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Cultural Planning and Eurocentricity

Updated: Jul 24, 2020

Cultural planning is about anticipating the future yet too often that future is assumed to be white and Western- a reflection, more often than not, of those doing the planning. Why if we can imagine a life on Mars, can we not imagine a world in which whiteness is not at the centre?

There are a lot of people involved in planning a new cultural institution or destination. On some instances, there are committed artists, historical societies or community groups who put millions of dollars of sweat equity into a lifelong 'passion' project (no one starts a cultural institution to make money). On the other, there are governments, philanthropists, collectors, business owners, NGOS with relatively big budgets who enlist a 'global' cadre of professional planners (engineers, architects, cultural planners, project managers, management consultants, interpreters, exhibition designers, academics and more) to plan and develop cultural (and other) places for reasons as diverse as tourism, soft power, ego, money laundering and social development.

In the context of the latter group, (of which I am often privileged to be part of), I have noticed a disturbing blindness to issues of race and inclusion. While these teams score high in technical brilliance (most have won the contract through a competitive process and have assembled the best people in the world), they tend to score very low in diversity. 'Global' teams are overwhelmingly white, able-bodied, middle/upper class and mostly Western (and Western educated) regardless of where the project is taking place.

Given the tremendous professional skills typically assembled for such projects, does the lack of diversity really matter? Obviously I think it matters a lot and here's why.

The Future is Black and Brown

The future is black and brown. The future is the global South. Not just audiences, but also patrons. ( A reminder: 1/4 world will be African by 2050; already nearly half of Gen Zers in the US are racial or ethnic minorities; today the US, China and Japan have the highest proportion of the world’s wealthy, but the fastest growing 'high net worth' countries are Nigeria, Egypt and Bangladesh). The implications for these demographic changes are as significant as those likely to arise through climate and technological change. Yet while we spend a lot of time anticipating the latter, we still tend to look at 'people' through a subjective lense. Does a 15-year old black aspiring media manager from Lagos want, need, enjoy, value the same things as a 55-year old white architect from Manchester? When she is 25, will she work, live, play, relate in the same way? I doubt it. The communities and clients of the future are far from the planners of today.

One demonstration of such myopic thinking is in visualizations. Planners use renderings, mood boards and reference photos to be able to communicate concepts to our clients. Yet how often do these mood boards, photos and renderings reflect white able-bodied people only? I find it remarkable that so much creativity can go into visualizing a not-yet-existent form for almost anything, but we can't be a little more realistic with our scalies?

Solving the Wrong Problem

The problem goes beyond the white-washed futures we represent. Without taking the time to consider the different perspectives and priorities that the museum goers (for example) of the future may have, we run the risk of trying to solve today's problems while neglecting the challenges of tomorrow. Even worse, the problems we identify today can be so subjective to the planning team that we miss the early signs of what is to come.

Other than the obvious need of diversifying planning teams, (and even then) one way of guarding against this is consultation. Participative planning, focus groups, advisory groups, prototyping, iterative 'testing'- with the intended beneficiaries/users of any new development is the only way I can think of to avoid the hubristic pitfalls of planning for people we know nothing about. Unfortunately great approaches like Nina Simon's Of/By/ForAll are regarded as for 'community' museums or are championed by staff of established museums but these are rarely consistently budgeted for throughout the life-cycle of a large-scale cultural development project. 'Consultation' may be time-consuming and expensive but nowhere near as expensive as building a multi-million dollar cultural centre that no one visits. How on earth can a team of New York-London-Singapore based consultants have a clue of what a future 25-year old Bangladesh-Qatari will want to do on the weekend, if we don't ask what she does even now? Sure, people often do a lousy job predicting their future behaviour, but it's a start.

Glocal thinking

We need to think globally and act locally. Climate change, the pandemic are all reminders of our inter-dependance. Big thinking is necessary. Part of a planners' tool kit is best practice examples, environmental scans and competitive and comparable analyses. Although design-thinkers eschew these for a rapid-prototyping-testing cycle, 'comparables' are super useful in in identifying a unique sweet spot for a new project and giving clients a sense of comfort that this is not an entirely un-tested idea. But how often when we produce these 'best practices' do we ignore the complexities of geo-politics, local law, culture, economics, customs, values, geography, population (all of which are always changing). Berlin is nowhere near Bali, Los Angeles is not Azerbaijan. We can learn a lot from reference projects, but we need to be careful not to assume that we can divorce a building or a cultural institution or a festival or programme from its context.

'White privilege', 'white supremacy', 'eurocentricity' are all terms that have recently entered the lexicon of the white mainstream. These are not just signifiers of 'woke-ness' but rather define a very real situation in which everything white and European is considered THE default and generic standard with which to evaluate the whole world.

As planners we need to recognize how wrong that is- not just morally or ethically, but also practically. If we are still planning for a white and Western future especially outside of the West, we are simply not doing our jobs.

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