Council of the Living River

Over the past year I have taken a professional leap into a new industry and challenged myself by returning to postgraduate study at ANU. These two big changes have dovetailed nicely with each other and I have been able to apply my learning in environmental science into my work in catchment management.

For the core part of my studies I undertook a research project to explore Futures Thinking in water governance. I interviewed futures and foresight practitioners and explored how their skills and experience, melded with research into futures literacy, creative learning and the arts, may be applied to the water governance sector. Following on from this I have been working with the Institute for Water Futures on a pilot futures thinking workshop series for those in the sector.

My passion for immersive and thought-provoking experiences has continued and I have brought this into my work and study. I can see ways that the environmental governance space can benefit from the creative, engagement and storytelling skills of the arts and culture industries.

Some aspects of futures thinking, particularly experiential futures experiences, are not dissimilar to the cultural history learning experiences I have been engaged in for many years. Challenging perceptions, considering multiple viewpoints, exposing assumptions and unpacking power influences are common to both. I was delighted to have the opportunity to develop an immersive role-play futures thinking experience for our pilot workshop participants.

Not so long ago I was role-playing the 1850s, but now I get to role-play the 2040s.

The Council of the Living River props.
The Living River Act and some Council of the Living River member cards.

The Council of the Living River was the activity I designed. Inspired by the experiential futures work of people like Stuart Candy, Superflux and the ‘prehersal’ concept of Kuzmanovic and Gaffney (2016) I created a future scenario for the participants to play in. It was not meant to be a preferred future, but one that challenged them to consider a scenario different from the ones that had co-developed. A scenario where external (in this case legislative) factors had changed their imagined future working environment.

For the activity the participants were given the mock Living River Act of 2039, which ceded state control of the water basin to a newly established council to represent the interests of all living things. This scenario was developed with inspiration from the Wanganui River being given legal personhood in 2017 and the speculative research of the Parliament of Things.

The workshop participants became Members of the Council, which included representatives for a range of terrestrial and aquatic living things and even AI. We then role-played a short council meeting where they debated the issues and interests of the various Members.

The experience provided the opportunity to inhabit uncertainty. To consider the unknowability of the future, the subjective human experience and the possibilities available when plausibility is suspended. It was designed to allow an exploration of the impact of our reactions – emotionally, physically and mentally.

Although we were time limited and weren’t able to spend long in role, it did inspire a rich reflective conversation. I look forward to developing the concept further and running a longer session.