Cultural Institutions & Regenerative Cultures (Version 0.1)

Work in progress in support of cultural institutions

Daniel Christian Wahl
18 min readApr 23, 2020


Cultural Institutions around the world have suddenly been presented with an opportunity to reflect on their purpose and impact as catalysts for cultural creativity and evolution.

The pandemic has turned up the contrast on how deeply unsustainable, fragile and heading-for-disaster ‘business as usual’ actually was. In only a few weeks it has become clear to many that we do not want to go back to that “normal” but forward to a “new normal”. Exactly what that “new normal” will be is too early to tell and will depend on how each and every one of us and all of us collectively participate in shaping “the future we choose”. Culture has a key role in that!

Last year it seemed like humanity had finally go the message on climate change — inspired by Greta Thunberg — young people all over the world took to the streets in millions to claim their right to a future worth living in. Major cities around the world were temporarily disrupted by the courageous non-violent direct actions of Extinction Rebellion. Now the global volume of air traffic has dropped to less than a quarter within a couple of weeks and 2020 will see the biggest drop in CO2 emissions since WWII. The seemingly impossible is becoming possible.

We are given time to reflect while witnessing first hand that humanity is capable of profound transformation and spontaneous cooperation in service to a shared purpose and the wellbeing of all.

Without the pandemic the untouchable dogma of the economic growth imperative would have made the 26th UN Conference on Climate Change this year another uphill struggle against the fossil fuel and industrial lobbies influencing the political process to repeat its mantra “we can’t afford to endanger the economy”.

Now most national governments will have to spend unprecedented sums of money on responding to the pandemic and in support of their citizens and businesses. This is giving us an opportunity to make sure we spend the money wisely on building more resilient and regenerative systems of production and consumption and stimulating local and regional economic activity that incentivises increased community cohesion and the regeneration of ecosystems everywhere.

What we need is a culturally transformative response to a series of converging crises.

Climate change, ecosystems collapse, biodiversity loss, obscene levels of inequality within and between the world’s nations, dysfunctional economic and monetary systems driving the exploitation of people and planet … do I need to continue? The need for change is evident. Transformation is inevitable and already underway.

Upstream from all these crises lies a ‘crisis of perception’. Cultural evolution is also about the collective process of letting go of no longer appropriate worldviews and value systems. We need to transform cultural narratives that perpetuate a mistaken understanding of what it means to be human, a false separation between nature and culture, and use inadequate measures of success.

We need a new narrative! Cultural institutions (can) have an important role in inviting people into a process of shaping and spreading such new narratives. At their best their programmes, exhibitions and festivals can contribute to changing perception and transforming culture.

A culturally regenerative response starts from potential

Working regeneratively means to not fall into a quick-fix, piece-meal, techno-centric mindset of problem solving in the face of converging crises. We have plenty of evidence that inadequate interventions in complex systems can have many unforeseen consequences. The problem-solving and scaling-up-solutions mindset can be part of the problem.

Rather than starting in a reactive mode addressing the problems associated with these converging crises, a regenerative approach would look at the transformative and evolutionary potential we are now invited to manifest co-creatively in our communities and bioregions.

The fastest and most effective way to find wise responses to these crises is to co-create diverse regenerative cultures rooted in and sourced-from the bio-cultural uniqueness of each place and its people. Biological evolution is too slow. Only cultural evolution can create a new normal over the coming decades!

We need to rapidly increase the capacity of people in place to participate in co-evolving mutuality with each other and the ecosystems and biosphere we all depend upon. The role of education and the role of cultural institutions in catalysing and supporting this transformation are of critical importance. We are challenged individually and collectively to contribute to the fundamental redesign of the human presence and impact on Earth.


In this talk I summarise why a transformative response is needed and outline many of the institutions and initiatives around the world already working on such a response (October, 2018).

Cultural Insititutions as Catalysts of Culture Change

One of the many things that the global pandemic disrupted was my plan to facilitate a face-to-face workshop on ‘Regenerative Cultures and Cultural Institutions’ scheduled at Culturgest in Lisbon on the invitation of the Goethe Institute. This document is primarily written as a resource document of the participants who joined the online workshop on the same theme, held between April 23rd and 30th, 2020.

Among the 23 participants of the programme are directors of important theatres, festivals, galleries, cinemas, museums and culture centres, along with people working for the ministry of culture, the city of Lisbon, and independent cultural creatives. Clearly the diversity between the activities of such a range of cultural institutions does not allow me to go into detailed examples or suggestions for all of them.

Because of this diversity of background and context along with the limitation on time, I can offer only some food for thought through this resource document and my presentation. I hope to trigger and ask some useful questions. My highest aim would be to stimulate an ongoing process of inquiry for individual participants and hopefully the group as a ‘community of practice’ in Portugal.

The live-streamed presentation I gave on April 2nd through Culturgest on the topic of ‘Regenerative Economies for Regenerative Cultures’ reached more than 16k viewers on Facebook during the broadcast and over 4.5k views on Youtube in the last 3 weeks (see below). It offers a wider context and more extensive (70 mins) presentation to inform the exploration of how cultural institutions could play a catalytic role in the place-sourced and participatory re-design of the human impact on Earth, community by community, bioregion by bioregion.

The video below was recorded at the European Institute of Design in Madrid while I was teaching there in 2015. It offers a 90 second summary of the ‘regenerative design framework’ based on the work of Regenesis Group, Bill Reed and Carol Sanford.

The links and graphic above offer some more background and explanation of why while sustainability is still and important milestone we have not achieved yet, cultural transformation requires us to let go of the mind-set of doing the same old things just with less or no impact and setting our goals much higher by aiming to restore and regenerate the damage done over many centuries and millenia.

In preparing for the workshop in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, I suddenly thought that many cultural and historical shifts start with a ‘manifesto’. So I sat down and wrote a first draft of a ‘Manifesto of the ReGeneration’ — the generations called to regenerate the Earth and her people. It sets out some of the transformations that will be necessary if we aim to achieve a fundamental redesign of the human impact on Earth.

For diverse regenerative cultures to unfold their transformative potential we need all forms of cultural expressions, including music, theatre, dance, fine art, poetry and prose, cinema and exhibitions to take inspiration and guidance from themes like ‘healing of the Earth and her people’, the shift from competitive scarcity to collaborative abundance, and our fundamental interdependence and interbeing with each other and the community of life.

What follows is a series of short explorations of relevant themes and examples that highlight how cultural institutions have the potential of becoming catalyst of the rise of the ReGeneration by stimulating civic participation and public dialogue, was well as, through their contributions to the creation of new life-long learning pathways and modalities that allow education for regenerative cultures to be something uniquely expressive of the bio-cultural uniqueness of place.

Upstream shifts in perception and narrative

NATURE! […] Who cannot see her everywhere, sees her nowhere in the right light. […] The spectacle of Nature is always new, for she is always renewing the spectators. Life is her most exquisite invention; and death is her expert contrivance to get plenty of life. […] She is complete, but never finished.

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 -1832)

Re-enchanting the universe story with science: El Paseo Cósmico

One little example of a cultural acupuncture and public education project I can offer to illustrate a way of creating such engagement through a scientifically informed understanding of the world is the Paseo Cósmicio Del Molinar. A project I initiated in my own neighbourhood with an excellent team of collaborators around the island of Mallorca.

The project has not (yet) been implemented, for lack of funding and permits, but never the less illustrates how to weave insights from physics, astronomy, chemistry, geology, geography, biology, ecology and evolutionary theory into an educational public exhibition that brings the story of the universe into an embodied experience by inviting people to walk through a timeline of 14 billion years over 1400 meters. The deeper intention here is a re-enchantment of the universe through scientific insights that are brought into a lived experience of our connection with this evolutionary story and our agency and responsibility in its continuation.

Leaflet showing the 1400 meter long exhibition mapped out along the seafront of Palma de Mallorca
Close up sketch of the promenade where the educative panels of the exhibition will be mounted on an existing railing.
Crowd funding based on local business and citizen participation in a local currency
One Cosmolí

The link above (in Spanish) explains the different stages of the exhibition and how it tells the history of the universe, and the link below explores how such ‘regenerative cosmology’ can support a processes of re-inhabitation of our bioregions, of re-enchantment with life as a planetary process and our interdependence with that community, and of re-indigenisation as we relearn the ancient wisdom of our species that the land does not belong to us, rather we belong to the land.

Museums as centres for public intelligence: Geddes & The Outlook Tower

More than 100 years ago the biologist Sir Patrick Geddes, who is also credited for being a founding influence in the fields of town planning and sociology, and who’s ‘Edinburgh International Summer School’ has turned into the now famous Edinburgh Festival, pioneered the use of museums to connect people to their home place but with global awareness. Geddes is the originator of the often quoted invitation to “Think Global, Act Local”.

Geddes was also a pioneer of participatory urban renewal. He moved his family into the old town of Edinburgh which at the time was in slum like conditions and engaged the poor people living there in a cooperative clean up of their neighbourhood. He founded the first ‘student union’ offering affordable co-housing to students while their presence in these poor neighbourhoods helped to transform the social fabric.

The ‘Outlook Tower’ at Ramsey Gardens at the top of the Royal Mile and just below Edinburgh Castle still stands today. Geddes established this museum to help people in Edinburgh understand how their place was intimately connected with the whole world. Visitors would enter at the ground floor with an exhibition about the world weaving findings from many different disciplines into a bigger picture. As they moved up the tower they would learn about nested wholeness (a now critically important framework of regenerative development) as they progressively learned about Europe, the language-based connection of the United Kingdom, then Scotland a sovereign country and end up at the top floor of the building where a cutting edge technology of the time — the camera obscura — projected an image of the city of Edinburgh onto the ceiling of the building.

Geddes used this museum to communicate a bioregional approach to town and regional planning to a wider public. His 1910 book ‘Cities in Evolution’ pioneered a bioregional approach to matching how we meet the needs of people within the limits and unique conditions of the bioregions they live it. During the annual international summer schools organised by Geddes he would bring leading thinkers together in publicly staged dialogues to catalyse civic participation and discourse as well as trans-disciplinar integration of knowledge at a time where academic specialisation was starting to fracture our more holistic understanding of the world and our role in it.

Geddes was also a key initiator of the Celtic arts and crafts revival movement in Scotland and stimulated many artists to engage in civic discourse and Scottish identity building through exhibitions and their work.

More on how Sir Patrick Geddes pioneered a new approach to ‘Design and Planning for People in Place’:

Thank you to Briget McKenzie from the UK Climate Museum for sharing this in response to this article:

The future of museums & museums of the future

Museums around the world are exploring how to stay relevant in a rapidly change context and how to engage the public and in particularly younger generations with their content.

One growing trend is the creation of so called ‘museums of the future’. This idea has already been interpreted in very different ways by different places. The architecturally impressive new building of The Museum of the Future in Dubai is scheduled for completion this year.

In 2016, I had the opportunity to contribute to the content design of a temporary ‘Museum of the Future’ exhibition that the Dubai Futures Foundation was curating for the Dubai World Government Summit, and in 2018 I also contributed to the content development for the new permanent exhibition to be housed in the museum. From those experiences I know that the museum will take a very technophilic and — in my opinion — a somewhat alarming perspective on the future. Nevertheless, such exhibitions will contribute to the public dialogue of what kind of future we actually would like to live in and have the opportunity to co-create.

Here is a short video of the stunning building and state of the art technological innovations that will be showcased at the museum:

Museu do Amanhã — Futures Literacy — Rio de Janeiro

The Museu do Amanhã in Rio de Janeiro takes a less fixed and more dialogical approach to engaging its visitors with the potential futures before us and invites them to form and opinion and engage more actively and conscious of their own agency in the process of shaping the future together. It is primarily aimed at creating ‘futures literacy’ and stimulating dialogue.

Museu Demá — Fundesplai — Barcelona

The Museu Demá is still in development by the Fundació Catalana de l’Esplai next to their headquarters in one of the most marginalised neighbourhoods of Barcelona. It will actively engage its visitors in reflections about our role as human being during the “Anthropocene” and how we might come together in local, regional and global cooperation to co-create a more sustainable and regenerative future.

Futures-oriented Museum Synergies (FORMS) & MOTI

Last year, a young Brasilian called Alexandre Fernades of the MOTI Foundation (Museums of Tomorrow International) initiated a collaborative network under the theme of ‘Futures-oriented Museum Synergies’ (FORMS) that brings together many institutions from around the world. This is the projects mission statement:

“FORMS stands for Futures Oriented Museum Synergies, an international community of forward thinking cultural leaders (and the museums they represent) whose shared mission is to promote social experiences, support personal leadership capacities and share best practices that inspire action for sustainable futures. Such mission is actualized by a continual challenging of our assumptions about past, present and futures.”

More examples (and I am sure there are many I am missing, please share in comments so I can add new links here):

A critique of the Anthropocene framing

Since many of these initiatives have homed in on the new term ‘Anthopocene’ as a way to focus and structure their exhibitions and promote discourse, I have recently put together some critical reflections on whether that focus is the most appropriate framing of our conversations about the future (see link below).

International Guidelines for Sustainable Culture Management

Of course, the first steps for existing cultural institutions on the journey of taking full responsibility of their agency in shaping cultural discourse and through it how we bring forth the future together is the more mundane assessment of how they can improve their operations with regard to their environmental impact.

This is clearly also important and yet it is more about doing the same old thing with less negative impact and less about transforming what and how we do it to achieve a net-positive, restorative or regenerative impact.

Below are some useful links to documents that explore suggestions for these more operational improvements of ‘business as usual’.

The Goethe Institute has developed a series of resource documents over the last few years:

Inspirador 1.0 Portuguese 2015 (pdf)

Inspirador 1.2 English 2017 (pdf)

Inspirador 1.3 German 2018 (pdf)

Earlier this year (2020) the German Cultural Foundation has recently published a ‘Compass for ecologically sustainable production in the cultural sector’ (pdf).

Best Practice within the Goethe Institute Network

In March 2019, I had the pleasure of being hosted by the Goethe Insitute in Sao Paulo for the launch of my book ‘Design de Culturas Regenerativas’ and a workshop on regenerative culture change.

I was very impressed by the work of Tatyana Lorenz within the institute. She has transformed the gardens of the institution into a permaculture and agroforestry demonstration site that doubles up as an out-door classroom and venue for civic dialogue and knowledge sharing around the theme of regenerative cultural practice.

Creating Culture Change through the music industry and music

For a number of years I have been in conversation with people working in or with the music industry to explore how a wider global movement of the ReGeneration Rising could be supported by musicians through their work. Just last Monday I had a call with Mark Johnson from ‘Playing for Change’ and the initiators of Guayaki’s ‘Come to Life’ culture change project to take next steps on this vision.

… this is clearly an unfinished, evolving document and exploration, of the role of cultural institutions as catalysts for the transition towards diverse regenerative cultures and a healthier future for all.

I hope to learn from the professionals in these industries during my workshop and will include their ideas and suggestions as this exploration evolves.

Resources that came up or were shared in the second webinar of the group:

… and with regard to the “forest” and “rhizome” metaphor for how to structure a cultural ecosystems that learns from the patterns of more-than-human nature:

Over to you! Some questions:

These are the three questions I am inviting the workshop participants to explore first personally and then within a small peer group between the first and second webinar of the workshops.

We will harvest the results of their reflections and the ideas they generated in the second webinar and hopefully that will lead to additions to this document and also to the formation of an ongoing community of practice around the theme of ‘Regenerative Cultures and Cultural Institutions’ in Portugal and beyond.

How should internationally focussed cultural institutions of the 21st Century work to invite more people to engage co-creatively in the shaping of a fairer and healthier future?

How can cultural institutions actively support the now necessary cultural transformation beyond simply being sustainable and catalyse active and widespread participation in the regeneration of the social, ecological and economic damage of the past?

How can cultural institutions include regenerative practice in the way they work and collaborate in the creation of ecosystems of cultural regeneration?

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Daniel Christian Wahl — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development and bioregional regeneration.

Author of the internationally acclaimed book Designing Regenerative Cultures

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Daniel Christian Wahl

Catalysing transformative innovation, cultural co-creation, whole systems design, and bioregional regeneration. Author of Designing Regenerative Cultures