This bulletin was published on 2 February 2017
Blind beauty and gut feelings: what can the arts tell us about sustainability?

Blind beauty and gut feelings: what can the arts tell us about sustainability?

The rate of technological change today is so fast that it’s hard to keep up with. So much has changed over the last 30 years; what on earth do the next 30, 50 or 100 years have in store for us?

Take driverless cars. They’ve been on the horizon for years, and yet only 6% of state transportation plans in the USA have taken the technology into account (Ref: ‘City of the Future’ report, Center for City Solutions & Applied Research, 2015). So, more roads and parking lots are built despite their impending obsolescence.

The Age of the Anthropocene is often chalked up to advantages of intellect and logic, but non-rational thought guides so much of human behaviour that ignoring the importance of how things feel is folly. And not least in the world of sustainability, where the success of so many well-intentioned projects boils down to human behaviour.

At Carnstone, we place evidence at the very heart of our work. But finding smart, future-proof solutions to sustainability problems sometimes requires creative thinking. So, we were delighted to partner with Tata Consultancy Services’ Spark Salon series to explore what the arts have to offer sustainability and technology alike.

Sustainability leaders today must offer a prophetic set of skills: as guides to the organisation, they identify risks and opportunities before others do, and set strategy fit for a rapidly changing world. Could an artistic mindset – imaginative, non-linear and comfortable with uncertainty – complement a scientific, evidence-based approach and help those working in sustainability? Can the arts open up cognitive horizons to myriad future paths and help us better prepare?

To further explore the question, we commissioned five talented artists to create artworks depicting our future world. The artists were: Becci Louise (poet); Duncan Cameron (sculptor); Michiko Nitta and Michael Burton (BurtonNitta, interdisciplinary art and design studio); Matt Parker and James Dooley (collaborating in sound and video art); and, Marie von Heyl and Philipp Eberle (art and jewellery design collaboration).

Using technological changes on the horizon, we provided the artists with provocations, or muses, to stimulate their thinking. Over six months, they responded to our brief in diverse ways: some hopeful, dystopian and even absurd, whilst others were disturbingly real.

On 24 January 2017, we opened the question up to wider debate. Over 80 people from across the art, technology and sustainability worlds joined us for an exhibition and panel session with the artists themselves. It was clear they didn’t all agree about the role of the artist: some thought their role was to reflect the world around them, without judgement, whilst others thought that artists could look ahead to important ethical boundaries, warning of trouble ahead.

Whatever the answer, it’s clear that artists nurture their ability to imagine realities beyond the visible, predictable and concrete. Perhaps that’s something the sustainability profession would benefit from, too.