In the 1970s and ’80s I was part of a Council of Europe team researching interaction between local and regional administration and citizens’ groups. We published our research under the general heading Towards Cultural Democracy, with the emphasis on “culture”. The question we researched was: What kind of life do people want, and how can we help them to achieve it? Our research was used throughout western Europe to engage with citizens and facilitate their proposals.
I was therefore very excited when, in July 2021, Taoiseach Micheál Martin launched a “national brainstorm” entitled “Creating Our Future” with precisely that aim: to facilitate researchers in securing “a better future for all”, by means of a “conversation ” which could “inspire curiosity and generate ideas”. It would amount to listening to “the Voice of Ireland” and creating a “collective consciousness”.
I should have known better. “Operationalised” by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), partnered by PR mogul Havas Ireland, “Creating our Future” was science-focused from the start, with little consideration given to the wider concept of “culture”. A classic giveaway was the admission that Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) should, for this project, become Steam, by incorporating the Arts which are otherwise outside SFI’s remit. The director of the Arts Council was merely given a seat on an advisory forum.
Research being of its nature sectoral and working within defined limits, the ambition to “synthesise” this voice ended up in 16 segregated areas, such as education, farming, housing, regional development and the digital future. Do not attempt, then, at carrying through the idea that “everything is connected”. In a world where we are identified with labels, by the box within which we are expected to think, it is vital that we can look beyond borders, beyond reserved wisdoms. This project failed to do so.
To discover that we need, but don’t have, a research advisory council is perhaps the greatest own-goal of the whole undertaking. Sporadic references to the need for long-term planning and “fundamental research” were not applied to the overall picture, and the “humanities” were only added as an afterthought to a science-dominated agenda.
My own submission … argued that ‘quality of life’ and ‘culture’ are synonymous and interdependent and are only partially satisfied by terms like ‘science’, ‘technology’ or ‘innovation’
The project consisted of a “roadshow” which visited every county, with special visits to the universities, to engage in “dialogue” with community groups and academics, plus online submissions from individuals.
My own submission (based on my previous research experience) argued that “quality of life” and “culture” are synonymous and interdependent and are only partially satisfied by terms like “science”, “technology” or “innovation” and that we need to consider what values stimulate people who actually have lives to live.
Over 18,000 submissions were received. To describe these as a “dialogue” or a “conversation” is laughable, especially when each submission was limited to 420 characters (that’s letters, not words). The fact that these 18,062 ideas were analyzed and segregated into “themes” suggests that the methodology was digital rather than analogue: if it didn’t fit, it wasn’t useful.
Apart from really daft ideas such as “vertical farming” (which I suppose means putting fields on their side) and using mushrooms to reduce oil spills, most of the submissions clearly addressed areas which deeply affected the lives of the writers. Predictably these were specific points such as climate change or mental health. But there was no attempt by the experts to “synthesise” these into the “collective consciousness” that we were promised. Reading the report, we cannot hear “the Voice of Ireland”.
Sectoral research creates islands with little or no traffic between them. The report recommended “investment in multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary research”. There is no sign that this featured in the project or that there was any lateral thinking. In particular, with no reference whatever to sociology, demography or — most surprising of all, perhaps — leisure, the report seems to discount the status of cultural research.
Reference was made to the Irish quality of meithal (working together with neighbours) as a social value and the report blandly states: “Technology shapes our environment but culture shapes our behaviour.” But who, in the expert group, followed through on those insights? The report is bereft of anything more than a feeble headline.
The condescension and arrogance in such a statement are mind-blowing
A big gaffe in the report tells us that the project consulted people from “astronauts in the international space station to the fishing community in Killybegs”. It is so obvious that Killybegs was regarded as the bottom end of the spectrum. The condescension and arrogance in such a statement are mind-blowing.
It’s possible that the whole project was conceived as a knee-jerk reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic — take people’s minds off their appalling situation by asking them to imagine a rosier future. But in terms of the recommendations, it tells us almost nothing about the need for research that we didn’t know before. There was a much more profound opportunity to discover how—to put it bluntly—the 1916 declaration, Bunreacht na hÉireann and similar aspirations could be carried into our future. That opportunity has been lost.
There is a disturbing divergence between the particular ideas that real people expressed as needs, wants or concerns, and the way research might facilitate those concerns. In effect, this has been a let-down for the people who gave their ideas, and an extremely expensive exercise in terms of money and personnel. Research is the handmaiden of the future, not its driving force.
The full text of the Expert Report is available at: https://creatingourfuture.ie/reports/
The 18,062 “ideas” can be read at: https://creatingourfuture.ie/the-ideas/#results
Richard Pine is based in Corfu and writes for The Irish Times