I pulled out the latest issue of Green Futures for a bit of light relief. It instantly lifted my mood as it reminded me just… how exciting sustainability issues can be.
An interactive theatre performance about river system management is, perhaps understandably, unlikely to drum up much enthusiasm. But a show that allows you to create your own music festival? Now, that sounds fun.
This is the show an Australian-based theatre company, Boho Interactive, finally opted to create after reviewing a Healthy Cities report at UCL Australia. The performance, based on systems science and inspired by board game-style interaction, has three parts: participants create a festival, discover the consequences of their decisions as they move closer to triumph or disaster, and then learn the reasons why.
“People like this mix”, says the show’s writer, David Finnigan. “Systems science is not necessarily intuitive, but we found that rather than teaching people, we were saying ‘this concept is really familiar to you’. Our hope is that this follows through in how they make decisions about the world.”
The performance is so successful that it has been commissioned by the London Science Museum, reaching audiences on the other side of the world, and is extending into the corporate world as training for the board of an Australian bank.
The benefits of merging these two very different worlds are becoming increasingly recognised, especially when innovation is needed. Alison Tickell works to encourage sustainable practices with real-life festivals. Originally from the music industry, Tickell founded Julie’s Bicycle in 2007 because of her frustration with its “clumsy” approach to the environment. She says: “The creative sector has a long history of questioning the status quo and promoting environmental awareness as part of our cultural values. It has the potential to shift the norm, at scale.”
And yet this potential is largely unrealised. Tickell puts the disinclination down to the fact that 98% of creative companies are SMEs, predominantly focused on survival. “They don’t see themselves as having a significant voice in the environmental conversation. People still ask ‘What has this got to do with us?’”, says Tickell. She believes that the key to changing that attitude is reinforcing the concept of ‘value’: one that both artists and audiences are particularly open to.
But a concept on its own isn’t enough, Tickell adds. “It’s about creating the context in which people are confident to act, and you do that with evidence.” The first thing she did through Julie’s Bicycle was to commission the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University to create a carbon baseline for the music industry, over the course of a year. The second was to create a working group of senior music authority figures to interrogate the findings.
The next step is to empower people to act. In April last year, Arts Council England made environmental impact reporting a funding requirement for over 700 of their key beneficiary organisations. This policy was a huge lever of change, but, Tickell says, given the right context, “artists themselves can prompt change across their supply chains, working with venues, festivals, theatres, and art galleries to take it to scale”. This can be seen in the way LED lights have been employed by artists in Bristol to create the ‘Playable City Sprint’. Cyclists use a system of LED lights, proximity sensors and a smartphone app to have colour battles – mapping popular cycling routes in the process. It engages cyclists, enables new kinds of interaction and creates data that could influence future town planning.
One way in which Julie’s Bicycle aims to encourage such creativity is by bringing digital experts, artists and data analysts together to analyse the data gathered from their free online carbon calculator tools, currently used by almost 2, 000 companies. The theory is that pooling different perspectives often leads to disruptive innovation, an idea supported by the Technology Strategy Board.
Last year, the Technology Strategy Board helped to create ‘The Future is Here’ exhibition at London’s Design Museum. Dr Michael Pitts, the agency’s lead specialist on sustainability, recalls: “The most interesting part for me was that it revealed how businesses can be open to their ideas being ‘hacked’, and they are starting to share the information that allows people to do this.”
Now, people are taking the hacking trend home with them. One example is the IKEA Hackers movement, through which people are sharing ideas to customise mass-manufactured furniture, whether to turn bins into lampshades or bookcases into kitchen islands. Fully customisable Makie Dolls were hugely popular at the exhibition, and have a page on their website that encourages the hacking of their designs.
“And why not?” asks Pitts. “Hacking increases engagement between people and products: they come up with evolutions and solutions the brand might not have thought of. It’s particularly interesting when companies take a product to different cultures.” The great thing about bringing people together from different cultures, and particularly in creative contexts, is that old assumptions and habits get shaken up. Such encounters can be the key to lasting change.
Lizzie Rivera is a hard-hitting investigative journalist with an interest in lifestyle.
Photo credit: Carolina Faruolo Shambala 2013