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Mapping transformative creative practice

We know that we need urgent and transformative cultural change to live well inside of planetary boundaries. That means taking urgent action to reduce human-caused stress on our climate and ecosystems; but it also means understanding and managing change, including engaging with the meaning, purpose and value of our ways of life.

In the CreaTures project, we have been investigating creative practices that aim to seed and steer change processes.

Within the Observatory part of the project, we wanted to look beyond the projects commissioned within CreaTures. We gathered a collection of 140 examples of transformative creative practice:, by asking our colleagues, by reviewing the academic literature on sustainability, and by talking to funders and policymakers in the UK and EU.  

We reviewed the online documentation for each case. Knowing more about each case, we were then able to identify similar clusters. This blog post takes a broad snapshot of the topics that each case was exploring.

What topics were the cases addressing?

Individual cases were clustered to create 21 overall topics; –  8 larger clusters (with more cases associated with them) and 13 smaller clusters. Colour coding is used to indicate similarity. Click to access the Miro board, which shows the clustering process in more detail.

Overall topics identified from the individual cases

When we compared this snapshot to the academic literature on sustainability transformations, we saw certain similarities and differences. The term ‘sustainability’ itself is absent, but the two most urgent sustainability challenges – climate breakdown and biodiversity loss – are central. The topics are not problem-focussed, but opportunity-focused and largely reflect the ways that creative practitioners are trying (from their own situations) to resolve these huge challenges.

Zooming in on one particular cluster, we can see that climate change is linked to the imagining of alternative futures. Post-fossil projects seek to influence people’s experiences in the present moment, by asking them to engage with futures where fossil fuels are no longer needed. What’s interesting is that the work of future-making practices shows up as a topic in its own right. People are studying these embodied, experiential, sensory practices at the same time as using them.

Cases related to climate change, post-fossil futures, and futures more generally

These cases are examples of ‘active hope’ which go beyond simply communicating problems. They invite people to have a stake in negotiating the futures to come, offering enticing invitations, sensory and embodied connections and do-able goals. 

In summary, what then, do these cases prioritise within the broad area of sustainability? 

They are: 

  • alert to climate breakdown and raising awareness
  • imagining post-fossil futures
  • talking about the connection of people to ecologies, including in urban space
  • reflecting on alternative arrangements to extractive forms of capitalism, including commons and open-source arrangements
  • seeking inclusion and cohesion, justice and car
  • engaging with media and technology
  • considering science
  • platforming interdisciplinary

What did you learn from comparing such different case types?

The wide range of cases really helped us to see beyond a core focus on projects in the creative sectors. Projects are an important organisational form. They are used to gather resources for the creation of new work. In most cases, it is projects that receive funding (rather than organisations) – whether that’s through the public-sector, philanthropy, or commercial contracts. For this reason, a lot of evaluation efforts are directed towards specific projects: did the project achieve its aims? What could we do better next time? Evaluation and learning can become ‘projectified’, which may be unhelpful when thinking about long-term change towards sustainable futures. 

When we interviewed our colleagues in the CreaTures project they talked about much longer timelines. In some cases, they had been exploring the same questions across their entire careers. When we looked at the online documentation for our cases, we could see that many of them were part of longer-term strands of work; even if they appeared disconnected (because they had been funded by different organisations, for example).

These insights also led us to understand the importance of iteration. Creative practitioners might start out with a very experimental idea, with few aims or objectives. After piloting that with participants, they begin to learn more about the potential of that idea. They refine and solidify aspects of it. Through this process, radically experimental ideas can come to be solidified into practices that can be shared with others. This iterative, reflexive process takes time, and tends to be obscured by a focus on single projects. Within sustainability research, the importance of experimentation is recognised, but there’s also a big emphasis on creating replicable change. Understanding the process of moving from experimental practices to replicable interventions, is really important in bridging creative and sustainability communities.