A primer for creative researchers – what’s going on in the sustainability transformations field?

Sustainability scientists often think in terms of systems. The benefit of this perspective is that it gives a holistic view of how things interrelatei across different scales. For example, studying how wind power was invented, commercialised and regulated can help us to understand what the ideal conditions are to help renewable energies grow. To meet international agreements on reducing carbon and safeguarding biodiversityii, we need to re-design many of our systemsiii. Terms in the literature such as ‘transition’, and ‘transformation’ describe the depth and speed of change that is requirediv. Tinkering will no longer do. Sustainability practitioners work towards specific goals (e.g., decarbonisation and biodiversity preservation), but take a pluralist approach, recognising that there are many different pathways to get there.  

While some action can only come from large institutions and organisations such as governments and corporations, individuals and smaller groups of people still have a central role to playv. So far, simply sharing scientific facts with people and expecting them to change their behaviour hasn’t worked wellvi. Sustainability researchers are seeking to connect more deeply with people – to go beyond ‘behaviour change’ approaches and to find ways to shift the worldviews and values that people hold. The aim is to create large-scale change across societies.  

Creative practitioners often do this work of engaging and influencing. Artists, designers and social change-makers pose critiques of current value systems and open up spaces for discussion and engagement. They work with communities to create alternatives, often using participatory processes. Sustainability researchers are interested in learning more about how to do this in their own work. More widely, they also seek to understand how creative practitioners are agents for transformative systems change in their own right – how works of art, design or social action can change widely-held ideas about what counts as a good life.  

The politics

When disciplines come together, there can be frictions. Sustainability and creative practice are no different. There is a hierarchy, dating from the nineteenth century, when the natural sciences and the humanities became separate university departments. Sciences were seen as providing objective insights that could be generalised across the world. Arts and cultural fields were given the situated and subjective work of understanding human meaning-makingvii.  

Now, when they need to work together more than ever, it’s important not to fall back into this divide. Science happens in the social world. It is a cultural practice as well as a technical one – especially in sustainability, where the aim is to develop socially and ecologically desirable ways to reduce carbon emissions or to safeguard biodiversity. Scientists do (and should continue to) engage with values-related questions. Creative practitioners are not simply science communicators but use their considerable expertise to open up discussions about how we live now, and the alternative possibilities. A new era of arts and science collaborations has shown how people and organisations can take part in shared learning.  

Creative approaches – what’s happening in creative fields?

Throughout the CreaTures project, we asked our creative collaborators: what does transformation mean to you? For most of our colleagues, the term ‘transformation’ isn’t especially useful. In a world of constantly changing complexity, our collaborators see change as relative and relational. Transformation takes time, and in their experience, it is more often gradual and incremental than urgent and radical. Our creative collaborators think about how they can shift relations, rather than how they can transform systems. Working outside of governance settings, they do not seek to deliver specific climate or biodiversity goals. Rather they explore sustainability problems as cultural problems, ones that often result from extractive and industrialised ways of life.

As cultural producers, our colleagues see themselves as having a significant role to play in changing culture. Together, the creative fields have an incredible public reach – engaging people in large-scale public artworks as well as intimate community group meetings. They can raise consciousness of the challenges that we faceviii, and provide protected spaces for experimenting with alternatives.  

How do creative practices make change?

This has been an important research question in the CreaTures project, and we have used several different methods to answer it. Here, we summarise four important themes in the research literature, touching on aesthetics and experience, imagination, anticipation and futures thinking and reflection. A summary can be found in our Agenda. Our research on Creative Pathways presents a ‘bottom-up’ analysis produced by analysing a collection of empirical cases.  

Aesthetics and experience  

Human sense-making relies on sensory information: seeing, hearing, touching and smelling. Creative practitioners pay a great deal of attention to the aesthetics of their work – the way that it will be perceived. Some practitioners (such as installation artists) design experiences that immerse people in a different visual or audio environment. The idea is to address someone’s whole being, including their unconscious and emotional processes, since these impact on human behaviour too.  


We imagine things based on our own experiences. It can be hard to understand the negative impacts that are happening in places distant to us, or to imagine what might happen in years to come. Creative practitioners help to boost our ability to imagine both individually and collectively. As well as helping us to understand planetary level impacts and risks, creative practitioners also help us to imagine alternative ways of life. Radically transforming our systems requires us to be able to imagine something different and desirable to work towards, beyond just ‘business as usual’.  

Anticipation and futures thinking

People anticipate what will happen in the future in order to be able to make better choices in the present. For example, understanding what’s likely to happen can help us to manage risk. But working with future scenarios that are wildly different to our current ways of life — like speculative futures in science fiction — can shake us out of our everyday frames of mind and help us to come up with desirable alternatives. Taking an issue of concern and projecting it into the future helps us to grasp the possible consequences for our societies beyond our own individual perspectives.


Creative practitioners often ask audiences or participants to take part in individual and collective processes of reflection. After playing a game, for example, practitioners might ask the players about the emotions, intuitions, and flashes of memory that they experienced. Talking about these fleeting experiences bring them into conscious thought. When a group of people each share their reflections with each other, this creates deeper learning.