Last week I met with Stephen Aguillar-Millan a future consultant. He described himself as a Futurist (though I think not in the early 20th proto fascist art movement sense). His organisation the European Futures Observatory undertakes a range of projects that examine various aspects of the future.
We met the day George Osborne’s admitted that the UK austerity measures will continue into 2018.
Stephen believed that most organisations plan for a future which they assume will not be different from the past. He cited a number of local economic strategies which assume that once austerity is over, economic and social life will return to the more benign state of ‘before the cuts’. This attitude is widespread, though not exclusive, within the public sector. Often the impetus for radical change is not felt until it’s too late and then draconian cuts are the only option. Would anyone working in the public sector in 2008 have believed that it would have shrunk by a third by 2012?
Public organisations struggle to prepare the public for change. The political expediency of the electoral cycle means that politicians will shy away from big decisions anything up to a year before an election. Moreover they struggle to create the space for conversations or debate. Public meetings are sparsely attended, consultation exercises are only ever on specific issues and are viewed by the public as re-enforcing decisions which are already taken. The local press with its eyes on short–term sales is never really able spell out the complexities of big problems. At the same time local authorities are mindful to keep good relations with the local media and thus try to manage the news in a way made palatable for the public ear. In Suffolk last year, discussions about the future provision of public services in the context of lower levels of spending was reduced to arguments about libraries and lollipop ladies.
The West faces unfamiliar social and economic challenges from the rest of the world. Whilst globally, climate change and increased population will mean that resources will not be abundant in the way we are used to. I can’t imagine a future where we in the UK can have it all.
The challenge for policy makers at all levels is to find the space to ask big questions and involve the public in problem solving. Here museums have a great opportunity to play an important role. As institutions they benefit from high levels of trust. They are perceived by many (just like libraries) as neutral spaces which encourage debate. Most importantly they are places where people meet, socialise and connect with others.
So what big questions should we ask of ourselves and how could museums use their collections to continue the discussion?