Published on November 3, 2014

How to avoid getting overwhelmed #2:  A different aesthetic for post-2015

By Amy Pollard

Dr Amy Pollard is Deputy Director at Involve. She has over 10 years experience working on accountability, policy and power, and a passion for using effective public engagement to drive positive change.

7778113374_a62224a446_zThe world is a complicated place, and if you take understanding it seriously it’s almost impossible not to get overwhelmed from time to time.  The trick is, of course, to find ways to avoid getting overwhelmed but still preserve the richness of the complexity – which is usually where interesting and progressive things come from.

I wrote last week about this in relation to graphic recording at participatory workshops, arguing that the different aesthetic of these pieces can convey something important that traditional recording misses.  This week I want to consider it in terms of my old policy stomping ground: the post-2015 debate on sustainable development goals (SDGs).  As a debate that is about developing a strategy for dealing some of the most important and difficult problems in the world, there can be few arenas that more perfectly encapsulate the complexity → overwhelm problem.

First, a quick round up for those not familiar with the post-2015 arena:  The Millennium Development Goals expire in 2015, and have been the key organising framework for international development over the last decade.  There has been a very extensive, multilayered process to decide what should come next, with the aim has been to come up with a similarly compelling set of goals and targets to guide international action in the future.  There has been a high level panel, intergovernmental working group, civil society processes and a host of activities to engage people living in poverty themselves – arguably it’s been the ultimate  distributed dialogue.  By the normal standards of international policy-making, it has been a remarkably open and participative process, contrasting dramatically with the closed-door, elite process that gave birth to the original MDGs.

The body charged with pulling all this together, the Open Working Group on Sustainable Goals, published their outcome document in the summer.  They recommended a series of 17 goals (the original MDGs had 8), and a whopping 169 targets.  There is currently a discussion about whether this is too many, and whether having so many goals and targets will mean that nothing actually gets prioritised and acted upon.  In other words, the framework may be such a good reflection of the complexity of the real world, that it may have lost all effectiveness as a device for us to avoid being overwhelmed.  An excellent paper by Dominic White and Bernadette Fischler outlines the different schools of thought on this.

I can’t resist briefly coming out of retirement from all things post-2015, to ask whether it might be worth organising the framework around a different aesthetic.

Pretty much every aspect of SDGs has been debated and picked apart, but the aesthetics have received almost no attention.  There has always been an assumption that, when they aren’t being expressed in action, the goals and targets of SDGs will be expressed as a series of bullet points, a list, or a set of headings in a table.  The framework will live, practically speaking, on computer screens or on A4 pieces of paper.  The aesthetics will be dictated by the managerial culture of the bureaucrats and experts who ‘use’ the framework.

But what if the SDGs were not primarily expressed a set of bullet points or tables on a screen, but as a physical, tangible presence in three-dimensions?

I had an idea a few years ago (but never had a chance to write up) called Monument 2015. Key points:

  • Our towns and cities are littered with monuments that are all about remembering our past.  Monument 2015 would be about creating spaces to remember our future.
  • The proposal is to have physical monuments representing the SDGs in sculptural form, placed in capital cities around the world (or wherever wanted to house them).
  • These sculptures would be mobile and dynamic, probably using coloured light to show progress against the goals.
  • There could be an annual moment when the sculpture changes (eg. when new data on indicators is released).  The display on the sculpture could switch between displaying the progress of the specific country and a global update – borrowing and building on recent advances in infographics.
  • The design could evoke the distinctive cultural context of each country but have some common design elements (perhaps something like Oxfam’s donut, marking planetary boundaries and the social floor).
  • It might even simply take the form of a wheel – and use hundreds of ferris wheels that already exist all over the world on a temporary, annual basis (no need to build new structures).
  • Importantly, the monuments would be focal points for people to share their own experiences and to engage with others.  Each monument could be linked to others around the world via interactive screens, and would be a rallying point for ongoing engagement in the framework.

17 goals and 169 targets are overwhelming when written on a piece of paper, but if you are thinking in three dimensions, 17 (or even 169) components really isn’t a big deal.  Think of the 2012 Olympic Cauldron or the Seeds of Change light sculpture, or even a Rubik’s Cube – there are hundreds of examples of sculptural work where one coherent whole is made up of a large number of different components, and that leave the viewer feeling inspired and intrigued rather than exhausted.

The number of people who visit the London Eye in a fortnight is larger than the total number of times the SDGs have ever been mentioned on twitter.  Done well, this could be a huge game-changer in terms of communications.  Not only could it engage more people, but also disrupt the facile assumption that a framework that is ‘good for comms’ has to be small, short and tweetable.

But this isn’t really about communication; it’s about power.  It is about imagining that the primary users and owners of SDGs are members of the public and people living in poverty, rather than bureaucrats, policy makers and experts.  SDGs should be owned by the former and translated for the latter, rather than the other way around.

The love of the bullet point list is borne of the preposterous hubris of the powerful, who think that if only the right issues could be held in their own heads (or on the agenda of their own meetings) then their power to change the world would hold no limits.  The solutions for successful implementation of the SDGs will in fact require 7 billion people – it’s not in the gift of any individual or any board of global leaders to deliver it.  It’s time for the international community to take the next step in open policy making, and realise that our complex world doesn’t need to be boiled down to bullet points that can be held in one person’s head; most of all, it needs to be held in public view.

Could it be that to ensure that the SDGs have substance, it’s worth thinking a bit more deeply about their aesthetics?

Photo credit: Nick Webb. London 2012 Olympic Cauldron.

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