Culture, Disaster, and a Future for Eco-Metropolis?

Keynote Speech for The Future Sketch Conference, Tokyo, October 29th , 2011, organized by The Culture Creation Project, Tokyo Metropolitan Government.


10.29. Seven months and eighteen days after 3.11, many have been said.

It is therefore difficult to think of something to add, even by someone who worked in Aceh after the tsunami 12.26, 2004.

But, quoting a german expression, “all has been said, but unfortunately not by all.”

So perhaps I could add something. And,  what I would like to add is not about tsunami or nuclear disasters. I would like to add about the other disasters, those that are related to climate change and use of finite natural resource.

On these, too, many have been said, but never too much. So, I thought I should still say something about it here in Tokyo, Japan, which is the right place to do so for reasons that will be made clear in the course of my talk.

These other disasters are increasingly frequent and intense, while the natural disasters are actually not.

Some of these potential disasters, especially those related to the management of finite resources, do not present themselves as big bangs like tsunami’s and earthquakes. They are mostly gradual and often span more than one lifetime before they become perceivable.

For these, too, the metropolises need to be prepared as the world’s population is increasingly urban, already at the rate of 50% in 2008. The metropolises can play a role, much more than just getting prepared for the disasters. They have become the problems, but potentially also the solutions in our transition into ecological age. The metropolises have the most concentrated talents, and the most intense interactions supported by the most sophisticated infrastructures. From these we should indeed expect creative innovations for the whole world. It is in this context that we should ask what culture and arts could do.

This difficult time has been rightly described by Chiaki Soma, director of the Tokyo Festival of performing arts:  When “ripped apart by anger and uncertainty, by loss and emptiness, we sense confusion and lack the words to express this new reality” at “this ground zero of not understanding”, we ask ourselves, “can we then set up and practice a new social model and form of community,” “what kind of future does our human power make it possible to portray?”

To answer these impossible questions, we rightly ask every body: What can he/she contribute?

Artist, all cultural practitioners, are not others, but part of  societies. They are born and grow up within societies like anybody else. Therefore we need not question their social commitments. Their talents are to process anew values to be offered into public spheres, into the society, in forms that would touch our deepest hearts. To do that they should be totally free. Exactly for societies to benefit fully from arts, artists should first and foremost have freedom.  Without freedom, art will lose its fundamental value to human society.

However, it is also important to ask that arts practice also change itself, because it, too, uses materials and energy. It needs also to deconstruct the concept of what is “artistic”.

2. The Movement: From Global Competition to Global Collaboration).

In post-Tsunami Aceh almost every one in the city of Banda Aceh–a metropolis in 17th century by the standard of that time–had lost some of his or her family members. They all have some sad stories to tell. Aceh gave the world the emotion that has unprecedented scale and depth in the history of humanity.

In post-tsunami Aceh, more than 400 organizations collaborated to rebuild houses, villages, cities, and lives of survivors. Japanese highly specialised rescue-team were among the first to arrive and saved survivors.  The civil war that had been escalating during the previous years, stopped and peace accord achieved. This is a true demonstration of global solidarity instead of global competition.

And we will need more of that global solidarity and collaboration, in the near future, as we struggle with global depletion of finite natural resources.  After confirming the facts of global warming, scientists are now demanding our attention on an even more challenging reality: that non-renewable natural resources are finite in numbers, and in their re-cycleability and re-useability.  And there are a lot of injustice in it.

We are going to need all our creativity to invent new ways of sustainable consumption and production, to change our current pattern and system, to change our shelves! How can we increase global solidarity and collaboration in a world so locked in capitalistic competition, which is sometimes often fatalistic and leading to mutual destruction? Can we effectively change fundamentally in 25 years? How culture can play a role?

The world’s population increased only by 400 million in two centuries between 1750 and 1950, but is increasing by 3 billion in less than  one hundred years between 1950-2030. Most of the 400 million were accommodated in the old and new cities in Europe and America without any awareness of the reality of finite resources. The new 3 billion people will be mostly in Asian and African cities, but more in Asian.  By 2030, seven of the ten metropolises with over 10 millions population will be in Asia. Soon, Jakarta metropolitan area (JABODETABEK and Bandung and the corridor between the two) will be the 2nd largest urban agglomeration in the world, after Tokyo, but without the extensive Tokyo’s mobility network. How can their needs of mobility, water, etc. be met and organized on the awareness of finite natural-resources/sustainability?

There are good news that at least theoretically it is possible to change towards sustainable, ecological age. The key is that we should not only reduce, but substitute what and how we consume and produce. The changes will have to be at all levels, structural and personal. And for that we need very deep change in consciousness that are capable of enacting changes in lifestyles, and in policy making process. For that we need deep creativity and innovations.

We need arts and culture to imagine the future.

Some have imagined the future to be a world of conflicts, where people struggling to compete for remaining scarce resources. Wars everywhere, among nations, among cities, among even communities and families.

Some others imagined a humanity lost in space, knowing no where to go but to be continuously roaming around, scavenging anything just to survive.

But, there are optimists that are imagining a world of abundance by shifting to all renewable energy and material resources.

There is nothing to continue talking or imagining about the doom-day scenarios. It will lead only to paralysis. There is nothing to think or act about, because in the long run we will all perish, even if we keep trying till the end.

The positive imagination, however, opens a whole range of possibilities that require creative thinking, invention, innovation and collaboration. In short: there are works to carry on.

For changes at structural and collective level, I would like quote a German political scientist, Claus Leggewie, who says that:

“Politicians and experts would be mistaken if they saw the public as an obstacle in climate policies. Climate policies include requirements and bans, technical large scale projects and disaster control and cannot be applied top down. Next to fundamental changes in consciousness it requires a “wisdom of the many”, thus a new political culture of partaking. The Verursacherprinzip (polluter-pays principle) in climate change has to be applied in a way that enables an active citizenship to participate in solving these problems democratically.”

“…Government regulations, economic incentives, and alternative technologies are not everything. The project of a climate compatible society has to be culturally embedded.”

Cities are compact enough, to hopefully involve the public en masse, and they are large enough to impact the  countries.” 

JANIC (The Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation (JANIC) have called for a strong collaboration based on solidarity and transparency in information:

.. JANIC considers that the following measures need to be taken: to expand citizen participation in the environmental decision making process; to empower the affected people and guarantee their human rights; to make a fundamental change in the national energy policy.

The earthquake disaster, however, has revealed that citizens (are capable to) make (their) own individual decision and take actions by sorting out the information. It is necessary for the government to promote information disclosure in order to build a foundation for a constructive relationship with citizens.

“…there is an urgent need for shifting energy supply to renewable energy resources with fewer risks….Moreover, the shift of energy supplying methods is inextricably linked with reviewing our lifestyle based on large-scale production-and consumption.”

The Japanese government and its citizens, learning from the lessons of Fukushima, should actively provide information to the governments and citizens of developing countries so that they can fully understand the risks of nuclear power generation and make independent choices on their policy.

By making the most out of its prominent Japanese technology in the renewable energy sector, Japan should be able to make contributions to the environmental protection and the building of a sustainable society at the global level.

The Responsibility of Metropolises.

While it is true that cities have always been multicultural,  it is observable that inter-culturality

is indeed an increasing trend in the age of intensified exchanges, with cities definitely becoming   hubs. It is inter-culturality that could sparks creativity and innovations.

Change requires creativity, because change means breaking the current pattern, and developing new ones. When we say sustainable change we do not mean to sustain the current practices and systems, but to sustain new patterns that is yet to be invented and created.

Arts could therefore certainly play a role in the change. Arts could join the social movement, but as Rick Lowe rightly puts it, it should not worry about sustainability in the first place (that is the concern of community activists/organizers), because the core of arts is to provide  creativity and innovation to see different ways are possible, to break the current pattern. “If there is no change or innovation, what to sustain?” he asked.

Creativity indeed should precede productivity. Productivity without creativity is just replication and repetition. One can argue the reverse, of course, that creativity without productivity is not creating at all.

Cities in developing countries need new models of metropolis to aspire to. The existing metropolises of the developed nations can no longer serve as the model.

The fact is that, although the total carbon emission of the third world is so low compared to the first world,  carbon intensity per capita or per unit product in the third world is higher than the first world, and twice the world average. While that of the industrialised countries, including Japan, is lower than the world average.

Indonesian energy intensity in its economy is four times that of Japan, and more than twice that of other economies within the Japanese development cooperation  framework. But this only means “efficiency” and does not solve the problem of depletion of the non-renewables and bio-capacity.

Developing countries must therefore admit that they are not efficient; but at the same time also rejoice that they have the advantage of the opportunity to change early, which is better, and with that will actually boost their economic productivity. Changing towards sustainability for developing countries is not an additional burden, but a riddance of fats in their economy.

The metropolises of the developed nation need to apply their efficiency to the process of change and invention of substitutes, not just reduction.

What Arts Can Do?

Collective actions require common values. Without common values there could be no collective actions. Arts can work at this level: identifying them, investigating them, creatively deconstruct them when necessary. Arts are also instrumental to see emerging phenomena early, and to share them with the public at value level. They have methods, the so called “artistic way of knowing.”

I would like to quote thoughts summarized in a paper resulting from discussion among arts and cultural practitioners  from Asia and Europe in Copenhagen, in December 2009 in conjunction of the COP15: Arts, Culture and Sustainability: Visions for the Future, edited by Mary Anne de Vlieg.

“…There are artists who have turned to issues around sustainability and climate change because they are passionate about them and feel the need to take a stand. Others engage with these topics because they are the current challenges to our humanity, and thus form the essential material with which artists reflect contemporary life…
…although art and culture is not a saviour for all global ills, strong proof is emerging which shows that the methods used in the arts sector can promote deeper awareness, reflection, creative problem solving and sense of civic engagement in our publics. For too long now, art has become associated with elites when in fact it is among the most basic human activities. Engagement with art – whether as amateur, professional, participant or spectator – is about becoming more human
(Mary Ann DeVlieg, Advisor to think tanks on arts and creativity; Founder Arts Rights Justice; Secretary General, International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts )

…I suppose even environmental issues are not limited to scientific numbers and facts. It is a question about the human condition” 
(Yusaku Imamura; advisor to Governor of  Tokyo Metropolitan Government; director, Tokyo Wonder Site)

…sustainability of cities is appealing not only because of its urgency, but also because it offers an opportunity to think of, and search for, new ways to live wholly sustainably by also taking care of other problems pre-existing in cities. This opportunity challenges societies to be humane again, to take care of other ecological and non-ecological problems that have been outstanding in cities, such as poverty, social justice, and migrant workers.
(Marco Kusumawijaya, urbanist; Founder/Director, Rujak Center for Urban Studies, Indonesia

…the arts and cultural sector can work with the people and start, bottom up, from the community. The cultural sector is a natural change agent, instigator and provocateur in paradigm shifts and mind-set changes.
(Ada Wong, Hong Kong)

3. For a Future yet to be Envisioned. 

Our new knowledge about the world has been offered as a new opportunity for arts and cultures to redefine themselves and the world, or even to invent and create a new one. Arts and cultures can be relevant and whole once again, integrated into what a nation and a country is, after the long fragmentation and disconnectedness one from the others for the last 250 years.

Taking the ecology and metropolises as our cases, we have a new mission redefined for us all, including for the arts and cultures.  It is now up to us to take up the opportunity and the challenge or not.

When art and cultural practitioners decided to take it up, I believe that their freedom and autonomy must be a priority.

To carry out that mission, we need a structure that allows flexible, ever-adapting, multiple structures to emerge, grow, interact and multiple, to produce maximum innovations to change existing patterns and create new ones that are sustainable.  We need to let diversity diversify with quality and intensity. The only way to make it possible is to let freedom and autonomy of the arts expand as much as they can; because only when the arts and the artists are free they can be truly useful to societies in search of new visions and construction.

Whatever structure we would set up for the arts–Art Councils, Trust-Funds or other forms–it must be to support, not to control them.

More than ever, we need them to realize their full potential, at their full capacity. And for that, we  need them to be free as much as they can and want.

Back in 1970‘s Jakarta Arts Council managed to jump-start Indonesia to enter contemporary arts scene because its has integrated grant making body, an arts institute, and a arts venue, and full support to its free autonomy. And it declined substantially afterwards exactly because of more than 25 years of trying to control it by Suharto’s authoritarian regime.

The metropolises of the the 21st century and beyond, such as already exemplified ahead of its time by Tokyo, are huge and decentralised. With a population of tens of millions, it is impossible to think of it as one city and one monolithic society. It is a city consisting of many cities, many communities. The time for mono-centric metropolises of the 19th and 20th centuries such as the then London, Paris, Berlin and New York, is gone.

The seeds of the future are indeed already in Tokyo: poly-centric, intense in each center, and supported by intense network and maximum possibility for mobility. Programme to support the arts could therefore be generated based on bottom-up, decentralized process.  Each cycle will be both a mapping that will enrich the future evaluation and policy as well as a sensitive response to the real need of each areas.  Each branch of the arts might have different problems, too. Each area might have different problems in the arts. Decentralizing supports means  also “locating” arts and artists to their communities as organic audience without necessarily “localizing” them, by making available information and mobility networks. The hope is that arts will be part of  community life, without being narrowly communal, and community will become stronger as the basis o civil society.

The more important issue is to have more possibilities for the differences to be creative. For that they need to mingle, to cross-breed. Metropolises should not be left to be just multi-cultural, but should thrive to be inter-cultural, where many cultures are facilitated to mingle, to interact to each other, to spark and create new fusions.  Urban public spaces should be able to be a “public infrastructure” that, by virtue of its inclusiveness, would encourage urban integration without centralizing. Arts spaces, venues or institutions such as an Art Council, as well as community centers, can be such a public space, too.

Beyond economy and culture

No one wants to avoid the economic effects of arts. But no one would agree on valuation of arts to be determined only by the market. Market can only value products, and not process. Moreover, there is currently a strong redefinition of economics, for example by economists such as Paul Hawken (Natural Capitalism, The Ecology of Commerce, etc). Economy–which etymologically means management of the house–should follow the logic of the house, which is the earth.

The essence of a country is culture, not its economic development, said Japanese artist Katsuhiko Hibino.

But cultures are dynamic and ever-changing. That means we all, governments included, should support processes and spaces for experimentation and dialogues, through which innovations are only possible.

Tokyo, Creative City.

I was also in Tokyo exactly last month, to share my experience about post-tsunami reconstruction in Aceh in 2005-2007, at TODAI, in conjunction with the conference of the Association of Asian Planning Schools. And I know that a week after that there was a conference of the international union of architects, l’ Union Internationaux d’Architects. And now, here again for the Tokyo Culture Creation Project. I feel that Tokyo and Japan are intensely mobilizing hearts and minds to process the necessary inputs and considerations to imagine a future for Japan, and to a great extent also for the world. I wish this to be a success.

I want to emphasize this because often we focus too much on product and hurry to make decisions that we forget to create space for good process necessary in order to produce good results/decisions.

This is creative!

Creative city is when all its citizens and beyond have the capacity to recreate themselves, to mobilize collective power into a process of reinventing itself, of breaking current patterns, creating new patterns, not just a “class” of designers and artists producing more artworks and crafts for consumption.

Creative city is sustainable city, especially when we think of city as “its people” as Sophocles said, “ The city is its people”.

I want to thank and congratulate you on this, because this process is so important to make the right decisions for the future. I am really looking forward to seeing the result, seeing Tokyo and Japan rises to a higher level. I think I am not alone. The whole world is expecting something from Tokyo and Japan.

Thank you for this opportunity to share and discuss our thoughts.

This entry was posted in Arts, Language and Culture, governance, Nature and Environment, Urban Development. Bookmark the permalink.

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