Recommendations for policy and funders on how and why to engage with creative practice to bring about change towards more sustainable futures
1. A crisis of the imagination
As the global ecological and climate crisis grows, it becomes more and more clear that the ‘usual’ ways of dealing with change are not going to be enough. This is not just a crisis of management or of the pace and roll-out of new technologies. It is more fundamentally a crisis of political and social imagination – a limited ability to imagine, and therefore enact, better futures beyond current, destructive modes of being. But this raises other questions: What do societies need to be able to imagine better futures in a way that actually matters for change? Who gets to imagine these futures and who is left out? How do they relate to the everyday experiences of diverse groups of people? Implicit in this is the need to go beyond individual behavior change, with shifts in relationships, cultures and structures across society.
Eco-social sustainability is about a way of living that is just, and does not privilege any person or group of people at the expense of other people, other beings or the planet. A way of living that is multi-generational, multi scalar, relational, and pluralistic. It is a way of co-existing between species that is of benefit to all living beings, and that pays attention to the most fundamental question – what does it mean to thrive in the world, and who gets to thrive?
This is where we can turn to creative practices as a source of change. There is an intuitive, though often implicit understanding that creative practices have a unique power to engage people, communities and organizations at the deepest levels of emotion, meaning and imagination. But there is limited understanding about the connection between creative practice and societal change, and a need for greater direction about what can really be done to support powerful creative practices.
Transformation refers to major societal change – in material conditions, in the ways things are done and the skills that exist to do them, and the meanings people give to the world. We can understand transformations as happening all around us constantly – through politics, technology and cultural changes. However, we can also think of the better future we are imagining as needing transformation. How do we fundamentally shift existing systems, economies, institutions to create a better world?
2. The CreaTures approach
The CreaTures project is an EU-funded collaborative effort between creative practitioners and researchers across Europe to help unlock the potential of creative practices for more sustainable, eco-social futures. At the heart of the project is the Laboratory, in which we commissioned 20 ‘experimental productions’.
In parallel, the Observatory reviews 140 further examples of transformative creative practice. Here we identified 25 ways that creative practitioners are working towards change – what can be called Creative Pathways towards better futures.
The CreaTures project also focuses on engagement – reaching out to publics everywhere across Europe with festivals, presentations and interactive sessions, and reaching over 337.000 people in 15 countries.
While representing a rich diversity of approaches, these examples shared the ambition of inspiring societal transformation involving deep and structural change.
Throughout the CreaTures project, we have spoken with policy makers, funders and others that support creative practice. We have focused on variations of the question: how can policy, funding, and other types of support help unlock the power of creative practices for better futures?
3. How creative practice stimulates transformative change – nine dimensions
“One of the important things about the creative sector is helping us to understand what we think, why we think it and to challenge some of those thoughts in serious or in humorous ways [it is], hugely important in revealing ourselves to ourselves and in generating the storylines that people use to shape our understandings of the world and how it works” - Policy interviews, Scotland
“Policy needs to up its game. It needs to be more ambitious. There’s a lot of focus on psychological approach to behaviour change. I don’t buy into the psychological approach, I am more into the sociological approach to change” - Policy interviews, Scotland
A key focus for CreaTures is the evaluation of creative practices for transformative change. We have found that creative practitioners, policy makers, funders and researchers struggle to communicate with each other regarding the value of creative practices as a way to stimulate change. Relationships between creative practices and change processes are complex and often hard to grasp. They run the risk of being flattened and oversimplified on the one hand, or kept very vague and anecdotal on the other.
The Nine Dimensions tool was developed to help reflective evaluations of how creative practice can bring about change – providing a multidimensional frame that captures the richness of creative practice while still making it manageable. This tool emerged from in-depth design processes with our creative practitioners and from dialogues with policy makers and funders. Importantly, the tool is also supported by an extensive literature review that helps provide a research basis for its change mechanisms. The full version of the Nine Dimensions tool can be found here on the CreaTures Framework.
The tool contains descriptions of each dimension, a summary of literature showing how each dimension links to societal change, and guiding questions for investigating each dimension. These questions include descriptive questions – which help map and track what is happening; and ‘so what?’ questions – which help make sense of why it matters, who was involved and not involved, and more.
4. Examples of creative practices stimulating transformative change
What does creative practice look like that actively aims to create a better future? How can the Nine Dimensions be applied to understand the change? Here we provide examples from the 20 ‘experimental productions’ that formed part of the CreaTures project in relation to how stimulate transformative action and change.
The Treaty of Finsbury Park 2025explores new ways to build empathy with non-human lifeforms through play in a London park. It is a collaborative storytelling project that depicts the dawning of interspecies democracy. It begins by describing a new era of equal rights for all living beings, where species come together to organise and shape the environments and cultures they inhabit in Finsbury Park. Based around a set of live and online LARPs — or live action roleplay games — the Treaty of Finsbury Park 2025 is played from more-than-human perspectives to encourage blooming biodiversity and interspecies political action. Thinking like a dog, bee or even grass and help change the way we all see and participate in our local urban green spaces.
This is an example of stimulating action through:
Embodying: The Treaty production really shines when it comes to the ‘meanings’ dimensions. Participants in the roleplaying describe many new sensations, experiences and reflections associated with actively embodying other species. Descriptions of this embodiment contain many descriptions of surprise and emotional impact. “This is a whole other way of being, which was really exciting. Suddenly I felt different. Even though I didn't know how to feel different.” – player reflection
Caring:Participants reported an expanded sense of wanting to care for other species, but also commented on the tension, intended by the project organizers, between representing other species while still being human players. Players commented that it was sometimes challenging to really engage in the conflicts that might have to be worked through between different species, because players wanted to stay civil with other players, most of whom they’d never met before. “I very much like the idea actually that poo is not just waste, but it's actually our very language. If you think about it, that's something we all share, that's how we collaborate, how we live together.” – player reflection
Co-creating:Players create roles, interactions and ideas for park activities together, building a shared world of experience and action. “It was interesting when we touched on what is necessary for each species and what's your highest desire if you like. In terms of thinking about managing the park to best serve biodiversity I think that there's a question about what extent do you consider needs and desires.” – player reflection
Commonspolyis a non-profit, opensource board game that encourages a culture of cooperation, and questions the violent model of neoliberal privatisation. Players must cooperate with other players to prevent privatisation and liberate as many goods as possible. The goal is to turn them into public goods or, even better, common ones. Players work together as a team to fight against an atomised dystopia.
This is an example of stimulating action through:
Learning: The game provides opportunity to reflect on basic assumptions and worldviews embedded in neoliberal socio-economic systems. It works towards eco-social change by bringing together stakeholders interested in commons to negotiate and imagine various strategies and engage in critical discussion. It encourages critical thinking about hegemonic ideas and unsustainable practices through the commoning principles embedded in the game.
Organising: The game creates a foundation for on-the-ground actions, like community buyouts, redistribution of resources that benefit local places & communities, and can help groups organise around shared understandings of the benefits of commons and direct democracy. The collective sense-making that takes place during the game contributes to people's ability to tackle complex issues like inequality and the uneven distribution of resources together, while creating a community of practice around these themes.
Co-creating: The game allows for collective creating of methods and processes, shaping the possibility space for action in sustainability. editable game files are available on the project website to encourage collaborative game development, which is further supported through co-creative events with diverse local communities.
We have used the Nine Dimensions tool to analyze all 20 CreaTures experiments to arrive at key insights across these projects. From this analysis, we conclude that creative practices with the most transformative potential combined 1) learning and imagining based in deep, situated embodiment with 2) lots of possibilities for growth and adaptation of the practice by others. Care stands out as a powerful dimension in CreaTures. Outside of the project this is far less of a focus, but theory and practice show this as having strong transformative potential. Co-creative approaches almost always seem to offer many benefits over less co-creative approaches – allowing participants to develop co-ownership, share ideas, develop relationships, and develop skills. Empowerment and subversion were evident among many of the project experiments, but there is scope for more development here: about the ‘who’ of empowerment, about how challenging/subversive transformative creative work should be, and about gentle versus more aggressive subversion.
5. Stepping back: considerations when evaluating the role of creative practice in stimulating change
“We really need the helicopter to go up a bit to a higher level, and to look at our challenges across the system together” - Policy interviews, the Netherlands
“One of the important things about the creative sector is helping us to understand what we think, why we think it and to challenge some of those thoughts in serious or in humorous ways” - Policy interviews, Scotland
We set out below some key considerations when evaluating the role of creative practice in stimulating action, based on conversations with policy makers and funders, as well as through a review of literature on evaluation and impact. These considerations are especially focused on the role of evaluation, agenda setting and impact thinking as real leverage points for change.
Transformative societal change does not fit within single projects
Unexpected outcomes are valuable
Evaluations are about power and meaning-making
Evaluation is creative, and should be recognized as such
Creative practices can subvert existing societal processes
Safety is needed for learning
“Don’t lie! We all know you’re lying creatives; we know you’re lying when you tell us that you’ve got straight lines between creative practice and social transformation, you don’t! You have vague, diffuse lines, we all accept that it's true, we really do! It’s when you try to pen them in as straight lines we all go, ‘yeah maybe not’. So don’t try, just explain that the function of creative practice is to create conditions where other things happen - it doesn’t make things happen” - Policy interviews, Scotland
6. Find out more
The key insights presented in this brief will be found in our new CreaTures Framework: