20 December 2021. Systems | Museums
10 tools to think about systems change and a regenerative future | It’s time that museums just say no to tainted money.
Welcome to Just Two Things, which I try to publish daily, five days a week. Some links may also appear on my blog from time to time. Links to the main articles are in cross-heads as well as the story.
Future Stewards is a small organisation dedicated to training people in using systems thinking to help us get to a regenerative future. The usual disclosure: SOIF, where I mostly work, is a partner organisation in their Three Horizons Practice Network.
One of the tools they’ve produced to help in this, as part of some work with the High Level Climate Action Champtions for COP26, is a set of 10 cards about tools that people can use to think about systems change. These have now been published online as a pdf.
It’s not a user manual—you’d have to familiarise yourself with the underlying methods—but it’s certainly a useful set of prompts. They’re built around three ‘simple rules’ or guiding principles that can accelerate change:
- Harness ambition loops
- Set exponential goals (which is about looking for ways to move technologies and applications rapidly along an S-curve)
- Follow shared action pathways.
A quick tour of the 10 cards, with links where they are useful.
The first one, Working with the future, has a useful 2x2 schematic of the type of approaches you need to thinking about the future for different combinations of agency and uncertainty.
The second one is Three Horizons, which I was involved in developing, and is, in effect, a visual mapping tool to understand patterns of systems change against preferable or possible futures.
The third one, A Regenerative Worldview, draws on Bill Reed’s spiral that maps more or less effective uses of energy against collaborating with natural systems or fragmenting them. The first of pair is good; the second of each is bad.
Fourth is systems mapping—just making sure you can represent the system you’re dealing with; fifth is ‘Accelerating Transitions Framework, effectively looking for ways to accelerate positive change up an S-curve. This proposes a three part model of change:
emergence, diffusion and reconfiguration. At each stage, different policies, and different kinds of international co-operation, are likely to be effective and accelerating the transition.
Related to this are causal loops (six), specifically looking for interventions that are ‘self-propelling’ or ‘self-amplifying’, and ‘Exponential goals’ (seven) where increasing take-up of a climate friendly technology can create rapid diffusion, through economies of scale and economies of scope, which combine to reduce costs rapidly.
Eight is about looking for tipping points and cascades:
A tipping point is a place where a small intervention can trigger a large response, sending a system into a qualitatively different future state. In transitions, tipping points can exist where a new solution becomes more affordable, accessible, profitable, attractive, socially acceptable, or higher performing than old solutions.
Cascades follow when a critical mass of actors has adopted a new approach or a new practice.
Nine is about building ‘ambition loops’. Effectively these are models of change that contain within them a virtuous circle that reinforces change.
(Some readers might recognise this as a version of Jim Collins’ ‘flywheel’. Although this tends to be associated with Amazon, definitely a business that is at the wrong end of the regenerative worldview, there’s no reason why the concept can’t serve progressive change. I used it for a model of change to improve urban food environments (pdf, page 31) in some client work last year.)
And the last one is about the power of convening: the need to bring stakeholders together around change to understand their objectives and their sticking points, and to look for solutions that get beyond mere trade-offs. This reminds me of the Future Search injunction to ‘get the whole system in the room’.
Each card comes with the model on one side and a zero climate example on the other side. They were compiled by my sometime colleague Bill Sharpe, who uses much of this thinking in his day-to-day thinking.
Over at the art magazine Apollo, Maxwell Anderson has a simple enough question: when are museums going to stop turning a blind eye to funds from dodgy donors?
The practice of naming buildings or galleries after rich donors has long been common in the US, and has become more so in the UK, at least since inequalities in wealth started to increase from the 1980s onwards.
Of course, wealth doesn’t come from nowhere:
The exchange of visibility for cash is now increasingly fraught, as revelations of the alleged or documented transgressions of the wealthy abound in social media. The resulting glare is sure to have a dampening effect on future donations from individuals or families whose wealth derives from practices today considered unethical or otherwise problematic. Museums and boards with ties to fossil-fuel companies, for instance, have long been targets of criticism – but protests that once focused on institutions have now become personal, singling out individual executives and the well-to-do.
(‘A Tribute to Fossil Fuels’, Matt Green/flickr. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
In practice, the museums sector has been politicised both by the sources of its donations and also the low wages it tends to pay most of its staff. Anderson charts the links between the appearance online of ‘Arts + All Museums Salary Transparency 2019’ spreadsheet, and increasingly vocal criticisms of museum donors.
Shortly before that, the artist Nan Goldin had named and shamed the multiple museums in the US and the UK that had taken money from the opioid billions of the Sackler family, while more recently Whitney Trustee Warren Kanders resigned after protests about his day job (running a company that produced military and enforcement equipment).
The New York Metropolitan Museum finally seems to have got the memo about the Sacklers and has taken their names off various galleries—without, apparently sending any of the money back.
Anderson doesn’t mention it, because Apollo is an art magazine, but in the UK the Science Museum’s decision to continue taking money from Shell has already caused extensive reputational damage, not least because the money seems to have influenced the Museum’s interpretive decisions. So far the Museum’s management team has had a tin ear for all of this, but one wonders how long it can maintain its strategic deafness.
And—as in other sectors of the US economy—we’ve seen a wave of unionisation in the gallery sector. In short, then:
Museums are nonetheless on notice on multiple fronts – not simply about the extent to which their wealth has been derived from dodgy donors – but also about how they pay people, whether excessively at the top or inadequately at the bottom; the degree to which their staff, board, public and programmes reflect the demographics and concerns of the diverse communities in which they are situated; and their commitment to preserving collections.
One of the curiosities here, as Anderson points out, is that museums tend to regard themselves as places of learning, culture and heritage, and typically have values statements that reflect these objectives. So there might be a solution to some of these issues:
One partial solution would be for museums to align the investment policies of their endowments with their stated values, and so recycle tainted donations. Most index funds are rife with companies clearing the rain forest, exploiting workers, and other toxicities aplenty. Despite being founded with assets derived from the oil industry, the Rockefeller Foundation divested from fossil fuels in 2020. But major museums have yet to follow suit.
One note from me here: I don’t think it’s coincidence that these issues have become sharper since the emergence of Black Lives Matter and #TimesUp into the social and political mainstream. Both of these have elevated issues of power and its consequences—and the connected issue of where wealth comes from—into the mainstream. And both have strong generational effects.
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