The futures we can anticipate include significant impacts not only from accelerating climate change, but also from pollution, wars, pandemics, AI, current demographic trends and social conflict.
By Cornelius Holtorf
Wars, pandemics, artificial intelligence, galloping climate crisis… The world is changing rapidly and human communities must adapt to many challenges. In this context, World Heritage presents a kind of double paradox: while the world needs solidarity and collaboration on a global scale, World Heritage sites serve as cultural totems for the different nation-states, which can themselves even be in conflict. As we anticipate and adapt to change, World Heritage is looking back. Fifty years after the creation of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention , it is time to look to the future.
To this end, over the past decade, our team has contributed to an ambitious research programme on “the future of heritage”, which aims to study the role of heritage in managing the relationships between current and future societies, and created a Unesco Chair .
World Heritage has a long future ahead of it. But can its management and messages remain unchanged, as people are forced from their homelands, as the machines we create increasingly control our lives, and as greater human trust in (and among) companies is necessary? In the next half-century, Unesco would benefit from imagining and implementing promising strategies that meet the needs of future generations. Here’s how.
Dangers of ‘Presentism’
When my colleague Anders Högberg and I started working on the future of heritage, we interviewed more than 60 experienced managers of cultural heritage in several countries. We were surprised to find that no one had ever systematically asked themselves for which future(s) they were managing the heritage and what role this heritage could play in these futures.
They simply assumed that the current uses and benefits of the heritage would somehow continue into the future, or that future generations would fend for themselves. Indeed, much of today’s World Heritage policy is based on the assumption that the future will be like the present – even though we know it will be different.
For example, the World Heritage Convention requires that properties inscribed on the List meet the condition of “authenticity” . While the importance of taking into account cultural diversity “in time and space” was recognised in the 1994 Nara Document on Authenticity , applications of the term authenticity remain firmly rooted in conceptions of here. This raises the question of to what extent the underlying concept of the Outstanding Universal Value convention will still be “universal” in the future.
Imagine Alternative Futures
Foresight allows us to think about the future in different terms than our present, and also allows us to imagine different futures. These futures are multiple and alternative, and are not necessarily beneficial and desirable for all. That’s why our choices and decisions, now and in the near term, matter. The future is not predetermined but gradually takes shape – in fact, many different futures are taking shape, divided by time and space. We have the power to influence those futures, and that’s where World Heritage comes in.
World Heritage is often linked to how people perceive the world: it can evoke deeply held collective identities, emotions and associated cultural values. The way World Heritage sites are managed today influences how people make sense of the world they live in, and the values they consider important in their lives.
The 1972 World Heritage Convention forms part of Unesco’s efforts, expressed in its 1945 Constitution , to promote peace and security in the world by fostering knowledge and understanding among peoples. This mission is palpable at sites such as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Museum, which teaches visitors about the horrors of nuclear weapons and spreads the message of “Never Again Hiroshima”.
The climate crisis has put issues of sustainability and adaptation on the agenda of societies around the world. The rapidly changing discourse on cultural heritage, climate change and sustainable development should pay more attention to how people think and act in response to this situation, which is linked to particular cultural contexts and therefore specific in terms of times and geographical locations. As circumstances change over time, cultural heritage and its management will also need to change.
When heritage institutions think about the future, their time horizon tends to be short – the goal is to support current policies, after all. For example, a 2015 study by Historic England recognises that it is essential to be “better prepared for change”, but rather discusses how discernible trends may impact current programmes rather than exploring possible future programmes. In doing so, there is a risk of losing opportunities to make a difference for future generations by uncritically pursuing current heritage practices.
To increase the chances that assets achieve the expected results, managers can rely on anticipation and strategic foresight. The futures we can anticipate include significant impacts not only from accelerating climate change, but also from pollution, wars, pandemics, AI, current demographic trends, and social conflict. The Strategic Objectives for the benefit of humanity include:
• human well-being
• social cohesion and security
• trust within and between societies
• the peace
• a healthy planet and environment.
Unfortunately, common perceptions and uses of cultural heritage do not necessarily favour these outcomes. Worse, in some cases they can even threaten human rights and reduce socio-cultural cohesion and resilience by exacerbating discrimination, fueling violent conflicts over power or territory, and generally making necessary transformations more difficult. We must not take the value and benefits of cultural heritage for granted. After all, the Taliban, too, base their agenda on a particular cultural heritage, which led them in 2001 to destroy the Buddha statues in Bamiyan.
One of the central aspirations of Unesco is to foster world peace, and a concrete example of the growing need to anticipate the changing nature of conflicts in the world.
Rather than purely state conflicts, there is a clear trend towards civil conflicts involving, for example, ethnic or religious groups which are sometimes supported by the forces of foreign states. The “old-fashioned” World Heritage system, which relied on state-wide cohesion, no longer unites all warring parties, reducing its potential to promote peace through mutual cultural understanding. What is needed is to design a global heritage by potentially advancing local or global agendas rather than primarily national agendas.
There is an urgent need for the world’s cultural heritage to embrace foresight and future thinking in a more professional and systematic manner. To make a difference, we are associated with Unesco’s Futures Literacy Network and have contributed to the strategic foresight project of the International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), an expert organisation that supports the World Heritage Convention. Earlier this year, we even released an animated video on the future of heritage. Given how rapidly our world is changing, we must prepare to manage our global heritage differently for the next 50 years.
(The author is Professor of Archaeology, Linnaeus University, Sweden. theconversation.com)