The Learning Planet

17 08 2011

I’ve decided to archive this blog, as well as my other blog (Culture, Learning and Innovation), in favour of having one new, integrated blog. This is called The Learning Planet.  I’ll be migrating some of the more enduring articles from both old blogs onto this new one. It was getting confusing having two blogs, not to mention all the other special project blogs I’ve set up, or the co-authored ones I contribute to, like New Public Thinkers. So, there will be no new posts added here – all new stuff will be on The Learning Planet. But I will keep this one up online for a while, as there might be a few incoming links. If you link here, or subscribe, you might want to change it to The Learning Planet.

The unextinction machine

24 07 2011
12 pictures for youcreatures 1creatures 2creatures 3creatures 4creatures 7
creatures 6creatures 8creatures 9creatures 10creatures 11the unextinction machine

unextinction machine, a set on Flickr.

My daughter Megan (aged 11) and husband Brian have created this amazing mural together. Megan had the idea of a machine that could accelerate evolution and combat extinction, through the power of creativity. The machine spews out new creatures at a rapid rate, as fast as species are going extinct. These new creatures can adapt better to a changing environment. Megan and Brian collaborated together to invent the new creatures, by drawing parts and then completing each others’ drawings. It can be seen from 24 July – 4 September, at the Hill Station, a cafe and cultural centre that is run by and for the community, in Kitto Road, Telegraph Hill, London. The Hill Station is open 7 days a week (excluding evenings).

You can follow updates on Twitter from @unextinctionmac – but please note they might be rather slow, as the machine will be rather busy. Over time, the more vocal and intelligent creatures may be able to start tweeting for it.

Look on the project website for more information. You’ll find out more about how you can get involved in two main ways:

1) You can name our creatures – we will be posting pictures on Flickr of each creature and in the comments you can suggest names for them, and maybe habitats, habits and so on, so that we can care for the creatures. The ones that get named will start tweeting.

2) You can create your own creature. Post a photo of your collaborative drawing or sculpture on the Unextinction Machine group on Flickr








Museums for the Future

3 06 2011

I’ve just written and produced, with my Flow colleagues, the Museums for the Future Toolkit. I’m really pleased to have been given this opportunity by Ruth Taylor and Sharon Bristow at Renaissance South East, as you’ll know if you read this blog that this is a big area of interest for me. I was concerned by the lack of structured guidance helping cultural & heritage organisations develop environmental sustainability work with their communities, integrating their work with audiences with the more operational aspects of sustainability. At a time when museums are being asked to prove their value, it’s so important that they align their mission and practices towards the possibility of solving the most urgent problems we face.

The key message of the toolkit is that being a truly sustainable museum isn’t just about having low energy lighting (or similar small actions). It’s about museums striving to transform themselves, and the lives of their visitors, schools and local communities, in order to have a wider impact on the planet.  The toolkit provides a framework and materials for museums to become agents in forging a more environmentally sustainable future. Although aimed at museums, it would equally be of use to heritage sites, arts organisations, archives, libraries, botanic gardens and wildlife centres.

It is the legacy of Renaissance South East’s Science Links in Museum Education (SLIME) network. This network of museums and individuals was established in 2006 to support and promote museums as places for science learning. Green SLIME was one of the network’s initiatives, part of the MLA funded Strategic Commissioning Science in Your World programme. Its aim was to explore how museums can link with schools and communities to address environmental sustainability. We helped co-ordinate Green SLIME, by supporting eight museum projects, a professional event and producing this Toolkit.

The Toolkit takes a practical approach, that can help museums sustain their own organisation as well as local people, by pioneering the use of sustainable materials; protecting or growing green spaces for wildlife; becoming a base for local food knowledge and heritage, or starting a movement for ‘collaborative consumption’, helping communities share their possessions, skills and time. It shows how museums are the perfect bases for such work because most collections represent the different ways that humans have grown, exploited, invented, recycled and disposed of materials, in ways that are both damaging or healing to the environment. These collections can lead to an exploration of sustainable ways that we can use materials differently for a better future.

Dr John Stevenson, Director of the Group for Education in Museums, says of the Toolkit: ‘Climate change and environmental sustainability are not normally top of the agenda for most museums. This toolkit provides a balanced and realistic approach to tackling these issues not only with children, but also with families and other audiences – and not forgetting museum staff.’ It has also been received with enthusiasm by the team running the Happy Museum Project, because it supports the role of museums in promoting well‑being.

The Green SLIME projects and Toolkit were built on some earlier research done by Claire Adler. This suggested that young people actively want museums to educate them about sustainability, but that they also want parents and influential adults to be involved, so that the responsibility is not just placed on children’s shoulders. The Toolkit, with its case studies, suggests ways of drawing people of different ages together for intergenerational exchange.

To avoid taking an overly general approach to sustainability, the Toolkit suggests that museums choose a particular theme to help convey clear messages. It focuses on eight thematic pathways, indicating which kind of museum might be suited to each pathway:

  • Materials and things
  • Well‑being
  • Biodiversity stewardship
  • Green your organisation with people
  • Place-making and adaptation
  • Energy and new technology
  • Transition to a sustainable economy
  • Food, farming and horticulture

The kit consists of: an information pack; suggestions for a kick-starter event including a PowerPoint presentation; case studies from museums which piloted the different themes, and a comprehensive directory of resources.  It can be downloaded for free from:

To give your feedback or for further information, write a comment on this blogpost or email me on (and I can pass your query on to the right person at Renaissance SE).

Progress is sustainability

30 05 2011

“They killed me when they took my land” Sinan Akçal

“…progress is about being able to sustain yourself…” Maura Harrington

The problem is an extraordinarily complex one. Human actions have already breached or still threaten the nine planetary boundaries, with climate change the biggest actor of ecological collapse. Climate change is not the single issue but a giant one in a dynamic set of interrelated issues, although it is one of the boundaries that is easiest to solve. Easiest to solve, but still, not easy. That it is easier to solve than the others shows what a mess we are in.

Emissions in 2010 were higher than ever despite the recession, prompting alarm that 2C stabilisation of temperature would be impossible, with a much greater likelihood of a 4C increase by 2100. Governments and media will continue to talk about averting future disaster while failing to notice that anthropogenic disasters have been hitting for some time and are increasing in severity. More food riots and conflict are predicted, but media and government responses focus on increasing the flow of money and curtailing tyrants rather than preventing damage of natural resources.

Why is there an increase in emissions? Because the response to global distress by almost every country that is not entirely torn by conflict or slowed by entropy is to effect a rapid ‘great leap forward. For one of many examples, Ecuador is champing at the bit to destroy vast areas of rainforest to extract only a small amount of oil. These examples mean yet more deforestation, extraction, power stations, dams, factories and city infrastructure, always in the name of looking after the interests of a nation’s people. But, the benefits for the majority of people are dubious. These ‘great leaps forward’ mean overlooking or promoting corrupt, exploitative, ecocidal and ‘culture-cidal’ practices in the interests of what is considered the greater good of ‘more jobs’ and GDP. Many of these countries are forgetting to ensure the stability of local agriculture (and/or productive wilderness) because of the belief that jobs means money to buy food and other land-based produce from elsewhere. However, as we breach planetary boundaries there is less ‘elsewhere’ that food can be produced. Add to this, growing inequality which contributes to the statistic that 50% of all food is wasted (if all aspects of the production cycle are accounted for, including losses because of food’s transportation from ‘elsewhere’). The myth that rapid industrial progress will  benefit all a nation’s people remains a very powerful one, despite the fact that corporate executive pay increased by 32% in 2010 while workers’ pay endured the most prolonged squeeze since the 1920’s.

Why is this myth so powerful? Individuals conform to social norms based on what they understand will be optimal for them. Never before has it been so hard for people to decide for themselves, based on concrete evidence, what is optimal for them. (For more about social norms see the work of Dr Cristina Bicchieri.) Worldwide, normative values have switched massively away from those where cultural stability is achieved by having the means to thrive with the land, towards values whereby individual or family security is achieved by having a job away from (or against) the land. Those who uphold the former values can often be described as backward, foolish and standing in the way of progress. Those who drive the latter values can often project themselves as progressive, smart and caring for people. Of course, it’s much more complex than this polarity suggests.

These two news stories about Ireland and Turkey show us people who for generations have provided food from their land but are now being ousted by government-commissioned industrial schemes. The long battle of the people of Erris against Shell has been narrated as a film, out now, called The Pipe. Maura Harrington, one of the activists, says: “This is about a sense of place and its people. We may not qualify as indigenous people, but we have our land and culture, to which we belong. All those people who emigrated from Erris through history, Erris never left them. They say we are opposed to progress, and laugh at us. But to me, progress is the ability to sustain yourself, and those who come after you. It’s nature and nurture: what we here call muinhin, which means of the place, and cointeann, which means to get a little awkward when that place and its people are about to be torn apart.”

I find these words very potent, an inspiration for those of us in the arts and heritage sectors. Museums have traditionally been about gathering and protecting the artefacts and knowledge of dislocated cultures and environments, as well as collapsed civilisations. We were trained with a normative mindset which said that this dislocation and ‘culture-cide’ had happened in the past. We accepted that the later 20th Century had settled into a state of post-modern multiculturalism, and we worked positively to promote tolerance of dislocated peoples. That was not wrong but we took our eyes off the ball: in the ‘great leap forward’ of the developed world we failed to notice the ongoing and escalating destruction of habitats.

One key problem is that we are distracted by arguments about the right approach. Aside from, or beneath, the technical arguments about nuclear, geoengineering, carbon tax and so on, I see two dimensions to the disagreement: Between people-centred thinking and systems-thinking; between transitional economics and growth-based economics. See this matrix for a visual version of the two dimensions. The disagreements between those who are closest in their views can be the most intense. The ‘growthers’ concerned about climate change accuse organisations such as NEF of being too weak, that solutions for social and environmental injustice depend on boosting economies to get people out of poverty. The ‘transitioners’ assert that economic growth must be decoupled from resource use growth, and that growth does not have to be measured in money. Growthers tend to see climate change as the big issue, which needs to be tackled rapidly with big engineering and social change projects. Transitioners tend to see ecological collapse and resource scarcity as the problem-complex, to be resisted gently but urgently by locally-scaled alternative tactics. It was in reading this post by Rob Hopkins (founder of the Transition movement) that I wondered if it is possible to reduce the polarities between them. As he says, everybody is choosing to act primarily for their families and communities. We all have common cause. On the whole, those of us who see our communities as including wildlife and who see the life-giving land as our home are more likely to take a longer view, looking further back to sustained traditions in places but also further ahead to ensure that they are sustained. We need to overcome the argument about growth by focusing on prosperity through advanced technologies (and revived practices) that restore the land’s capacity and we need to come together to be resilient in the face of runaway climate change.

Shared Horizons and New Stories

8 05 2011

Four things cropped up yesterday, to slow me down and make me reflect, on what was otherwise a fretful day. I was fretting because it was the day of the AV referendum and most people were voting against a small step towards better democracy. Also I had heard all the bad news, again, but this time worse than ever. (The Arctic melting faster than thought, higher temperatures predicted than thought, clearer realisation that time is running out…) The four arresting things were:

1. The Hot Science conference in Australia, about the role of museums in climate change communication; 2. George Monbiot’s article responding to Paul Kingsnorth about the role of stories in helping environmentalists find their way; 3. Finishing Keri Facer’s book ‘Learning Futures: Education, Technology and Social Change‘; 4. Ending up with late night discussion on the power of the media in influencing people’s political decisions.

So, I was reflecting on the role of: museums and heritage; the narrative arts (or all the arts, if you want to say art is all about stories in the broadest sense); education; and the media…in both their institutionalised and informal states, in dealing with the problem to end all problems, that of the planet’s state of health.

I was struck by how difficult it is for everyone, in each of these sectors, to tell a story that is big enough, and to bridge technology and imagination in ways that are nuanced and practical enough. In many debates about how to change attitudes towards the environment, too often we conflate all the contributing sectors into two sides: ‘science’ and ‘communicators’, and call for more interaction between the two. Will that be enough? Do we understand enough what that looks like? What might it look like in these four domains?  First, museums.

Hot Science Global Citizens is a major partnership project between museums and researchers in Australia of a scale that we can only dream of in the UK. It explores the agency of the museum sector in climate change interventions. In the UK, work in this area is patchy, small scale or specialised. Examples include the Science Museum in their planning of climate exhibitions, research by individuals such as Lucy Veale, the Happy Museum project (albeit with a focus on wellbeing) and some work by MLA/Renaissance including a training toolkit I’ve written called Museums for the Future (soon to be launched).

I was keen to follow the Symposium proceedings, which included two admirable UK speakers, Mike Hulme from UEA and Giles Lane from Proboscis. I could only follow by Twitter, trying to stay awake for their day/my night, so I can’t accurately report proceedings (while awaiting papers to go online). The talk was mainly about how to communicate the science of climate change, and how museums might need to broaden their horizons to help. I commented that the whole museum paradigm needs to shift from one of communicating knowledge to one of problem-solving. Elaine Gurian had said that our idea of museum communities needs to change from being place-based to ideas-based. I think the shift needs to be from ideas to problem-solving (in places, with ideas). Museums are the right places for situated problem-solving because of their unique three-fold function: 1) they are places to experience culture and to gather with others, 2) they expose us to knowledge beyond ourselves (increasingly, with digital culture, forming part of a global knowledge ecosystem), and 3) they conserve material heritage so that we combat destruction and promote learning and creativity.

The Twitter discussion also hovered around a question about the need for new climate icons, to draw attention to the potential loss of things that people really care about. I wonder though about whether we are already fatigued with too many icons. I suspect people believe they could actually bear the loss of things they might simply appreciate but don’t know that they need, such as birds, trees or coastal beauty spots. I think people need to know how the whole damn lot of icons is connected, how they all go down together in environmental collapse. Alongside that, people need to understand that climate change is not separate from other aspects of environmental disruption. The debate seemed a little limited by focusing on the role of science museums and on the challenge of communicating climate science. Engagement needs to broaden from climate to planet, but retain meaning in people’s lives by focusing on how we live in places.

On to the narrative arts…

George Monbiot wrote an interesting piece, responding to Paul Kingsnorth, the founder with Dougald Hine of the Dark Mountain project. Monbiot summarised the big problems tearing apart the environmental movement encapsulated in his point number 7: We have no idea what to do next. I feel his desperation sometimes, but I think it was interesting that he didn’t mention the adaptation, resilience and transition movements that are making positive headway in bridging technology and culture to know what to do next. However, I was heartened that he admitted the potential in Kingsnorth’s call for new stories, as the environmental movement is too led by numerical strategy. I felt, though, that Monbiot’s notion of stories needs expansion. Stories are powerful not so much because they give us answers but because the narrative arts, in treatments that are not too dogmatic or closed, offer opportunities for people to reach a shared horizon of understanding. So, this is stories not telling us what to do but being a way to work out what we should do. The call for new stories has to be for content that relates to this extraordinary crisis, and moreover for new forms of engagement. The forms of engagement have to be powerful enough to push against the mainstream stories that quietly or overtly endorse consumption, innerism and violence against the other. The Passion, by Wildworks, performed at Easter in Port Talbot, is a good example of the kind of participatory storytelling that could be powerful enough. Richard Kearney explains the role of stories in terms of mythos (plot), mimesis (recreation), catharsis (release), phronesis (wisdom) and ethos (ethics). If we can expand this to how narrative engagement might help tackle George’s problem:

– Mythos: using plotting to devise new futures, imagining ways that we might overcome conflict and resolve problems

– Mimesis: holding a mirror to the state of the world as it rapidly changes, showing us what we cannot see

– Catharsis: providing an essential therapeutic function to help us be resilient and calm

– Phronesis: recording and channeling deep knowledge, so that we might better know how to think in systems, make decisions and apply innovations

– Ethos: shifting our ‘deep frames’ from values that are self-enhancing to values that are self-transcendent and altrustic.

The other two domains (media and education) will have to be dealt with in a much more cursory fashion, but I have written about them in more depth elsewhere.

On media, while the BBC was covering the referendum and elections, there was some Twitter discussion with Dougald Hine and others about the need for new TV and radio formats that don’t reinforce political differences through antagonistic debate, but which enable more creative problem-solving. I like this idea very much. My Flow co-director,Mark Stevenson, is already focusing  his attention on some ideas for broadcast media to enable people to reclaim the future, solve problems in positive ways and take action.

On education, I will just urge you to read Keri Facer’s book on Learning Futures. This makes a very strong case for schools as centres for community problem-solving. She argues that we have been developing our vision for education with a far too narrow vision of the future, and that we should be embracing:

– The emergence of new relationships between humans and technology

– The opportunities and challenges of aging populations

– The development of new forms of knowledge and democracy

– The challenges of climate warming and environmental disruption

– The potential for radical economic and social inequalities

I entirely agree with her thesis but my only disappointment is that the challenges of climate warming and environmental disruption in particular were not actually addressed, albeit listed as not commonly considered. The book helped us imagine a future school, but it didn’t actually help us imagine the future. That is the challenge for us now, for new stories and learning structures, which help us imagine how bad the future could be whilst simultaneously imagining how we can work it around to provide the means to thrive.

The Sustainability Conundrum

20 04 2011

Today it is one year since the Deepwater Horizon accident, which filled my Summer of 2010 with anxiety for the people and wildlife of the Gulf, and anxiety for the effect of this and other spills on global ecosystems, as the oil gushed week after week into the sea.

Since then BP has been working hard. Working hard to fix its image and its bank balance. Supposedly it has a renewed focus on sustainability, but you don’t even have to read between the lines to see that this is pure greenwash. The headline of BP’s new sustainability strategy is this: “We are determined that BP will be a safer, more risk-aware business. We will deliver on our commitments from the Gulf Coast incident and work hard to earn back the trust in our operations. We will rebuild value for our shareholders by re-establishing our competitive position within the sector by playing our part in meeting the world’s growing demand for energy, as well as participating in the transition to a low-carbon economy.”

This says, quite overtly, that BP can only be sustainable by sustaining its own wealth, which depends on increased extraction, which depends on safer methods so they don’t lose share value. It is true that BP is also investing something towards renewable power. But how much? Over the next 5 years, it will spend only 25% of what it costs them to clean up after the Gulf incident. At the same time, it will spend vastly more on new techniques for tar sands extraction and fracking. The Albertan Tar Sands is the most destructive project on the planet. If it continues, it alone will contribute to a 2C temperature rise. BP’s Sunrise project is helping to expand the operation by enabling more and more extraction. As Bill McKibben reminds us, we have raised the temperature by 1C and look what impact this has had so far. Our actions look set to raise the temperature by 4C to 5C before the century is out, unless we outlaw fracking, deepwater drilling, tar sands, deforestation and other ecocidal tactics, and replace them with alternatives already proven or within our grasp.

I have to say, BP is not alone in its perversion of the concept of sustainability. There are 3,000 large companies causing $2.5 trillion environmental damage a year. Many organisations twist the triad of economic, social and environmental sustainability by isolating and diminishing the importance of the environment.  This is the ‘sustainability conundrum’: that it is possible to call yourself sustainable while actively destroying the planet or being implicated in its destruction. I argue that very few cultural organisations have really addressed this conundrum in order to put environmental sustainability at the heart of their mission. Tate has over 70 green champions across the organisation. Are they ever invited to address the ethics of sponsorship, as they work towards raising over £200 million in sponsorship for expansions to Tate’s London sites? There are two keys to an institution becoming sustainable: one is involving all staff (which Tate and BP have both done), the other is addressing the very core mission of its organisation (which BP has not done at all, and which Tate may still need to consider).

Knowing what we know now, cultural organisations can no longer continue to be consciously complicit with this ecocidal industrial
system. Humans are the only known animal species to destroy their habitat. How can we live with that indicator for humanity without seeking to change it? The only really sound function of a cultural organisation is to ensure the evolution of humanity to build its capacity to sustain life on the planet. This means working towards overcoming: infantilism, addiction to money, the lack of empathy and the hubristic competitive thrust that destroys life in its path to success. More positively, it  gives cultural organisations opportunities to help us imagine non-destructive ways of living, using new materials and smart technologies. To do this they can form partnerships with companies for mutual benefits, not just a simple transaction of money.

This is the challenge often put to me about my position: Isn’t it better for bad money to fund good things than for it to fund more bad things? I say, perhaps a little, but this is not really very much better than the bad. It is much better for ecocidal companies to be going through a root and branch transition towards zero carbon now, and we must all demand that they do so. If cultural organisations are sponsored by ecocidal companies through a transactional relationship, they are not in a position to make that demand. I’m extremely pleased to see that Tate has taken a vocal role in campaigning for the release of Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei from unjustified imprisonment, bravely posting the words ‘Release Ai Wei Wei’ to its walls. This shows Tate is prepared to be radical. Conceivably, they would they do the same if Ai Wei Wei was persecuted for resisting the tyranny of the fossil fuel industry, but where would that leave them in relation to their fossil fuel sponsors? My signature is on this letter to the Guardian asking Tate to rethink its relationship with BP. I feel anxious about being seen to take a radical position, especially given that my family’s income depends on bodies like Tate trusting me. However, longer-term reasoning overrides this. We need to think differently now about what it means to be radical. Bill McKibben said in his speech to 10,000 young people at Power Shift: “you are not the radicals in this fight. The radicals are the people who are fundamentally altering the composition of the atmosphere. That is the most radical thing people have ever done.”

The Happy Museum is Go

8 04 2011

The Happy Museum project was launched last week at the October Gallery, launching a £60,000 open commission fund for small projects which explore wellbeing and sustainability in museum communities. It’s funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Breakthrough Fund, is the brainchild of Tony Butler and is being developed by Hilary Jennings and Lucy Neal. I was one of the contributors to the provocation paper and especially focused my attention on the manifesto, the headlines for which are below (read the paper for more):

  1. Make people happy
  2. Pursue mutual relationships
  3. Value the environment, the past, the present and the future
  4. Measure what matters
  5. Lead on innovation towards transition
  6. Think global and be networked
  7. Support learning for resilience
  8. Find your niche

This project is so welcome, arriving in a year which is blighted by cultural funding cuts in a bigger context of environmental and economic crisis. It’s really important for cultural organisations to remain positive and to focus on what really matters, the wellbeing of biodiverse communities that they depend upon and can contribute to. That said, I have struggled very slightly with this project’s title as I fear that it may be perceived too narrowly as being about mental health, rather than more broadly about transition towards the systemic wellbeing of the commons (commons being human and all life).

Paul Hamlyn has also funded a similar project called (Re)think, led by Mission Models Money. This is a new action-research platform dedicated to understanding the role that cultural and creative practice has in finding solutions and responding to the current challenges, which are identified to be largely environmental. Like the Happy Museum, this also ‘docks’ with the New Economic Foundation’s Great Transition work. Apparently, Paul Hamlyn doesn’t see a connection between (Re)think and the Happy Museum. However, both projects have inclusive definitions of museums, culture and creativity. So, I wonder how these two projects might make most efficient use of their proximity in terms of scheduling, mission and network.

There are also other initiatives in similar ground, including A Case for Optimism supported by the Clore Leadership Programme, also kicking off at the moment. I’m also about to launch a training toolkit called Museums for the Future, commissioned by Renaissance South East, enabling museums to become centres for sustainable communities. Watch this space. Also Common Cause is launching an Arts and Creativity working group. On a practical level for those of us going to all these seminars, launches and online networks, it can be time-consuming and sometimes repetitive. Emotionally, on the other hand, this feels like the zeitgeist I’ve been waiting to happen. I started this blog over two years ago, hoping that it would be become a big co-authored blog and network, continually asking people to write for it and raise awareness in CACH weeks each year. That didn’t happen. I think I went about that in the wrong way. Others probably saw this as my personal sounding board and didn’t want to piggyback on it. In that time, only a handful of people have actually read the Framework for Climate Action, the centrepiece of this blog, and nobody has responded to it. (On the other hand, many of my posts have received some really interesting and valuable comments, for which thank you.) So, I’m considering merging the posts into my personal blog and letting all these other funded projects carry the weight of the networking challenge.

The Happy Museum is Go, which means others are taking their own reins on the issues that I am really passionate about, and that makes me happy.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.