How do we understand the link between creative practices and transformative change toward better futures? This has been a big question for the CreaTures project. Working on ways to understand and improve the evaluation of creative practices was one of the project’s main goals. Our approach has been to open up evaluation, cracking the imposing and often inflexible façade of evaluative practices into nine different dimensions – these form the core of a novel approach to evaluation and reflection. This approach has proven useful for funders and policy makers as well as for creative practitioners and researchers. But how did we get here?
We started with a workshop in 2020 with the CreaTures team. In this workshop, we asked the question – what does your creative practice do in the world? The answers to that question turned out to already be very diverse and extremely rich, and pointed us in the direction of needing to open up the language around evaluation, especially in the context of trying to move toward better futures. We thought that if we could open up and diversify the topics and connections that creative practitioners, funders, policy makers and researchers can reflect on together, much more can be understood and appreciated about how creative practices connect to change.
We decided to interview our creative practitioners in an in-depth, structured manner. We used the notion of ‘dimensions’ to describe the different ways in which creative practices can be investigated. For instance, the dimension ‘caring’ means looking at peoples’ exploration of caring and being cared for in the practice; while the dimension ‘organizing’ means you examine how the creative practice stimulates the way people get together, take action and organise around an issue or theme.
We developed a prototyping research method called ‘Dimensions of Value’ (see here for more) in which we asked creative practitioners to first describe in detail, the material and conceptual history of their creative practice – as well as a story about what they hoped for the future. Once these rich stories of the past, present and future were mapped out in a flurry of digital post-its, we went over them again together. For every important moment, idea, or shift in the practice, we asked: What is the term we can use to understand what is most important about this key point in your story? The answers to this question led to a term (e.g. ‘transgression’, ‘learning’) chosen by the creative practitioners with help from the interviewers. This term described a dimension in which the creative practice could be understood. For each dimension, we then asked more questions: What would you as a creative practitioner like to learn about this dimension? What would you like to communicate about this dimension to others? How do you think this dimension connects to transformation?
These conversations were wild! The incredible multidimensionality of creators’ understanding of creative practice was abundantly clear to us as researchers. The first interview series undertaken was with Ruth Catlow, co-director of the Furtherfield Institute, who was later joined by her colleague Charlotte Frost. Speaking personally, these interviews made my head explode in a million directions – an experience I really enjoy, by the way. Ruth and Charlotte came up with 17 different dimensions that were all equally exciting and interesting ways of looking at their project —the Treaty of Finsbury Park — and its rich history and ambitious future. Following this, a further series of rich, in-depth interviews were undertaken with our larger CreaTures project partners: Hellon, Superflux and Kersnikova. One the basis of this piloting of the interview method, we held a workshop with many CreaTures partners to help bring up more relevant dimensions across all the projects. The end result, after bringing similar dimensions together, was a mind-boggling 61 different relevant dimensions of change.
Obviously, a 61-dimensional evaluation approach would be a bit too much even for the most adventurous evaluator. After a lot of experimenting with different clusterings, we ended up with 9 dimensions.
We then started to investigate the CreaTures experimental productions along these 9 dimensions to see if the dimensions made sense as a more general way to capture the richness of creative practice. We also discussed them with policy makers and funders – who greatly appreciated the ways in which these dimensions might allow them to open up conversations with creatives. At the same time, a mammoth task was begun to ground and test the 9 dimensions against various scientific literatures that could say something about them. This process also shaped how the dimensions were defined. Our final set of 9 dimensions fell into 3 types of change: Changing meanings (embodying, learning, imagining); changing connections (caring, organizing, inspiring); and changing power (co-creating, empowering, subverting).
Elsewhere, we explain more about how the 9 dimensions are set up and how they can be used. We also write about how we have used them to develop some synthesis-level insights about what happened across the twenty experimental productions in CreaTures.
Here, let’s talk a bit more about connecting the dimensions to different research areas. The linking of the 9 dimensions to different literatures turned out to be really crucial. It is important to have a research-backed understanding of how each dimension actually relates to societal change. Funders and policy makers want to understand what change through creative practice looks like. Creative practitioners benefit from having the research backing for change processes they might normally know intuitively. And researchers benefit from finding out about key research on change processes that they can engage with, test and develop. Part of our approach is a research synthesis for each dimension, with abundant references. These can be found here. But for now, I’ll just give a bit of teaser about what is known and what can still be explored.
First, let’s open the Pandora’s box of literature on ‘changing meanings’:
- The literature for connecting embodying to change is extremely rich. Different strands of psychology, sociology, anthropology, human geography and various humanities all speak to the ways in which embodying helps us understand experience, identity, collectivity and relationality, metaphors, and more. Some of the literature we draw on already explicitly links embodiment specifically to sustainability transformations, while further literature points to significant transformative changes in individuals, groups and communities in other ways. Understanding embodiment through the lens of rituals is powerful here, as it is in other dimensions, as we will see. While the importance of embodiment for change is abundantly clear, many more connections can be made.
- Similarly, learning is crucial for transformation – but learning also involves many different aspects, and again we’ve drawn on many of the same disciplines as embodying. Within these disciplines, there are huge bodies of literature concerned with learning. Conceptual learning, deep learning around worldviews and basic assumptions, social and collective learning, the gaining of capacities and skills; all of these are relevant for our purposes.
- Imagining can be understood as being connected to change in many ways as well. Cognitive psychology has a lot to say about imagination, as do many branches of sociology interested in how imaginations spread and connect socially. There are also important related literatures around discourses, ideologies, imaginaries, frames, narratives, metaphors, myths and more.
‘Changing connections’ is similarly rich and complex in terms of the literatures it points to:
- Caring brings in other, exciting literatures. We’ve included writings on the ethics of care, on care practices, and on the emotionality of care. Care as anti-capitalist practice, feminist care practices, and links between care, decolonial and degrowth perspectives. Ritual-based perspectives and the idea of emotional energy turned out to be very valuable as well. Understanding care as changing other actions and ways of seeing was a strong theme.
- Organizing may seem like an unusual category to use while looking at creative practice, but there is much valuable work, mostly in sociology and organization and participation research, that shows how creative practices create shared symbols, spaces and other ways of bringing people together around common interests, desires and concerns. This research shows that creative practices can help bolster the energy needed for organization and bring people together that might not otherwise have connected.
- We found inspiring to be an especially exciting dimension to explore from a literature perspective. We defined inspiring as specifically being about creative practices inspiring action beyond their own activities. This brought in literatures from sustainability science around amplifying and scaling (up, out, through, across) action; sociological literatures on the dissemination of ideas across groups and networks; and more.
Finally, ‘changing power’ brought up more heady interdisciplinary connections:
- There is a rich literature on co-creating across the worlds of design, participation research (in various fields), sociology (again!) and more. There are so many aspects to co-creating that can be understood as being beneficial to societal change. Sharing and merging ideas and understandings of the world. The materiality and process dimensions, the democracy of co-creating, and the power dynamics.
- Next, empowering opened up worlds of literature on (surprise) power, on agency and control, within the governance of sustainability transformations and beyond. The focus on empowering meant examining how creative practices connect to discursive power – the power of language, symbols and meaning. We also examined how creative practices can empower people by helping them gain access to emotional energy – connecting back to interaction ritual theory. Furthermore, an understanding of how different societal groups and movements gain access to material resources and institutional support became important.
- Finally, subverting brought on a really interesting clash of different disciplines. Subverting means something quite different in humanities work on the arts, where subverting can be quite gentle (the subversive power of knitting or walking, let’s say), versus work focusing on the subversive power of international drug networks with respect to state power. We also linked to other concepts such as unmaking, coming from transformation science.
All in all, it has become clear that the opening (and only slightly closing again) of the Pandora’s box of creative practices is not just a way to enrich conversations about creative practices and change. It’s also a way to mobilize and harness an incredibly rich body of research; and to point to many new research directions that can be explored.