Global and local trends – opportunities for cultural heritage as part of the picture

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

What follows is a very brief overview of some global trends at play in today’s world and some of the consequences they may have for its future. This overview is here not to try to enlighten anyone – there will be no surprises – but so as to foreground a consideration of opportunities for cultural heritage for inclusive growth in the reasons for why that growth might be needed or wanted: growth with purpose.

The future of work

First, looking down from the sky in the binocular sites, are the changes in the labour market that are taking place, and are forecast to continue, due to artificial intelligence, task automation and robotics. The forecasts around these changes vary significantly: some say that luddites have always predicted technological labour displacements that have not come to fruition; others are investigating nation-wide experiments in universal basic income, and equivalent schemes, to test out the social and economic consequences of strategies to handle a society where humans do not find the same value (financial and emotional) from paid work as they have done for centuries. What seems reasonable is to conjecture that what can be automated, and is economically desirable (e.g. cheaper) or emotionally desirable (e.g. cleaning up waste) to automate, is likely to be automated.

And so there have been many forecasts of what these changes will mean to actual jobs. Grey and Osbourne’s clarion-calling 2013 study estimated that just shy of 50% of 2013 US jobs would be unlikely to be around in 2030. A 2019 OECD report estimates 14% of jobs likely to be automated and a further 32% likely to be radically transformed. An analysis from Nesta provides a ranking of the (UK-based) jobs that are most likely to see increases and decreases. Following the what-can-be-automated-will-be-automated pattern, this puts artists (all artforms) at the top of the pile, and primary and secondary teachers not much further down.

Essentially, in our analysis, future labour market growth will come in areas where:

  • There is innovation – and newly invented jobs, possibly in newly invented sectors, just as there didn’t used to be social media strategists or scrum managers 30 years ago – and particularly in experience and service sectors;
  • There is humanity in the individuality of experience, as in the painter painting you a picture (although there are plenty of algorithms doing this too); or
  • There is humanity in the personality of the experience, as in the older person in the care home who doesn’t object to a machine doing the cleaning but would also like to talk to a real person, or the student in the classroom (assuming they’re still around) who can learn stuff with a machine but also does so most effectively alongside a human expert in how that person learns, and what motivates them.

This means that there are significant opportunities, in economic and employment terms, in arts, culture and heritage: these are sectors that specialise in human experiences (e.g. participating with other humans), bespoke (looking at a picture on a screen is not the same as having one painted for you) and non-automatable/replicable experiences (you can visit a historic building virtually but it’s not as good as the real thing).

And these are sectors that can specialise, and could specialise far more in my opinion, in bespoke, human, non-automatable/replicable services, such as using participatory dance to prevent falls in older people, using arts experiences to support dementia patients, using historic buildings for creative co-working sessions, using arts to envision compelling low-carbon futures, using local history to address lack of community cohesion and societal disquiet, using historic landscapes to tackle low education engagement etc.

One of the things you need to innovate and create new jobs that don’t currently exist is imagination: we should think about what arts, culture and heritage are, and what they can do, and imagine those new employment opportunities that provide experiences and provide services in response to societies’ needs and desires, and then try to make those opportunities real.

The future of tolerance and diversity

Secondly, there are significant social, economic and political trends afoot that deserve a brief mention. The human species is at a record low level of testosterone – we’ve gone from needing the feverish excitement once required to battle sabre tooth tigers to needing co-design skills for working amongst metrosexuals – but we have yet to operate, at a species level, in a way that respects our differences, accommodates our aspirations and celebrates our diversity. Building on long-standing conflicts related, for instance, to religion and cultural intolerance, there is recently a groundswell in populist politics in Western countries, often rallying around nationalist causes (traditional jobs and ethnicities) and preservationist ones (institutions, industries and behaviours), and against more ‘progressive’ or innovative ones (tolerance, social justice, climate change, machine automation). These have bubbled up in countries all over the world – The Netherlands, US, UK, Austria – and many commentators foresee that continued rise of these movements, or perhaps the polarisation between them and more centrist or progressive policies, in the anti-globalisation fervour that may emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic.

It would be overly partial to assume that these trends represent challenges, but often they do present challenges, at least for particular communities. In such cases, the solutions generally evolve in part around policing acceptable behaviours but also in education and relationship-building, and precisely the tolerant celebration of heritages, places, histories, cultures and communities that are the focus of much cultural heritage work and the outcomes of many cultural heritage institutions and new developments. In particular, culture and cultural heritage’s track record in mediation and resolution for many forms of conflict is strong and sometimes startling. (See, e.g., UNESCO, Culture+Conflict, Council of Europe, or the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.) And culture’s ability to encourage empathy, and to present diversity in a more positive light than some might see it in their day-to-day lives, make it an invaluable tool for the tolerance agenda.

The future of health

Mark Zuckerberg has set himself (not working alone) the goal of ridding humanity of disease by the end of the century. Although at the time of writing we are in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and he’s probably keeping quiet about it, casting an eye over the developments in contemporary medicine, with combinations of AI and data, collective intelligence strategies, nano- and bio-tech amongst other things, it does not look so unrealistic an ambition. But what is possibly less rosy is the future of mental health – an area of global growth in concern and understanding, including the attendant human and financial costs.

Our progress in physical health – from butcher—surgeons and drowning witches a few hundred years ago to genetic-code-restructuring today – has been remarkable. In many areas of mental health, though, we are in our infancy: many neuroscientists – an area where there has been remarkable progress over recent decades – suggest that our recently advanced knowledge of the brain has effectively given us a better understanding of quite how much we don’t understand.

A second major consideration in long-term health forecasting concerns the ageing population, with actual and predicted proportions of post-retirement, older and much older people rising across the globe.

These are two areas where experience and impact evidence of cultural interventions, experiences and approaches is growing too. Asked to conjure up an image of the apex of medical advancement today, many would see a person in surgical scrubs, or peering at an electron microscope of bioengineering. But I would venture that, a hundred years from now, the same image of the apex of our advancement but with mental health is just as likely to be wielding a wet paintbrush.

The future of wealth

Then there are economic challenges, such as poverty (the alleviation of which is seeing considerable success, certainly in many of the poorest parts of the world) and income inequality (which appears to be on the rise, although not perhaps in the historic timescale). The greater consolidation of wealth that’s predicted around the ‘new oil’ that is data intelligence in the 21st century has motivated some silicon valley giants to become proponents of universal basic income experiments in part, it seems, and ironically, out of concern their billions of customers will no longer be able to afford precisely the services that gave rise to the data in the first place.

In this context, adding to the existing inequality of wealth distribution, social justice, social equity and social mobility across nations and continents, the need for local-level inclusive growth, as lies at the heart of this publication, is perhaps greater than ever. And the more cultural agencies and organisations understand the potential for their sector to support such growth, the better for them and the growth itself.

At the same time as the battle between distribution and consolidation of financial wealth goes on, and closely related to it, there is a growing twinned awareness (a) of the challenges and costs of mental health and well-being and (b) the value of other forms of wealth, including health and well-being, happiness, family and security, sense of fulfilment, and the need for humans to find for themselves a value and role in society beyond that which might historically have been found through the provision of food, housing, or income. Essentially, there is a growing awareness of the value of other forms of wealth and, at the same time, an emphasis by UNESCO and others that, indeed, there is no sustainable economic development unless it is hand-in-hand with social, environmental, educational and cultural development. (It should be added that this is probably a Western, capitalised-nation perspective – plenty of societies and cultures have long held such holistic notions of wealth.)

Here too, there is an array of potential opportunities for culture – in the provision of and participation in human value experiences, products and services. It is not a new array – what is new about it is that it is becoming more mainstream in its acceptance. And the more ubiquitously accessible various goods become (through digital distribution, global marketplaces, 3D printing, efficient production etc.) we may see a growth in the opportunity value of personalised, bespoke, in-person products, experiences and services, as culture and cultural heritage often provide. For example, bands used to go on world tours to sell albums; now they often give away the albums so as to sell tickets for concerts (and merchandise, admittedly – the experience has not yet usurped the goods). But big bands have major marketing machines behind them, way beyond the reach of all but a very few cultural organisations. If the cultural sector wants really to drive up its widespread perceived value as providing highly desirable, life-blood experiences, it will undoubted have to work resourcefully and collaboratively on that messaging, as well as ensuring the experiences are up to the message.

The fifth set of trends concerns the extra-human world, where we see the perhaps unprecedented extinction of species, threats to life on land, in the air and in the water, pollution, damage and degradation of landscapes and other natural resources, natural resource depletion and, of course, perhaps the most universal challenge humanity has faced – climate change. Depending on the trend and your perspective, these might be unknown, denied, regrettable, reprehensible, morally questionable, costly, or sometimes existentially threatening. Certainly, they will mean our children inhabit a world different to the one we grew up in.

These trends present culture with responsibilities and opportunities. Responsibilities, perhaps to ensure, under the heritage preservation remit, that past and current assets and environments can be safeguarded for future generations; responsibilities to ensure our own sectoral negative impact is as little as it can be. But also opportunities: cultural activities can raise awareness of issues and challenges, they can mobilise people to innovate and act, they can build social, sustainable, inclusive economic opportunities, they can help people to envision alternative and more sustainable futures and ways of living.

Cultural activities can be actors of change – making sure their own house is in order – but also agents of change – effecting change in the outside world. In our analysis at World Pencil, there has been a healthy growth in the former, but much less of the latter. Many of these environmental challenges present not just moral duties but also economic costs and, potentially, economic opportunities for culture: it is the invitation to be agents of change that really presents the cultural sector with new purpose-driven opportunities.

The future of sustainable development

There has undeniably been a growth in widespread public awareness of, and proactive effort towards, achieving sustainable development, as a holistic total concept rather than focussing more exclusively on some of the single-issue constituent challenges (e.g. poverty, economy, biodiversity etc.). The sustainable development movement has been striving for this for decades, perhaps centuries, and it has blossomed with the recent help of movements such as the SDGs, the role of business and financial drivers, the growth of more local- or company-level ‘sustainability’ agendas (meaning an emphasis on economic, social, environmental and, particularly, business, sustainability of individual organisations and communities, as distinct from, albeit connected to, a broader and more globally interconnected sustainable development), growing understanding of and operation with systems thinking, and public awareness of issues such as poverty, plastic pollution and climate change.

What role for culture in a sustainable future? This question has arguably blossomed less, or at least, less universally. Several commentators and authors now see culture as an essential fourth pillar of sustainable development, or fifth if you include governance, alongside economic, social and environmental domains. But is culture seen as a core component in strategies developed for sustainable development, in governments, inter-governmental panels, local planning, community planning, organisation planning? And do cultural organisations see themselves as integral to these wider societal and environmental agendas? These matters of culture as incorporated within broader purpose-based agendas are central to our work at World Pencil and we see that there is much yet to be done. So too with far larger bodies, including UNESCO, that works hard to advocate for culture’s integral role. Jyoti Hosagrahar, Deputy Director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre essentially agrees: ‘There needs to be a lot more transversal interaction with culture and huge reflection and further work necessary to ensure that the work on culture is not seen as a sector by itself but is closely integrated with all types of development activity and a variety of strategies need to be developed for promoting sustainable local development that integrates cultures and cultural heritage.’ (Personal communciation)

The energy behind this interaction is likely to need to come from the cultural sector’s friends and proponents and from the sector itself: if we want to be part of the picture, we need to see ourselves as part of the picture and get around the table. I heard a good anecdotal illustration of why there will need to be a proactive and strategic push from the cultural sector for its centrality recently in a meeting of cultural organisations, early in the UK’s Covid-19 lockdown: it was reported widely that high-level donors and sponsors were now heavily supporting medical, health, food and safety needs with culture right at the bottom of the list – a good example, perhaps, of how dispensably discrete culture is considered – but then the discussion that followed centered almost exclusively on how the cultural organisations present could (understandably) sustain themselves and very little on how they could contribute to the pandemic and the challenges arising. Culture can, and should, be a core part of sustainable development and the cultural sector must strive to achieve this status, where it is not already achieved. We must join in.