Uncertain, Contested, and Ultimately Shared: Collaborative Tools For Constructing the Future

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The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust of Australia
Report by David Finnigan, 2012 Churchill Fellow

I am an Australian writer, theatre-maker and arts producer. In 2012, I was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to undertake a research trip to study the intersection of science and the performing arts.

Over January – March 2014 I travelled to 13 cities in North America, Europe and Asia, visiting arts and science institutions and meeting science-arts practitioners. Upon returning to Australia and undertaking several months of further study, I submitted my research report to the Churchill Trust for publication.

This report outlines some of the key insights and discoveries from my study trip and brings together some of the innovative and valuable ideas, theories and stories I received from over fifty meetings with inspiring individuals working across the full spectrum of science, arts and social innovation practice.

More than that, this report brings together learning and knowledge I’ve gained through ten years working in the space between the arts (mostly theatre and interactive performance) and the sciences (mostly climate and earth systems science). Rather than trying to capture the scope and diversity of contemporary science-arts practice, I instead focused on several strands that have been especially relevant to me. In this way, the report is  a fairly comprehensive articulation of my practice up to this point: it is a reflection of where I have come to so far, and a statement of intent about where I plan to go from here.

I focus in particular on two emerging fields of science-arts: Experiential Futures and Systems Gaming. I believe these two fields possess immense potential social value.

In coming years, Australia (like most nations) will face significant challenges and threats arising from changing climates, changing world populations and globalised economies, which have the potential to seriously destabilise our society and way of life. As a society, we are currently ill-equipped to deal with these large, complex and interconnected challenges.

I believe that certain science-art practices can help us to prepare for and respond to large-scale system-wide crises. In this report I look at the potential for science-art fields to provide Australians with new tools and strategies to help us deal with complexity. I argue that fields such as Experiential Futures and Systems Gaming may play a crucial part in helping Australia and Australians address the challenges facing us as we move deeper into the 21st century.

The title of this report is a quote from Mike Raupach et al’s introduction to Negotiating Our Future: Living Scenarios for Australia to 2050, published by the Australian Academy of Science: ‘We face three basic realities: the future is uncertain, contested and ultimately shared.’

If you’re curious, get amongst it! Feel free to leave a comment on any of the entries if something jumps out at you, and feel free to email me also: I’m at uncertaincontestedshared at gmail.

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NOTE ABOUT STRUCTURE
Despite the blog format, this website is ordered top to bottom – you can start at the top and work your way down. If you get to the bottom of the page, just hit ‘Older Posts’ and it will keep unfolding. Otherwise, the chapter headings run down the right-hand column – just navigate using them if you prefer.

NOTE FOR PRACTITIONERS
Appendix B: Working in the Third Culture: Belief and Techniques for Science-Art Collaboration is intended mostly for fellow science-arts practitioners or people interested in getting involved in the field. That chapter gets into the nuts and bolts of undertaking science-art collaborations.

It’s not exactly a how-to guide, more a selection of suggetions, advice and stories gleaned from all the people I met on this trip, and gathered together into six ‘lessons’. If anyone has anything to add, further suggestions and/or stories are very welcome – please throw in a comment!

THE CHURCHILL TRUST

Full acknowledgments and thanks for this report are here, but first and foremost, this report was made possible through the generous support of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust – huge thanks to them.

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Personal background

I began a career as a playwright immediately upon leaving school in 2001. As a member of Canberra’s small but active independent theatre community, I learned the craft of theatre-making from a number of different angles: as writer, performer, director, producer and (poorly) designer. One way to view the art of theatre is to say that it creates experiences – working together, a group of artists constructs a journey for an audience, taking them on a trajectory through different feelings, images, stories and ideas. After more than a decade in this industry, I have developed a keen appreciation for the power of the best theatre to create innovative and affective experiences that can provoke all kinds of feelings and shifts in behaviour in audiences.

Boho in 2008. Image by 'pling
Boho in 2008. From left to right: me, Michael Bailey, David Shaw and Jack Lloyd. Image by ‘pling.

Although my key focus was theatre, I have always been interested in contemporary science. In 2005, with three close collaborators I formed a company called Boho, with the intention of creating theatre drawing on concepts from science. This proved to be a major turning point for my practice, as we began to research science topics and to work directly with research scientists. My initial curiosity about science gradually evolved into a major career focus, as the audience and critical response to Boho’s work made two things clear: firstly, that working with scientists pushed our theatre into new and exciting places, and secondly, that there is a real and compelling need for more people across society to have access to the tools and ideas of contemporary science.

In recent years, these two strands of practice have prompted me to reflect that there might be a real and significant social value in the combination of arts and science practice: that the sciences could offer artists new and important stories about the world today, and that the arts could offer scientists innovative and vital means through which to talk to the world.

As the debate around climate change in Australia has devolved into partisan politics and broader issues such as population growth, wealth inequality, resource scarcity and technological and social shifts have been largely absent from our public discourse, I have grown concerned about our country’s capacity to engage constructively with the big questions about our future. I wondered whether science-arts practice may be able to help fill that gap.

In undertaking a Churchill Fellowship, I hoped to explore the potential for science-arts collaboration to help facilitate a broader engagement with the complex problems that face our society, and identify what frameworks might exist to support this engagement.

Boho in 09 - image by 'pling
A 2009 Boho performance – me on the left, David Shaw on the right. Image by ‘pling.

Research Methodology

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talking in NYC – image by Pep Pe

Travelling to the USA, Canada, Britain, Sweden, Poland, China, Japan and Singapore, I spoke with many people working at the intersection of science and arts, and in government and public policy.

Each of these conversations opened up new ideas, prompted new connections, raised more questions and spawned new conversations. In this report I focus on several key threads which I believe are particularly exciting and could be of potential benefit to Australia in the near future.

Throughout the report I have avoided adopting formal academic protocols or quoting in detail from interviews. Nevertheless, all the ideas in this document are indebted to my informants, directly adopted from or heavily inspired by.

The chapter on Experiential Futures is heavily drawn from the work of futurist Stuart Candy, whose 2010 PhD dissertation on Experiential Futures grounded my definition and suggested many of the illustrative examples of the field.

The chapter on Systems Gaming builds on my work at the University College London Environment Institute over 2011-12 as part of a Boho’s residency to develop a new Systems Gaming work. My understanding of systems science and game design is mostly thanks to the hands-on learning I shared with David Shaw, Nikki Kennedy, Nathan Harrison and Rachel Roberts, and with significant contributions from Tassos Stevens and Dr Yvonne Ridin.

2. ENGAGING AUSTRALIANS IN THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION

Image by Peter Newmanimage by Peter Newman

 

‘A fundamental challenge for Australia – indeed for any society – is to shape its own future. In this effort, we face three basic realities: the future is uncertain, contested, and ultimately shared.’
– Precis from the Australian Academy of Sciences for Negotiating our future: living scenarios for Australia to 2050

The Problem

THE PROBLEM: The population of Australia is under-informed and under-engaged with the complex issues impacting the nation.

We as a population are responsible for the nation of Australia, with a government and public service that works for us – or at least on our behalf – to manage and deliver the future Australia we desire.

However, for many of us there is very little public engagement with the question of Australia’s future, or what country we want. Most Australians have virtually no opportunity to consider, or platform to express, the kind of Australia they want to be working toward.

We are responsible for this country, and yet our contribution to its direction is usually limited to voting for a preferred candidate in an election.

The government has access to those sorts of planning processes, as do many corporate entities, where they work with specialists to visualise their preferred future and how they might achieve it, but these do not usually include the public.

As a population, we are not always equipped to be able to tell whether the government is taking us towards or away from the future we want, because we do not have a picture of that future or metrics to measure progress toward it, nor are we often prompted or provoked to.

In addition to being under-engaged, the news available to most Australians about the problems facing us is low in information content and often distorted by partisan media bias. It is not always possible or practical to sort the signal from the noise.

As a consequence, the Australian population tends to be ill-served by media and consequently uninformed, particularly with regard to complex and interlinked crises such as climate change.

Not only are there insufficient platforms for most Australians to engage with the broader issues facing the country, we are not equipped to take advantage of those that do exist.

Topics such as vaccines, genetically modified food, nuclear power and climate change are examples of areas where ideology rather than evidence tends to drive discourse.

Climate change in particular has been drastically polarised in the media. As futurist Ken Eklund puts it, climate change has become ‘a scorched earth war of talking points with no safe place left for the common person to venture hopes or fears or express what they know.’

The power to make decisions for the country, and the critical tools to make sense of these choices, rests with a vanishingly small subset of the population.

In the long run, this is to no-one’s benefit.

The Goal

GOAL: A broader and deeper engagement for Australians with questions of Australia’s future and the system-wide challenges we face.

My ideal for this country is that:

1. More Australians from more diverse backgrounds are engaged in defining the Australian nation and shaping its future, as well as contributing their efforts to finding solutions for the major challenges we face. (broader engagement)

2. The processes through which government departments, political parties and policy makers consult the public, communicate information and facilitate public discussion are refined and improved to enable more sophisticated and constructive engagement with the public. (deeper engagement)

There are many different ways toward this goal, none of which is definitively better than the rest. Instead, each of us must find the most effective place to intervene, according to our skills and capacities.

Science-Art

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In this report I propose that two recent evolutions in the intersection between scientific research and the creative arts have generated tools which could potentially facilitate broader and deeper engagement between Australia’s government and its people.

Experiential Futures and Systems Gaming are emerging fields that combine the insights of a scientific discipline (Futures Studies and Systems Science, respectively) with techniques and aesthetics taken from a rich mix of creative artforms including film, theatre, visual art and game design.

  • Experiential Futures uses the tools and techniques of the arts to manifest tangible elements from hypothetical futures in the present day, in order to stimulate a more rigorous and holistic discussion around planning and preparing for the future.
  • Systems Gaming creates interactive scenarios for participants to explore the behaviour of real-life complex systems such as farms, businesses, forests or cities.

Although the two strands of work evolved separately and from different origins, there are some instructive similarities between them.
In both cases, my argument is the same: systems scientists and futurists have developed valuable theoretical tools to help in understanding and responding to the complex issues facing our society.

These insights and methods have broad applications but do not require specialist training to understand or make use of.

In both cases, these tools have been eagerly adopted by policy-makers and private businesses, to enrich their planning and strategy processes. There is no reason why they could not be equally valuable to the general public; except that up until the present time, there have been no channels through which these ideas can spread outside the scientific community.

Experiential Futures and Systems Gaming emerged when futurists and systems scientists began to adopt methods and tools from the creative arts to help communicate their work.

As these scientists began engaging artists on projects – first as consultants, then as collaborators – new ideas and possibilities began to emerge.

The principles and practices of these scientific disciplines meshed with the particular aesthetics and approaches of the artists, and prompted new and novel directions to explore.

In both instances, the intersection of the scientific field with the arts has resulted in a new hybrid form, where the key insights from the science discipline are manifested in distinctive performances, films, installations and games.

In other words, the combination of science and arts has, in these two instances, resulted in provocative creative works that are nevertheless rigorously grounded in science.

The success of these hybrid forms is particularly surprising when you consider the barriers that often mitigate against effective science-art collaboration, which I will discuss in Chapter 5.

Between them, these fields have generated:

  • Tools to help us construct a positive, rather than reactive, vision for our future, to articulate where we want to go as a country in the context of what the possibilities are.
  • Tools to help us frame and analyse the complex problems we face in a useful context, and with an understanding of the bigger picture they’re part of, rather than piecemeal and one at a time as they are presented to us.

Practitioners in these fields are already engaging audiences in constructive, scientifically-informed dialogue around complex issues, and eliciting meaningful contributions from a wide variety of community stakeholders. There is now strong potential for these activities to be disseminated more broadly and in a range of social contexts.

Conclusion

Both Experiential Futures and Systems Gaming are new forms that have emerged only in the last decade. Although they show genuine potential to grow and evolve into more mature forms, there is still a chance that they will lose their coherence and fade away, absorbed back into the milieus from which they emerged.

What I can confidently predict is that the fertile ground between the arts and sciences will continue to produce important, innovative collaborations with huge social value potential.

Investing in this sector at this early stage is cost effective, and the potential benefits, significant.

In Chapters 3 and 4 I describe in more detail the work being done in the fields of Experiential Futures and Systems Gaming. Finally, I conclude with key recommendations arising from this research fellowship.

OUR RIGHT TO THE FUTURE

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In the precis to the Australian Academy of Science’s 2011 book Negotiating our future: living scenarios for Australia to 2050, the Academy notes that, ‘The future is uncertain, contested, and ultimately shared.’

It’s a memorable phrase with serious implications, which is why I co-opted it for the title of this report. The writers go on to say:

‘The uncertainty of the future is experienced everywhere, from weather to politics to the fragility of human existence. The contestability of the future is also familiar, from struggles between people and groups of different convictions for control of choices about pathways. Yet as the future rolls inevitably into the present, multiple pathways and choices crystallise into actual events that form shared realities for individuals, communities and nations.’

The Academy’s members assert that we as Australian citizens have a fundamental right to contribute to the shaping of Australia’s future. Each of us must be able to share our vision for the country’s future, to speak and be listened to.

As they say: ‘Grappling with these realities is only possible through conversation, at national scale and over a prolonged period.’

However, as the Academy has pointed out elsewhere, at this time the only groups regularly engaged in forecasting and planning for Australia’s long-term future are politicians and private corporations.

This was the impetus for the series of public forums held as part of the Australia 2050 project over 2012-13, in which the Academy invited members of the public to take part in conversations about the country’s future and to share their views.

As valuable as those public forums were, it is not enough to simply have a platform where we can voice our innermost hopes and fears about the future; we need to be supported to help us use this opportunity effectively.

It is simple to respond emotionally to the events of today; it is extremely difficult to think constructively about the world 10, 20 or 50 years from now. For most of us it is difficult to critically and constructively imagine something so abstract, and public forums without careful guidance run the risk of losing focus and descending into platitudes.

If we non-specialists wish to contribute meaningfully to the shaping of Australia’s future, we need access to tools that can help us shape our thinking around this difficult topic.

We need frameworks and structures that can help us visualise the possible shapes of the world to come, and to help form our most deeply-felt opinions and dreams into tangible, achievable visions for a future Australia.

Critical tools for thinking about the future do exist. This is the domain of futurists, who over the last few decades have developed a sophisticated and varied set of strategies and methods to help us come to grips with the challenge of looking ahead.