Harbinger Consultants

Culture + Complexity + Change

LEARN | Collapse, Cultural Economics, Eco-Tourism, Health & Crisis Communications …

The past week or so has seen us attending a few seminars and lectures. It’s something we enjoy doing, particularly when it means we can engage with emerging research and trends, as it sharpens our knowledge and awareness of changing urban and regional dynamics. Practitioners aren’t sufficiently engaged with the research sector and that can be to the detriment of communities, cities and regions. So this week, with semester drawing to a close, we have been able to attend a lecture on foresight and futuring with Richard Slaughter, a panel discussion on participatory health, a forum on eco-tourism, a lecture on cultural economics with Dr Ruth Towse, and a seminar on crisis communications. Underlying this scholarly engagement is a deep commitment and concern for human wellbeing, development and sustainability, recognising that crises are playing out in diverse realms – systems thinking helps map how these issues are interrelated.

Richard Slaughter‘s lecture, Can the fall of civilisation be avoided? explored the global failure to respond effectively to climate change. Slaughter is a proponent of ‘integral futures’, which sees the application of integral theory to futures work. Integral theory seeks to “to draw together an already existing number of separate paradigms into an interrelated network of approaches that are mutually enriching” (see Wikipedia for a brief introduction). Slaughter’s lecture provided a sweeping overview of human impacts on the global system and the need to move beyond a conventional response and beyond the idea of ‘collapse’. He also alluded to some solutions and possibilities, arguing that our worldview needed to be adjusted and that we needed to change. Key points and questions from the lecture were:

  • How do we define fall and collapse?
  • The collapse of civilisation is not inevitable.
  • Accepting the inevitability of collapse or crash is a passive, do nothing, demotiviating position.
  • Which system will tip first – earth systems (ie life support) or the human system (ie moral courage, culture, values, consciousness etc)?
  • Emerging narrative from collapse to descent – the possibility of intervention and finding the ‘sweet zone’ where higher values and inclusiveness prevail.

He said that the current crisis is the result of our worldview and that without addressing our values and culture, change is not likely. Collapse is a ‘do nothing’ scenario – it is passive and a consequence of business as usual. If we remain passive then we will overshoot the Earth’s systems and collapse. He said that we didn’t need to be here and we chose it as the result of our trajectory of development. The result is widespread future discounting: a combination of science, technology, foresight and moral courage is what’s needed to counter this. An emerging narrative is now shifting the focus from collapse to descent, which augurs new pathways and the possibility of intervention. He concluded with an affirmation that we – humans – can change though was concerned about whether we have sufficient time to create an alternate reality. Presently, we are anticipating which complex system will tip first – climate or human response. Interestingly, he concluded with a small appeal to personal/individual sensibilities, calling on each person to find what is uniquely theirs and do it. For some, that might mean community organising or creating new models for engagement.

Having just returned from Christchurch to participate in and experience the SCAPE 7 Public Art Biennial, John and I were initially shocked by the devastation of the city. While there we spoke to many people and heard many stories about how the earthquake/s had changed the lives of so many people. For some time, we have been tracking with ideas about resilience and robustness in relation to disaster readiness, response and recovery. RDA Brisbane, for example, has played a role in the business resilience network in response to Brisbane’s flood. In our work in Central Western Queensland, we have seen the impacts of drought: a few good seasons preceded and followed by lengthy dry periods. Now fires are raging across New South Wales. We know our country is vulnerable to natural disasters that are intensifying as a result of climate change. Our task, as consultants engaged in diverse regional and urban projects, is to endeavour to acknowledge this and initiate resilience and mitigation measures.

The tourism industry is just one industry grappling with sustainability issues, and the State Library of Queensland presented a seminar with designer and design thinker John Thackara on the design of an eco-tourism enterprise and industry. The industry is endeavouring to create demand for sustainable products and experience. The discussion noted that tourists visit almost everywhere and in some cases throw things into distinct imbalance. When someone visiting a destination can use as much water in 24 hours as a local person uses in 100 days or when the local people who guide or host visitors during their holiday receive a tiny percentage of the amount paid for the package then it’s probably time to question the business model.

With the key concept being ‘leave things better’, and inspired by P2P travel and the new economy of sharing, a whole range of ecotourism ventures are now emerging that are based on a spirit of reciprocity and connectedness with local communities. Equally important is the commitment to improve the health of the living systems visited. Thackara stressed the need to ‘do no harm’ and ‘leave things better’. Thackara has been working in and with this sector for a while. Reflecting on our own work in Central Western Queensland, together with community stakeholders we have endeavoured to integrate a range of social and cultural approaches to visitor experience that weaves the visitor into the dynamic of rural life and creates platforms for socio-economic sustainability in the community.

QUT’s Centre for Emergency and Disaster Management hosted a seminar on Crisis Communications which included researchers and representatives from Queensland’s emergency services. QUT has completed several research projects addressing the role and use of social media for emergency communications. Dr Axel Bruns, from QUT’s Faculty of Creative Industries, raised issues about the trustworthiness of some information and the need to verify and ground truth information. Once incorrect and dated information is circulating, it cannot be stopped. Dr Paul Barnes, from QUT’s Faculty of Health, said that it was important for for social media engagement strategies and professional to be embedded in emergency response services e.g. the Queensland Police Service (QPS) ran a highly effective mythbusting series during the floods.

From a media perspective, the ABC’s Gary Kemble stressed the importance of maintaining integrity and trustworthiness. He said that the ABC plays an important role in emergency situations and that all content is verified before broadcast or sharing. Verification and research is an integral part of the journalist’s role. Dr Amisha Mehta, from the QUT Business School, said that the while social media is a ‘go to’ information source, not everyone engages with it and there is a need to ensure other channels are being used effectively. For example, during the Bundaberg floods social media use and reliance was not predominant.

With a background in military intelligence and counter-terrorism ops, Adam Moss of the Department of Community Safety called for thinking outside the box as the social media environment is complex and challenging. He said his department was challenged to differentiate messages: people can send tweets about being stuck in rising flood waters but not dial 000, so there was a need to recognise a call for help. He stressed the value of an ‘information intelligence’ approach and real time analysis of data to provide detailed diagnostics of crisis or critical situations. QPS Assistant Commissioner Paul Stewart affirmed the success of the mythbusting initiative during the floods – he said that government agencies can face challenges in releasing information quickly due to their management structures and that there was a need to build social media capacity and risk management. For government agencies, trust and honesty were critical to successful crisis response and management.

In the ensuing discussion audience members raised issues about the pace and rate of information and how information circulates. It is, as one speaker noted, a moving feast. The challenge for emergency service was in ‘mining’ information to get ahead of the incident and respond quickly as well as anticipate what could happen next. Social media can be exceptional for monitoring and capturing experience. For example, during the Christchurch earthquakes, it was possible to identify the moment and location of the earthquake from Twitter activity.

QUT also presented a seminar with Dr Ruth Towse, Professor of Economics of Creative Industries at Bournemouth University. Towse provided an overview of the development of cultural economics and spoke about her specific interests in artist labour markets and copyright. She noted that cultural economics has significantly been concerned with issues arts subsidies and identified the ways in which some analysis sought to justify ongoing government subsidy of the arts, such as impact and valuation studies.

Towse noted that cultural economics was a very different branch of economics to mathematical and business economics. That is, cultural economics was not about individual businesses and not able to predict winners or success based on various metrics. Digital technologies are changing cultural and creative industries, including copyright. Cultural economics has largely neglected copyright, a distinctive dimension of creative industries. As copyright is becoming ever more important in the creative economy and challenged through digital technologies, there is a need for cultural policy to effectively engage with these debates and deal with it.

Towse was in Australia following from her Visiting Fellowship at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. I was curious about how cultural economics comes into play in disaster recovery situations – there has been a significant cultural and arts response to the Christchurch earthquake. Creative industries are regarded as important players in the earthquake recovery for both social and economic ends, including as attractors and destination markers that enhance market activity and investment. There’s a strong ‘creative placemaking’ element in the cultural efforts underway in Christchurch.

In the seminar on Participatory Health, which showcased research that merged health and creative industries under the umbrella of ‘Creative Health’, Dr Ben Light presented research into the use of social media for health purposes, health promotion and health management. He found that social media has some uses, including health promotion, but is not widely relied on for health information. Of course, more research is needed and he didn’t address recent health monitoring innovations such as diet and exercise trackers and assistive technologies integrated with mobile devices.

Dr Julie-Ann Carroll’s research embedded social media in its methodology to enable richer data collection that can be pinned to place. The Twitter Track study integrated Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), demographic, and qualitative data to find out more about how people engage with their local environments for the purposes of physical activity in the Brisbane area. Further information about this work is available online. In comparing the physical activity of mothers in Inala and Bardon (as specific low and high socio-economic areas), the study found that physical activity strongly correlated to socio-economic status, car dependency and the provision of local destinations. The study provides information that can be used by urban planners and designers. We think the way social media has been used in this study also presents a model for community engagement and public participation in other processes, such as planning and design, where experiences of places can be tracked using social media as people go about their daily routines.

We’ll be reporting on other upcoming seminars and forums that address a range of topics including climate change impacts, such rising sea levels and island inundation, in the Torres Strait (where we’ll be working again in the new year), ecosystem resilience, and Great Barrier Reef futures. If there is a common theme across our engagements with emerging research and trends, then it is resilience and adaptivity. For us, there is a challenge in understanding the social, cultural, governance and economc implications of resilience and adaptivity. Interestingly, though, in one of our conversations in Christchurch, people were skeptical about the way the idea of resilience is ‘bandied about’ and they felt like they were told to be resilient, not that they were resilient. Resilience needs to be transparent, embedded and shared.



  pipskyJude Pippen wrote @

Really appreciate this succinct report on ideas that I am too far way to hear! All areas of mutual interest – good to know someone is thinking ahead for us!

  lcarroli wrote @

Thanks Judy. So glad to hear that these posts are useful to you – it’s vital for practitioners and consultants to engage with what’s happening in research. I like bringing this into my fieldwork and policy/planning work, because ideas like resilience and adaptivity need to be alive.

  M wrote @

Living in under served communities in crisis provides an opportunity to delve into the great mystery of change. The wall between visitor and resident needs to be torn down. The language of change needs to come from the voices embedded in the community rather than the voices of observers. A sense of place in social media is born from the authentic voice of those fully alive and present, with all range of feelings, the sacred to the profane, the ridiculous to the exalted, in order for any place to reach the type of change which moves away from historical patterns of isolation and utilizes the full potential of a world without walls.

  lcarroli wrote @

thanks for this comment. i’ve read it a few times since receiving it and it makes for a moment of inspiration … in any consulting work we do, we are always committed to proper processes, engaging in and facilitating dialogue and deliberation, and working with communities in their diversity not imposing our views or perspectives on those communities. i think that’s what came out of most of these talks i attended – they came from people who were somehow embedded in communities, even as researchers they were driven by deeper connections.

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