The Observatory

In The Observatory we have collected over 160 creative projects that creative practitioners and interdisciplinary researchers have found transformative. We analysed these, alongside recent research in creative and sustainability fields, to produce a list of transformative strategies that are being used to imagine and to create more sustainable worlds.

This blog post explains how we built the Observatory and the main insights that we learned from it.

Project background: What do we mean by ‘sustainability’?

The CreaTures project is situated in Europe, we recognise that many ways of life here, use too many resources. We need to imagine and to create alternative ways of life that tread more lightly on our planet. We also need to take action to repair some of the earth systems that are already breaking down, including climate collapse, widespread pollution, and biodiversity loss.

Increasingly, researchers are demonstrating that our current ways of life need to be radically changed. Sustainability is increasingly being understood as a journey, rather than a fixed destination. In sustainability science, there is a focus on ‘systems change’- for example the move from fossil fuels to renewable energy. We call this ‘eco-social’ change since it involves social and cultural change, as well as material actions (such as building wind turbines).

In recent years creative practitioners have also turned to focus on the urgent sustainability challenges that we all face. Artists, designers, and community organisers have been producing critiques of our current ways of life and developing radical alternative visions. Sustainability researchers have been inspired by these techniques and have become interested in sharing and using them. In the past, research has focussed on how artworks could send messages to members the public on how they might change their behaviour. But more recently, in systems change approaches, there has been a greater focus on how creative projects might change people’s values and worldviews.

There are some barriers to communication between sustainability researchers and creative practitioners. For example, sustainability researchers investigate how systems change over multiple years. Creative practitioners focus on changing relationships, rather than systems. Their work includes very short-term experiments (as well as life-long explorations). We think that both of these ‘eco-social’ perspectives are required for long term, meaningful change. Our role as Creatures has been to start a set of conversations to help bridge these gaps. We aim to make sure that our shared insights are accessible to all, especially policymakers who might use them to take different decisions on sustainability.

What does the Observatory do?

Our project creates and shares insights on how creative projects are promoting eco-social sustainability. We concentrate on topics, conditions, and effects.

Creative practitioners make works on topics related to sustainability – for example, climate change, natural phenomena, and our relationships with nature.

Creative practitioners create conditions that are intended to bring about transformations. For example, they develop participatory processes, create engaging sensory experiences, and bring together practitioners from different disciplines.

Creative practices also produce effects (when something changes in the world because a project has taken place).

An aside: What do mean by ‘effects’?

Some effects are easy to observe and can be clearly traced back to the creative project. However, other effects remain unseen – for example because they happen inside a person, or within a wider, complex situation.  

Some creative traditions are really interested in creating and recording observable effects. Design, for example has a long history of intervening in the everyday material world, for example using citizen-led environmental data to lobby for changes to urban design.

In contrast, some artistic fields have a long tradition of critique – where asking critical questions is the most important thing to do. It’s much more difficult to demonstrate that someone’s views have changed after seeing a piece of satirical artwork, than to show how a road layout has been redesigned.

Since observation is a very important way of making knowledge in modern-day societies (as in scientific observation, or evidence-based policy making) this sometimes creates a barrier between creative practitioners, funders and policymakers. The CreaTures Evaluation strand is working on bringing these three groups closer together.

New perspectives from sustainability science shows us that eco-social change is complex. Often, we cannot clearly observe chains of cause and effect when looking at creative works. We see this as an argument for broadening the types of evidence that are acceptable when understanding the value of creative practice for eco-social change. At the same time, we can acknowledge that this evidence may remain partial, indicative, or exploratory.     

How did you collect The Observatory cases?

Creative practitioners all over the world are making works related to sustainability. There are simply too many projects to collect into one database. We have used four different methods to assemble a collection of over 160 cases, from which we have extracted key insights.

1.     The CreaTures ExPs

Our project has commissioned new works (Experimental Productions, or ExPs) from a range of creative practitioners. This gives us deep and detailed data about transformative processes. View the ExPs here.

2.     CreaTures Network Expert Interviews

We interviewed our own team members and asked them to nominate cases that were transformative to them. This helped us to get a sense of how creative practitioners and researchers think differently about the idea of transformation. We looked up the documentation available for each case, but often it was limited. This has provided ‘weak signals’ about transformation which we have combined with in-depth data from the ExPs. View the interactive graph of 160+ cases here.

3.     Literature Reviews

We looked at sustainability transformations research and added well-known cases from within this community. At the moment, we are reviewing research and finding cases within the literature on creative practice, with a particular focus on socially engaged art and participatory design. View more details in our Deliverables here.

4.     Creative Sector Mapping

We also took a top-down approach, where we mapped creative fields, making sure that all relevant creative sectors were represented, by using EU sector specific reports and taxonomies. View the interactive map here. We then invited representatives of any missing fields to have an interview with us and fill in any missing gaps. We also mapped the countries that the cases come from, in order to give us an idea of the parts of the world that our work represents (and where we might need to do further research).

Where can I view your results?

The case collection is stored on the GraphCommons network mapping platform. It contains an interactive visualisation of all 160 cases, with summaries and links to their websites. Looking at documentation from these cases, in combination with academic research, we have also identified transformational strategies that are being used by creative practitioners and researchers to galvanise change. For each of these, we have written a paragraph that communicates the key idea and chosen an example case. These are listed on the CreaTures website.

What did you learn?

We identified transformational strategies being used by creative practitioners that emerged from the analysis of our case collection, alongside relevant research in sustainability science and creative fields.

Many of these key ideas were developed by practitioners and theorists outside of the project and are credited appropriately. Others have emerged from the CreaTures research. In each case, we are grateful to the practitioners and researchers that gave up their time for an interview or seminar.