culture | futures

How a ‘spiral of engagement’ of Culture, Sustainability & Policy intends to create an Ecological Age by 2050

by Juhi Shareef, Martin Farrell, and Olaf Gerlach-Hansen

Published in the Winter edition of the CSPA Quarterly, which was focused on the 2009 United Nations Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen.  To view or order back issues, visit  To subscribe to the CSPA QUARTERLY, join us!

In 1982 UNESCO defined culture as

“… the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society or social group. It includes not only arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions and beliefs.”


Culture|Futures is an expanding, positive ‘spiral of engagement’: a collaboration of organizations and individuals who are concerned with shaping and delivering a proactive cultural agenda to support the necessary transition towards an  ‘Ecological Age’ by 2050. Culture|Futures is the brainchild of Olaf Gerlach-Hansen from the Danish Cultural Institute and Peter Head from the engineering firm Arup and was first presented at the UN Climate Change Summit (COP 14) in Poznan, Poland. The positive reception it received has since led to ongoing activities in London, Brussels and recently, a three-day Launch Symposium and Working Seminar in Copenhagen in the run up to COP 15.

This was organised in collaboration with many important international cultural organisations and actors in the cultural field, including the European Union National Institutes of Culture (EUNIC), the International Federation for Arts Councils and Cultural Agencies (IFACCA), the Asia Europe Foundation (ASEF), Arup, Cultura21, the European Cultural Foundation, the Association for Performing Art Presenters and the RSA. UNESCO and the European Commission also attended.

These events brought together well over a hundred artists, musicians, filmmakers, architects, designers, international cultural institutions and many more cultural actors and organisations from 27 countries and 5 continents. The participants discussed the cultural sector’s visions for an ecological age and the relationship between cities, culture and an Ecological Age. These discussions were facilitated by a draft Background Paper, comprising practical actions, sustainability  recommendations and case studies, that is currently being reviewed to include feedback from participants. A strategy is now being developed based on the event outcomes.

A key outcome of the Culture|Futures events was a letter to the then President of COP 15, Connie Hedegaard. The letter stated that “a large number of private sector, public and civil society, cultural organisations in the world have agreed to collaborate on a cultural agenda to achieve a sustainable future by 2050” and called for COP 15 to formulate “a cultural agenda”.

What is an ‘Ecological Age’?

 An Ecological Age is defined as having achieved an 80% reduction of carbon emissions in developed countries compared to 1990 levels (50% reduction at world level), the lowering of the global ecological footprint to 1,44 gha/person based on a projected population, and furthermore an improved Human Development Index.

This definition is a contribution from Peter Head, a Director at Arup – the design-engineering firm better known for the engineering of the Sydney Opera House and the ‘bubble cube’ aquatics centre at the Beijing Olympics that has also  developed detailed designs for the eco-cities of the future.

As part of the Brunel Lecture Series, Peter Head in 2008-9, discussed the definition in the lecture ‘‘Entering the Ecological Age: The Engineer’s Role””

 which has been peer-reviewed by numerous international organizations and NGOs. The    lecture content has been informed by an ongoing dialogue with business leaders and policy-makers who have shared   practical realities, local solutions and best sustainability practices from each location. One of the outcomes of the dialogue has been  a powerful message that an Ecological Age will not be achieved without widespread cultural and behavioural change.

The Role of Culture

The cultural sector has a unique part to play in creating an Ecological Age by 2050. It is trusted, collaborative, interactive and transformative – and it is everywhere in all communities, in rich and diverse shapes and forms.

The cultural sector is understood to be an interdisciplinary, inter-sectoral, inter-genre collaboration, which encompasses policymaking, intercultural dialogue/cultural relations, creative cities/cultural planning, creative industries and research & development.  Cultural actors are people, institutions and enterprises in art, design & architecture, film & media, cultural heritage, sport, education, leisure, communication and many more areas. 

Many cultural actors choose to express their perspectives about sustaining life on earth through their chosen media.  In diverse and creative ways they bring their perspectives alive and as they do so, the thinking and behaviours of people and communities are affected and gradually begin to change. As living sustainably gradually becomes accepted, an Ecological Age evolves.

However, we face a cultural challenge of enormous proportions. An ecological transition can fail if it is not supported by cultural development. Political, economic and technological solutions are crucial, but they are not enough. For example, without cultural development these solutions can be expected to face a backlash from voters that would undermine political will for new ecological policies, and even support the return of previous unhelpful policies. As stated by  UNESCO:

“Achieving sustainability will depend ultimately on changes in behavior and lifestyles, changes which will need to be motivated by a shift in values and rooted in the cultural and moral precepts upon which behavior is     predicated. Without change of this kind, even the most enlightened legislation, the cleanest technology, the most sophisticated research will not succeed in steering society towards the long-term goal of sustainability.”

Diversity is essential to the ecological cultural transformation. The UNESCO 2005 convention on “The Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions” provides a normative cultural policy instrument to constructively deal with the challenge of retaining diversity in the face of globalisation.

New cultural responses and paradigms are still under development and urgently required; the positive incentive of a better future life arguably outweighs the negative. Culture has a fundamental role to inspire as well as the inevitable requirement to make its own practices sustainable. 

Culture, climate and ecology are all cross-sectoral policy issuess. Addressing the cultural dimension of how to deliver an Ecological Age by 2050 is thus relevant not only to cultural sector policies, but to all policies at local, national and  international levels.

Underpinning Principles

Participants of the Copenhagen events and the wider Culture|Futures community have been asked to consider the principles which will inform the further development of Culture|Futures.  Based on the input to the discussions at the  Copenhagen Culture|Futures working seminar, the preliminary formulation of these principles is that Culture|Futures will:

Proceed with a sense of modesty in service to the noble idea of creating an Ecological Age.  Culture|Futures will therefore seek recognition for itself only in so far as it achieves this goal – it will not seek to create a self serving brand identity.

Seek to engage cultural actors across the globe. Culture|Futures is seeking to sustain human and all life by addressing global warming, the planet’s limited biocapacity and human development, which are all interdependent and global issues. 

Create an enabling environment for cultural action by (1) advocacy and bridgebuilding vis a vis governments and other large stakeholders for establishing policies, strategies and actions, which together will enable the ecological age; (2) offer a global platform for diverse culture actors from different sectors, who freely act from their own local, regional or international base, to inspire each other; and (3) encourage research on best practices fostering sustainable living, behavior and structural change.

Hold the vision and imperative of an Ecological Age in 2050 whilst being realistic about what can be done immediately and quickly to move towards it.  This means that planning horizons, particularly now, are short (eg now to summer 2010, and the following few years), but may extend as Culture|Futures unfolds.

Three Strategic Objectives

The strategic direction for for Culture|Futures over the coming years is now being considered, having first been outlined at a meeting of key partners in Brussels in October 2009. The current three, mutually interdependent, strategic objectives for Culture|Futures are:

i)   Advocacy and bridge building with key stakeholders, with a priority on cities

I.e. to create an enabling environment for cultural actions which together will create an ecological age by 2050 by collaborating with key stakeholders. One key focus is likely to be urban development: urban cultures will   increasingly be decisive for shaping the conditions for sustainable living. With cities moving from constituting 50% in 2010 to 75% of world population in 2050 and therefore carrying much of the ecological strain related to this change, they are a natural choice for an initial strategic focus for global cultural action.

ii)  Building a worldwide platform for cultural action for sustainable living

This will mean the establishment of a global cultural platform which will enhance the ability of key actors in the cultural sector to partner with other stakeholders to take cultural actions for sustainable living.

iii) Building a basis for research, learning and inspiration

I.e. to i) establish research on cultural actions for sustainable living ii) communicate research and learn to inspire and improve practices  iii) build an evidence basis for assessing which actions are most efficient in relation to achieving the goal of sustainable living and an Ecological Age by 2050.

Whilst 2050 is four decades away, it is essential to act now to strengthen dialogues, foster synergies, learn and share best practices, and do what culture does best: inspire.

For more information, including the programme of events at Copenhagen, the Background Paper, visit:

To join the Culture|Futures community and contribute to the conversation, visit: Also on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.



Martin Farrell of get2thepoint:

Olaf Gerlach-Hansen of the Danish Cultural Institute and Culture, Development & International Cooperation (CuDIC):