innovative spaces for informed debates

By John Bull


Toni Demuro

Science centres and museums - third spaces - are best placed to bring people together for an informed debate and to find the bold solutions for our world’s most pressing problems, writes John Bull, director of the Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai. The Pavilion, Terra, will be one of the event’s key visitor experiences.

Climate protesters and suburban commuters coming to blows on the streets of London; vitriol spewing from internet trolls; facts and lies flowing indiscriminately from those that should know better. 

Today, it seems that constructive dialogue and consensus-driven action is a fantasy, attainable only in fairy tales and folklore. In this period of polarised opinions, reinforced through self-indulgent navel-gazing, the need to bring people together is becoming ever more difficult to achieve. Positions are becoming more entrenched as we close ourselves to other viewpoints. Consultation and community engagement frequently descends into name calling and stereotyping as we fail to connect with one another. 

Yet, as we face the climate emergency, this urgent requirement for consensus, and togetherness, has never been more important.

It is time for humankind to pull together; to face up to the challenges ahead, and to pioneer solutions. To do that, we need to create civic institutions that bring us together, that inspire and support actions and lead to positive outcomes. 

I believe that a new generation of institutions is needed to craft the opportunities for meaningful collective engagement on the topics that will define our future direction. 

The bedrock for more substantive engagement is safety. There needs to be confidence that all who are participating are doing so underneath an umbrella of protection. That protection should come in the form of rules of engagement that provide for a multiplicity of voices, and even robust argument, but stop us short of shoe-flinging and name-calling. I am not advocating for impunity: our words and actions carry weight and have consequences. Emotive topics encourage hyperbole as does a desire to make a mark. Fair mediation is the only way to stop the loudest voices dominating, and to deliver the safety that is needed for dialogue.

However, safety can often equal blandness, and we cannot take the middle of the road route here. Many people, myself included, believe that the current environmental situation threatens our very existence. The spaces that we create for dialogue must encourage innovation of thought and action to address this; we must not shy away from risk.

Stimulus leads to response and, just as a fire needs kindling, debate requires information, a factual basis to move forward. While there are no indisputable truths, a starting position is required. A line needs to be drawn underneath those issues which have been settled, and those that have not.

If safety and facts are the foundations of the house, narrative is what will give it shape. To move our discussions forward, our civic spaces need to embrace the power of storytelling.

“It is time for humankind... to face up to the challenges ahead, and to pioneer solutions”

John Bull

A great story depends on a cast of characters able to represent a variety of viewpoints, bringing their own perspectives and agendas. This diversity is crucial to the success of these new forums. Our impact upon the environment is felt unevenly across the world, and many experience harsh realities that are hidden from others. Bring these people together and the cadence of the narrative becomes richer. Personal experience can be layered upon factual information, and more opportunities for connection are then created.

The most fabulous plot can be destroyed through stilted dialogue, and superficial scenarios. Not only should these discussion-spaces be forums, they should also be theatre. Serious matters are often best explored through humour. So the straightforward is often best transformed into the fantastical, the mundane best examined through art. Creativity is one of our most valuable assets, yet so often we fall into routine. We need to unpack the creative toolbox and use all of our options in unexpected ways to provoke an innovative response.

The good news is that we have the institutions that can deliver all of the above and, in many cases, they already do that. Our museums and science centres are being reimagined and reborn to meet the needs of the Anthropocene. Today, they aspire to be more than the simple repositories of artefacts, and embrace the chance to carve out a unique role for society as a whole. 

There are still huge hurdles to overcome, but where else do kindergarteners, other students, artists, academics, politicians and industry leaders rub shoulders? I have witnessed first-hand an uncommon freedom of discussion in these venues, as speakers ease into this third space that is neither government, industry, nor entirely public.

The objects and cultural assets that they can draw on are rich beyond belief, opening windows into new (and old) ways of seeing. Exhibitions have unique strengths in terms of creating a space for thought and response. Being physically present forces immediacy. It also gives the curator a chance to craft a communal journey that integrates time for debate. This role of trusted broker is rare in a time of distrust where ‘experts’ are ignored. Trust in museums remains high.

The final challenge is for these institutions to abandon the comfort blanket of professed neutrality, and campaign with all their unique strengths to bring people together. They must give air to multiple voices, be bold and innovative in their outputs and champion change and resolution in this hour of our greatest need.

As we start 2021, the World Expo in Dubai fast approaches. These events aim to be a showcase of the best of humanity, bringing us together across borders and ideologies. This gives them more responsibility to provide these opportunities to connect, share and innovate. At Expo 2020 Dubai I am fortunate enough to be part of the team that is developing Terra — the Sustainability Pavilion — one of the key visitor experiences for the event. Together, we are striving to build something that plays a role in brokering meaningful conversations both now and into the future, as Terra outlives the event and continues as Dubai’s Science Centre.