen projects including ours, visit HERE.
If you want to work with us or try a new policy experiment, contact us. We are always ready to view problems in new ways and bring a healthy impact to society. To see who we are and what we do other than carbon neutrality and futuring, visit our website: www.newdesign.studio
Written by Hyori Lee, Minju Han, Kezia Odelia and Seungho Park-Lee
- Gaziulusoy, I., & Erdoğan Öztekin, E. (2019). Design for sustainability transitions: Origins, attitudes and future directions. Sustainability, 11(13), 3601.
- Dunne, A., & Raby, F. (2013). Speculative everything: design, fiction, and social dreaming. MIT press.
- Gunn, E. (2014, May). How America’s leading science fiction authors are shaping your future. Smithsonian. Retrieved June 13, 2023, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-americas-leading-science-fiction-authors-are-shaping-your-future-180951169/