Skip to content >

(UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, 23-24 November 2017)

During the 23-24 November 2017 meeting, the message of the responsible UNESCO staff to the assembled UNESCO Chairs (and representatives of some other UNESCO programmes) in the area of culture came across loud and clear: UNESCO would like to receive from us concrete evidence for how culture including heritage can contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as suggested in the Agenda 2030 adopted in 2015 The United Nation’s SDGs have been specified and broken up in targets and indicators, and these should be our main reference points. Among the prominent voices driving home this message at the meeting were Francesco Bandarin, Assistant Director-General for Culture, Jyoti Hosagrahar, Director of the Division for Creativity, and Mechtild Rössler Director of the Division for Heritage and the World Heritage Centre.

According to the UNESCO logic, helping states achieve SDG targets may also be a way of attracting national funding for University-based research since the States Parties have already signed up to those overall goals and will regularly have to report on progress towards achieving them. Besides, addressing SDG targets rather than narrow academic aims may also enhance our chances to receive support from other sectors in society than research and education. The overall message UNESCO is sending out to the universities is thus that we should amplify their own message and feed into agendas to which UNESCO and its members states are already committed, effectively harmonising our goals.

At present, culture and heritage are, however, hardly mentioned in the SDGs at all — explicitly only in target 11.4 which calls on the signatories to strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage in the context of making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable (Goal 11). This state of affairs is exactly what UNESCO wants to change in the long term: it needs evidence to justify for politicians that culture (and cultural heritage) should receive more weight in the next cycle of overall goals for the United Nations. That sounds important. We therefore need to ask ourselves:

How exactly can heritage future research contribute to SDG target 11.4, and can it possibly help reaching any of the other SDGs and related targets? This is a question that deserves some serious consideration in the future.

There is some potential, I think, but we need to get our heads around this question in a systematic way in order to determine which may be the most realistic avenues forward. It may be that only parts of larger projects, for example individual research themes, could contribute to a specific SDG. It may also be that we have to become more aware of qualities in our research that lie on a different level than conventional research outputs. For example, tight collaboration with a variety of both public and private project partners may meet target 17.17 which is to encourage and promote effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategy of partnerships. This aim is formulated in the context of enhancing multi-stakeholder partnerships and advances Goal 17: Strengthening the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.

* * *

Beyond advocacy for the area of culture in the context of global goals of development, the UNESCO culture section focuses mostly on its statutory duties in relation to the various Conventions it has passed over the years. That work too is important to keep an eye on for those of us who want to get involved in global UNESCO dynamics for the sake of research, internationalisation and global impact.

There are a number of key UNESCO conventions and recommendations for heritage, including the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972), the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003) and the Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape (2011). At the moment, I cannot see that heritage futures are actually directly relevant to on-going work with any of these documents but there may be angles to be found through thorough reading. The 1972 World Heritage Convention, for example, recognizes the duty of all States Parties of ensuring the “transmission to future generations of the cultural and natural heritage.” We could work for this demand of the Convention being taken much more seriously in the future.

Arguably, future issues ought to be an explicit part of the repertoire of questions in the periodic reporting cycle for inscribed World Heritage properties. In that case, we have to work for that to happen in the fourth cycle, which will begin around 2024, because they are absent in the third circle that is about to start.

Even though the Paris meeting was held by the UNESCO Culture section, we should not forget that heritage is significant even in other sections. The UNESCO Communication and information section, for example, contains the Memory of the World programme which works for the preservation and long-term accessibility of documentary heritage and is related to the Recommendation concerning the Preservation of, Access to, Documentary Heritage in the Digital Era (2015). Given the relevance of memory for heritage futures generally, clearly more work is needed in order to identify any relevant opportunities in this area of UNESCO practices.

* * *

Another pathway to impact may be on a different level, addressing some of the broader concepts and ideas UNESCO was founded for and is working with, as reflected in the UNESCO constitution. There may be scope to investigate the conservation and development interaction on a more general level.

In a changing world, how will we best be able to promote peace in the world and promote the dignity, equality and mutual respect between all human beings, i.e. the common welfare of humankind, as proclaimed in UNESCO’s constitution (1945)? Such future-driven research may involve challenging some of UNESCO’s current thinking. But that should not be surprising, for we must not use the tools of yesterday or today to solve the problems of tomorrow, as was mentioned in the discussion at the Paris meeting. Indeed, we should avoid finding ourselves stuck on a train following tracks laid out too far back in the past: they may not lead to where we need to go. In order to design new tracks to possible new destinations we need first and foremost unorthodox and ‘blue skye’ thinking rather than too much concern with existing strategies to implement existing UNESCO Conventions or current SDGs. There is scope and even a need for some truly visionary work here, asking some very fundamental questions.

What are our future needs going to be and how could we prepare ourselves (and UNESCO) today to address them successfully in the future by drawing on heritage?

In other words, we need to get ready already now to create conditions that are eventually going to help us addressing possible future goals of development. Creating these conditions may rely on two types of research and development carried out in the present. Either we need to work with available knowledge about the future that is based on already discernible future trends and may involve planning for different possible scenarios. Or it may mean future-proofing heritage practices so that they will be suited for futures that may have goals of development very different from those we are able to foresee today. Both strategies will require extensive capacity-building in the present.


Cornelius Holtorf (UNESCO Chair on Heritage Futures)