Creativity has long been integral to society’s ability to cope with major (at times cataclysmic) events, recover and subsequently thrive. Disaster impacted countries and communities are often equipped to ‘Build Back Better’ through engineering projects that protect communities, cities, or regions. These projects are visible, tangible and easily adopted as the best way to increase capacity for communities to be more resilient. Given the increasing frequency of catastrophic events in the past few decades, and alarming predictions for the future, it is understandable that such projects are warranted. Still, these projects often come with noticeable cost and political risks; yet they remain trusted, ‘go to’ solutions popular with the public as well as investors and governments alike. One such example is the recently completed MOSE project in Venice, which was designed to provide significant protection against future flooding in the city.
However, it should be acknowledged that engineering projects, which tend to dwarf other efforts, are not the only kind of activities that communities across the globe utilise to prepare, adapt, respond and recover from natural disasters and other similar events. In many parts of the world communities are also embracing ecologically based interventions. Improving wetlands and waterways, and thus adding capacity to mitigate flooding, is proving to be an effective measure with multiple benefits.
Conversely, what has been underutilised is the role of creativity in culture and art as a form of human capacity-building necessary to strengthen social capital and individuals’ ability to recover better from disruptive events. It has been well documented that communities and individuals often rely on creative output to make sense of disasters and help digest crises in a way that would prove meaningful and useful in the long term.
What is needed is both a broader role of art and culture and a more intensely integrated strategy of societal resilience to what is increasingly being recognised as a climate induced cascade of natural disasters.
While globally there exists a recognised body of practice suggesting an instinctive approach to projects that assist communities understand what resilience may mean, as well as educate the population about how complex threats can be mitigated, there is a largely unexplored opportunity for a systematic approach that is closer in line with engineering, ecological and other programs. A transdisciplinary collaboration of this kind can harness creativity across disciplines, laying the foundation for a more transformative recasting of community platforms – socio-economic, cultural and technological alike.
The thinking behind the entire argument is also informed by a body of research focusing on the role of creativity and resilience. Natural disasters, acts of terror and/or other major disruptions are common areas that artists look to as both a source and focus of their creative efforts. Researchers have concentrated on a broad scope of areas such as characteristics associated with creativity that seem likely contributors to processes of resilience, including personal flexibility, divergent and elastic thinking, high conscientiousness and social expressiveness.
There have been many attempts by culture managers to expand on the idea of civic engagement through projects that explore the role of art and culture in community recovery after natural disasters. A plethora of so-called creative recovery projects have emerged to help communities deal with trauma as well as provide an opportunity for engagement in activities that offer deeper emotional significance – a kind of escape from the brutal reality of cleaning up after disasters and facing an uncertain future.
Creatives across the spectrum have produced works that have been inspired by major events such as Hurricane Katrina, an event that over the past 15 years has become an iconic reference point; symbolising disruptions we are witnessing on an increasing scale and frequency. For example, the television drama Treme is unique in that the entire series is dedicated to the painful and frustrating recovery of a New Orleans community post event. Hurricane Katrina has also found creatives outside mainstream forms, producing narratives for specialised audiences, such as that found in Josh Neufeld’s graphic novel A.D New Orleans After The Deluge. This work is largely based on the experience of the author who volunteered for The American Red Cross during the response and recovery period.
Inspired by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, another example is the figurative scroll, “Baptism of Concrete Estuary” by multimedia artist Jave Yoshimoto. This work pays homage to victims and deals with the surge of images that flooded the internet and haunted him in the wake of the disaster.
Projects like these assist communities to reflect on traumatic experiences, create meaningful narratives and in some cases consolidate common culture with a sense of belonging. However, unlike recent engineering projects such as MOSE, they are not perceived as being as ‘useful’ in climate adaptation. The tangibility of engineering projects appeals to humans’ sense of safety and certainty. What is missing here, however, is the possibility for greater integration of both ends of the spectrum. Creativity as currently applied in the aftermath of major natural disasters could become a vehicle or platform for reorganising the way communities approach risk minimisation and mitigation. Curiously, many engineering projects commence their life through community consultation. The community is often asked to contribute ideas or suggestions that could better inform disaster mitigation projects. Yet little attention is given to assisting communities to broaden their view, vision and capacity to contribute on the basis of the creative art and culture narrative. Increasingly, there is recognition that art and culture can enable people to think about resilience and natural disaster mitigation in a manner that science and data cannot.
This paper offers an invitation for collaborative effort in carving out a space for better informed dialogue that reduces the presumption of engineering primacy as the safest option for climate adaptation. Systematic integration of art and culture should form an indispensable part of the overall strategy, flowing directly into local community plans supported by governments and other agencies mandated to provide leadership.
Caroline Austine is a humanitarian professional with 15 years experience in engagement and research. She has developed and managed large-scale engagement projects in various locations worldwide, with a particular focus on disaster-affected communities. She is currently working globally for the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement.
Jelenko Dragisic is a collaboration strategist and disaster resilience planner, Jelenko designed and implemented the largest disaster resilience program in Australia. This award-winning program was based on a large-scale collaboration between corporate, government and NGO sectors. Jelenko is the author of The Collaboration Instinct, a book about strategy and collaboration.