2. Engaging Australians in the National Conversation

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

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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

Garcia Barrios - MESMIS 04

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.