Road Trip! Creativity & Sustainability Part 3

August 31, 2009

By the Dodge Program Staff

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(Part three of a three-part series)

For the past two Mondays (here and here) we’ve brought you the voices of our grantees as we explore how the themes of creativity and sustainability relate to each other. We provided you with the following context: 1) We sent essay questions to a sampling of 40 arts, education, environmental and place-based nonprofit organizations, asking them to help us define creativity and sustainability and offer their thoughts about systems-thinking, connections, values, design and “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” (BHAGs); 2) We identified several orientations that described the relationship between creativity and sustainability; and 3) We are considering these stimulating, seasoned and (at times) provocative answers as we frame a set of guidelines and philanthropic strategies that will have as powerful and positive an impact as possible.

Today we explore with you the following orientation:
Creativity as the Means of Imagining a Sustainable Future.

An innovative education reformer asserts, “We have to be able to imagine the future we want in order to set goals, to write the narrative of where we want to be. It requires creativity to keep our eyes on the prize because we have to be able to imagine the prize and write the story of getting there.” We also heard from an experiential education specialist who said, “We regularly hear conversations about sustainability that focus on reacting to problems that currently exist. If we could encourage community and political discussions that are focused on a vision of a world that is as sustainable as possible, it will be more likely that more of us will take action in support of that action than if we identify each issue that is not sustainable and then respond to it. We may arrive at some very creative methods and processes for bringing the vision to fruition, and we may rely on current technologies and practices for some of the action steps.”

We also heard from a higher education and sustainable business leader who noted that Thomas Kuhn, in his seminal book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, observed that paradigms don’t evolve, they break—completely giving way to radically new ones involving fundamentally different assumptions and rules, although not without tenacious resistance. The professor went on to say that “It seems to me that we’re now seeing a gigantic clash (and hopefully crash) of paradigms: traditional capitalism vs. ‘democratic capitalism; masters of the earth vs. stewards of it; materialism and consumption as key aspirational metrics of identity and prosperity vs. whatever (something deeper); GDP as the basic indicator of national success vs. a ‘Happiness Index’; business as the enemy vs. business as a key vehicle for sustainability.”

In looking ahead, he said, “Let’s assume for a moment that we are somewhere near a ‘tipping point’ of realization that we need to radically change many things. It seems to me we still are very much in the We-Don’t-Know-Exactly-How place in regard to many/most of them. Figuring that out will require immense creativity—a lot of out-of-the-box thinking, invention, innovation (plus big doses of courage and determination to implement the new ideas).”

Looking at application of ‘creativity as the means of imagining a sustainable future,’ we were pointed in the direction of ‘civic planners who are starting to re-envision cities that take their cues from primitive social structures: villages.’ [The village model] creates a micro-economy within the macro-economy of an entire city. That is one way to think about how we can foster creativity and sustainability. By pooling and encouraging our ‘local resources,’ (i.e. ‘villages’ – for example, solving a problem by enlisting your friends on Facebook), we might be able to influence the larger community (i.e. ‘city,’ or get a more consistent, sustained response from our local resources and change viewpoints from the inside out).”

We also heard from an arts executive director who works with youth. He noted that “The creative process as expressed through the arts has infinite possibilities for expressing sustainable action.” In describing the program he said that “We teach children about ecosystems and preservation through an environmental art class. Children actively participate in organic gardening, observe native flora fauna, study the collapse of the honeybee population, and are part of ‘Frog Watch’ to monitor their population because they are a key indicator of wider environmental health. These students then write about their observations and create art such as a mural of native pollinators accompanied by a garden of flowers and plants that attract those native pollinators. The goal is to not only engage these students in melding environmental education with art, but to use art to educate others about environmental awareness and foster a sense of individual/personal and collective activism to promote environmental stewardship in meeting the challenges of creating a more desirable world.”

We were also pointed to “children’s art projects that simplify the complexity of the challenges – and sometimes provide what amount to obvious and quite simple potential solutions.” Two examples of replicable projects included “carbon cube” and “cool globes.” In the words of the civic leader, “These activities are meant to engage and inspire introspection and action.”

On a broader scale, a key community planner talked about the training she received under The Natural Step program. She underscored that “Creativity is the inner core from which we will construct new systems and solutions.” The image below shows The Natural Step’s concept of “backcasting,” which “is a way to plan for the future that starts not with today but with a vision of what sort of future we want.”

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If this orientation to creativity & sustainability (Creativity as the Means of Imagining a Sustainable Future) resonates with you, please send us your thought and examples.

Related recommended reading included:

Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block who says, “Questions open the door to the future and are more powerful than answers in that they demand engagement. Engagement is what creates accountability.” (From Chapter 10: Questions are More Transforming than Answers.)

Democratic Capitalism by Ray Carey

Creative Capitalism edited by Michael Kinsley

Thanks for joining us for our summer road trip, we hope you were as enthralled as we were. Maybe we can package it as the “I Spy” creativity & sustainability game!

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