Chair on Heritage Futures

Pact for the future


Our Chair made a written submission today for the UN Pact for the Future, to be drafted this spring and due to be accepted next September at the UN Summit of the Future.The submission stated, among others:

The Pact of the Future’s Chapeau should explicitly recognise the cultural condition of humanity.

“Climate change, world peace, artificial intelligence and other major challenges facing present and future generations are affected by, and affect, the way human beings, as members of specific communities, live their lives and make sense of the world, of themselves, and of each other. This is the important realm of human culture—going far beyond the attention sometimes given to cultural rights, indigenous cultures, the cultural and creative sector, and culture-driven development.

“To date, the cultural condition of humanity has seldom been harnessed, or comprehensively addressed, in global policy documents. This should change with the Pact for the Future, defining the world’s agenda for the future.

“Culture guides people’s goals, the values and ideas that govern their behaviour, and how they communicate and to whom. Culture and cultural heritage inform human trust, felt loyalties and senses of belonging, whether that is to specific places, to specific communities, to higher beings, or to their own species.

Understanding culture is a key capacity for increasing human well-being in the future. Culture must be guiding all actions inspired by the Pact for the Future. We welcome a UN Special Envoy for Future Generations and an Inter­governmental Forum for Future Generations which must have a strong mandate to work with culture and adequate cultural expertise in their teams of experts.

“Culture, including cultural heritage, is located at the intersection of past legacies and tomorrow’s possibilities. It changes – and needs to change – as the world changes: different futures imply new ways of being human and new narratives about the human past. Culture is therefore a key competence to be included explicitly when humanity unites to address the challenges for the world in a global Pact for the Future and in a Post-2030 Agenda.”

Our Common Agenda


Today I have been contributing to a Real-Time Delphi Study of The Millennium Project on foresight elements of the 2021 UN report Our Common Agenda.

The report makes several suggestions related to foresight. Here are my responses:

A Summit on the Future:

Such a Summit on the Future will draw global attention to foresight and futures thinking generally (much like the Rio Earth summit did).

The Summit on the Future needs to involve more than politicians, lobbyists, expert scientists, and celebrity activists. It should also involve a selection of ordinary people reflecting on their own lives and their cultural practices (I mean cultural in the ethnographic sense describing how people make sense of the world and live their lives accordingly). They will represent the billions of ordinary people.

A UN Futures Lab:

Include the theme of culture and how it may evolve in future decades, e.g. in the context of climate change and resulting migration, urbanisation, longer life expectancy, artificial intelligence, globalism, periodically shifting values. At the moment, culture is ignored in foresight and cultural practitioners ignore foresight themselves – as culture is widely assumed to be timeless (wrongly as we see in hindsight).

A Special Envoy for Future Generations:

Research shows that representatives (proxies) of future generations can sharpen decision-makers’ sensitivity to presentism, i.e. making decisions while assuming that the status quo is timeless and all futures will resemble the present. They can also support long-term thinking in decision-making.

See e.g. Kamijo, Y., Komiya, A., Mifune, N., & Saijo, T. (2017). Negotiating with the future: Incorporating imaginary future generations into negotiations. Sustainability Science, 12(3), 409–420. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-016-0419-8

Otten, M. (2018). Strong external representation of future generations: Legitimate and effective (Unpublished Masters Thesis.) Department of Philosophy, University of Leiden. http://hdl.handle.net/1887/65949 .

Other suggestions:

Introduce Futures as a school subject.

Our Common Agenda


UN Secretary-General António Guterres has now published a report “Our Common Agenda” which contains his recommendations in the light of the UN Initiative Shaping Our Future Together launched on the occasion of the United Nations’ 75th birthday in 2020.

Under the title “Our Common Agenda” he argued that now is the time …

  1. to re-embrace global solidarity and find new ways to work together for the common good.
  2. to renew the social contract between Governments and their people and within societies, so as to rebuild trust and embrace a comprehensive vision of human rights.
  3. to end the “infodemic” plaguing our world by defending a common, empirically backed consensus around facts, science and knowledge.
  4. to correct a glaring blind spot in how we measure economic prosperity and progress. When profits come at the expense of people and our planet, we are left with an incomplete picture of the true cost of economic growth.
  5. to think for the long term, to deliver more for young people and succeeding generations and to be better prepared for the challenges ahead.
  6. for a stronger, more networked and inclusive multilateral system, anchored within the United Nations

Among others, Guterres recommends to hold a Summit of the Future to forge a new global consensus on what our future should look like, and what we can do today to secure it.

Much of this agenda is closely relate to the aims of our UNESCO Chair on Heritage Futures. But it is striking that the entire report “Our Common Agenda” does not recognise the significance of culture (not to mention cultural heritage) in achieving these aims!

Culture is about how people make sense of the world, how they identify, whom they trust, what they value, which norms they follow. How strange that the UN has not yet discovered its significance!

UN Initiative “We the Peoples”


Cornelius Holtorf took part in the “We the Peoples” digital consultation of the United Nations. 

Building on the UN75 global conversation, the consultation invites stakeholders from different sectors to develop practical recommendations to: accelerate delivery of the commitments made in the UN75 Declaration, together with the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Climate Agreement; and to respond to new and emerging challenges.

He made two specific contributions:

Addressing Challenge 1: How can decision-making take more account of the future?, he suggested to “Enhance the capacity for futures thinking (futures literacy) among decision-makers.” 

Much decision-making about the present assumes unexamined that conditions will remain the same in the future. But based on all past human experience, this is not going to be the case. We can improve people’s ability to imagine alternative futures and design new strategies to act in the present in order to bring about novel futures.

Addressing Challenge 5: How can we build trust between people and institutions?, he suggested that “We need to learn more about people’s cultural meanings and values as they determine trust in society.”

Trust between people and institutions is an outcome of specific cultural meanings and values. It is easier to trust people and institutions that make sense in what they do and whose values you share.
Strangely, the realm of culture is vastly underappreciated in society, maybe because ethnology and social/cultural anthropology are very small subjects and not many decision-makers have much understanding of how human culture works.