1. Introduction

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


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 isĀ  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.

image by jay christian

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.

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!


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.


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

image by Pep Pe
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.