How sustainability could shape the future of cities

by Charlie Widdows, on 23 Mar 2021 4 min read

Jenny-Foster-BW

We meet Jenny Foster, who is leading the world’s first immersive experience project focused on the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Jenny Foster is project lead at the Global Goals Centre (GGC) in Bristol. It’s a working title, she tells us when we connect one afternoon on zoom to learn more about Jenny’s ideas for the GGC, which are rightly causing a bit of a stir in the city.

A world first – the big idea

“Our big vision is to set up what we believe will be the world’s first visitor and education experience centre based around the Sustainable Development Goals. Something that’s innovative, creative, and fun so that people want to come.”

The Sustainable Development Goals are 17 global goals that were set in 2015 by the UN. They are designed to help us achieve a better and more sustainable future for all by 2030. Jenny’s enthusiasm is evident immediately. And as we learn more, we can see why the current name doesn’t quite live up to the vision.

“We want people to see that there is a world plan, which is exciting that every country in the world has signed up to these goals. When has that ever happened?

“The centre will take people on a journey by recreating real-life everyday situations, so that they understand what the goals are and how they personally can play a part. At the centre, people will move through a giant house using ‘magic portals’ to access each immersive experience. 

“You’ll go through the fridge to get to the food experience, the TV to find out about refugees and climate migration, the wardrobe for the fashion experience, and the shower to go underwater and learn about our oceans. 

“Each experience will use tech to immerse the visitor and will be personal, hands-on, and have a storytelling element. We won’t use VR because we don’t want people to be taken away from the group experience and also under 13s shouldn’t really use it, but we absolutely want to use AR and digital projections.”

It’s a grand idea that came from Jenny’s time working as a Fairtrade Coordinator for Bristol and the South West. At the time, she worked with the twinning officer to bring over a Fairtrade producer from Nicaragua to talk about the difference that Fairtrade makes to her, her family, and her community. 

“Allowing the Fairtrade producer to tell her own story really put people in her shoes, which had a lot more impact than someone like me standing up and talking to a classroom or a group of businesses about Fairtrade.”

Getting the city on board

Jenny feels that people didn’t know much about the goals when they were set in 2015, and many still don’t. Getting the city to support the idea enough to open up access to a venue and funding is the biggest challenge she faces.

“If you’re starting with a new innovative idea people might love it, but if you haven’t delivered anything like this before they’re reluctant to come on board. We’re a tiny core team with no experience of delivering projects like this – it is the first of its kind – so we have to prove our impact.

“The key has been partnerships, working with people who have got brilliant track records. The co-design model is really important to us – mainly involving young people in designing the immersive experiences. We’ve spent a lot of time consulting teachers and young people about the idea and we found there is a level of anxiety and frustration because the issues are not being covered in the current curriculum, so they are all very keen to support the project. 

“We’ve also engaged with creative subject matter experts and educators around each goal. For example, for our co-design project around fashion we’re working with Race Equality and Education Group, Fashion Revolution, Labour Behind The Label, Conscious Fashion Campaign and a creative from Two Feet Below. We’re now looking to turn this into a digital experience so that everyone can take part.”

Jenny hopes this open approach to innovation will allow people to embrace and support the initiative, as well as giving her team activities to measure so that they can prove the value of the project. This is integral to unlocking the resources her team needs to make it happen, yet she understands the challenges cities face.

“We don’t really see it as our project, it’s the city’s project and we want as many people and organisations as possible to play a part in creating the content. Bristol feels like the right place to do this because it is an innovative, arty, creative, green city. But ultimately we want to create a model that can be replicated in other cities around the world.

“In a city, there is always inequality. There are those who have opportunities and those who don’t, and there’s still a lot of work to be done to break down those barriers and allow all young people to have access to education and resources. 

“We talk about education, but if you haven’t got a phone or a laptop to access that – especially during Covid – how are you meant to take that forward? So we do need to address these inequalities to enable everyone to be an innovator and show their potential. To make the most of our innovators we need to resource them.”

If we overcome the innovation blockers – what could the future look like?

Jenny is realistic about the challenges she and her team face to overcome the common blockers to innovation. But that doesn’t stop her from seeing a world where sustainability plays a key role in all our lives.

“The goals are vital to people’s wellbeing – from quality education to reducing inequalities, it’s about fundamental human need and you can’t work on just one of the goals, they all impact each other.

“City centres have been pretty decimated by Covid. We would love to be at the heart of city centre regeneration, to be part of the reason people visit the centre. Not only to increase footfall, but to reimagine the potential of cities. 

“As well as the visitor centre we could be the start of a hub including outlets that are selling sustainable clothing or cosmetics, and sustainably sourced food. There could be a repair shop so people don’t have to throw things away. Or there could be places for people to learn new skills – such as how to fix old clothes or cook with leftovers.

“Yes, there needs to be a lot of independent behaviour change, but we also as citizens and consumers need to push for this real systemic change. So that we’re looking at circular economies and how we use the earths’ materials and how we treat each other. It is all connected.”

The Global Goals Centre, fresh with its new name, aims to open its doors in 2023. Find out more at globalgoalscentre.org

Topics:Sustainability