Culture and sustainability

An essay by Szilvia Kochanowski

For 20 years, ECF has been bringing cultural change-makers from across wider Europe a step closer to each other. Almost 60 countries are involved in our mobility schemes at the time of writing (2014), including countries in the EU and European Free Trade Association (EFTA), the Western Balkans, the Eastern Partnership countries, the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean, Russia and Turkey. Nearly 1,000 cultural operators benefitted from APEXchanges between 1994 and 2002. And another 1,800 cultural operators have travelled with a STEP Beyond Travel Grant since 2003. Three former STEP Beyonders are featured in this publication, talking about the importance of artistic and cultural mobility in general and the impact the STEP Beyond Grant has had on their professional development in particular.

ECF Step Beyond travel grants project "Landing AR3101" ©Sylvain Raybaud

ECF Step Beyond travel grants project "Landing AR3101" ©Sylvain Raybaud

In developing its mobility schemes, ECF has always been sensitive to the current European socio-political context, investing where cultural mobility can make the most difference. Aligning with trends and needs has led ECF to carry out various reviews of its grant processes and to develop an advocacy agenda on mobility. Although the primary mission is to connect the cultural change-makers of wider Europe, ECF also regards the travel grants scheme as an ‘antenna’ to gather firsthand experience and information about the latest developments, as well as about the emerging players within the European cultural scene.

The tenth anniversary of the STEP Beyond Travel Grants programme has been an excellent opportunity to gather these insights and experiences and to consider what the future may hold for the scheme. To kick off this process, an extensive survey was launched in the summer of 2013 among previous grantees in order to identify the most urgent issues requiring a response from all parties involved in the cultural sector, from artists and cultural professionals to funders. The central issues addressed in the questionnaire were sustainability and sustainable development.

The first part of this essay is based on related works and publications by leading theorists and experts in the field. These articles and publications reflect the current, exploratory phase of research and practice, featuring numerous alternative perspectives and understandings, as well as certain pioneering efforts to conceptualise the relationship between culture and sustainability. In addition, they attempt to embed cultural considerations within local plans, policies and practice. While this is by no means a comprehensive overview, it provides a slice of the research and practice in the relevant fields, seen through the eyes of an independent researcher.

The second part takes a more practical approach: starting out with the main observations made through the analysis of the survey results, we will look into what effect sustainability considerations (both social and environmental) have on ECF’s work and more specifically, how these considerations could be reflected in its mobility programme. We have made observations, and in some cases, more concrete recommendations, in relation to the current STEP Beyond guidelines and selection criteria.

The essay concludes with a short afterword by Katherine Watson, Director of ECF, who reflects on the observations and recommendations made.


Climate change and sustainability are common challenges shaping our present as well as our future. For the past few decades these concepts have been omnipresent in both the scientific and political world and in public discourse too. Almost everyone has encountered warnings and alarming prognoses about global warming and climate change. The message seems to be that our civilisation cannot survive unless we change our behaviour. In spite of this, to quote Alison Tickell, we still seem “to be living comfortably with deeply uncomfortable information irritating the edge of our thoughts.”[1] This raises a multitude of questions. Why is this the case? What needs to change in order to create real commitment towards sustainable attitudes and behaviour? Is this possible without a cultural shift? How can arts and culture support the process towards developing sustainable societies? And what role could ECF play in this process, through its overall activities and specifically through its STEP Beyond mobility scheme?

Climate change and sustainability

Over the last 25 years, sustainability and sustainable development[2] have gained worldwide recognition as a paradigm for the wellbeing and the progress of humanity, as well as a possible response to perceived threats to the existence of our civilisation. The prevailing definition is derived from the United Nations’ Brundtland Report published in 1987 in which sustainable development was defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. (…) It is not a fixed state of harmony, but rather a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development, and institutional change are made consistent with future as well as present needs.”[3] Sustainable development has traditionally been illustrated using the so-called ‘three-pillars concept’ (also introduced in the Brundtland Report), which is essentially a triptych of social justice/progress, environmental balance/protection and economic growth.

The three pillars of sustainable development

Interestingly, the choice between ‘sustainability’ or ‘sustainable development’ seems to be chiefly a deliberate one: the omission of ‘development’ reflects a concern by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and academic environmentalists that the term ‘development’ is interpreted as a synonym for ‘growth’ and as such is regarded more as a means for maintaining the status quo. Accordingly, it is assumed that ‘sustainable development’ focuses on making existing production methods more ecological but not on taking the concept further to change harmful consumer habits. In contrast, ‘sustainability’ indicates a different priority with regards to the future of humanity, linking it to social and ecological issues rather than framing it in terms of a linear development course with economy as its main focus.[4] Perhaps a satisfactory synthesis could be reached by putting human beings at the centre of sustainability, and with that, interpreting the term ‘development’ as a means of freedom and of widening choices for each and every one of us.

“An in-depth discussion on climate change cannot happen without an understanding of sustainable social and economic development.”

—Katelijn Verstraete[5]

There is no shortage of scientific information on climate change. Evidence produced by thousands of scientists overwhelmingly shows that the earth’s climate is rapidly changing[6] and this is almost certainly “due to human activity”.[7] Despite this, there seem to be several lingering misconceptions. One of these is the relationship between climate change and sustainability. It can be argued that there is a highly complex degree of interconnectedness between the two. On the one hand, climate change influences the key ecological and human conditions and therefore affects basic societal and economic development. On the other hand, societies’ values and choices regarding sustainable development substantially influence greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

On a different note, climate change is only one dimension of non-sustainability and there are several other development issues to consider, including hunger and malnutrition, poverty, health, biodiversity, peace and cultural wellbeing. Sustainability, therefore, extends far beyond climate change and is not a mere question of technological innovations and more efficient resource usage. It is more fundamentally a cultural challenge that questions our civilisation model based on designed ‘progress’ and ‘development’.[8] It is connected to and affects aspects such as human rights, economics, democracy aspects such as human rights, economics, democracy, equality, as well as social and civil justice.

Culture – the fourth pillar of sustainability

When the concept of sustainability was first coined, the emphasis was on physical ecology and environmental concerns, reflected in the three-pillar concept mentioned above. Little attention was paid to the possible multidimensional and interconnected nature of the three dimensions. Culture was traditionally regarded as a component of the social dimensions of sustainability. For a long time, however, there was a noticeable ‘culture deficit’[9] in sustainability narratives, as well as in models addressing sustainability issues. There seemed to be a lack of understanding about how culture connects to it and its contribution.[10]

The inclusion of culture in the discourse on sustainability has been a slow process, mainly triggered by the recognition that these three dimensions alone cannot possibly fully reflect the complexity of society and the way people act in the world.

One of the first breakthroughs in this process came about in 2001, when Jon Hawkes introduced his ‘four-pillar model of sustainability’ in an attempt to model the interdependence of culture and sustainable development.[11] It included cultural vitality as a major dimension of sustainability, and emphasised the importance of cultural diversity and the vibrant cultural life of communities.

However, the shifts in the discourses in academic circles were not necessarily reflected in the international policy scene. Although the Agenda 21 action plan[12] that was launched at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit of the UN and the subsequent local agendas 21 at local policy level created a concrete action plan for sustainability development, they did not directly include a cultural dimension (either in the broad interpretation of the word, or in the more restricted sense of cultural-artistic activities.) There was growing criticism of this omission by a number of academics and cultural actors,[13] who were campaigning for the integration of culture in the strategies for sustainability. In addition, cities also assumed a pioneering role. As a result, the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) published a document entitled Culture: Fourth Pillar of Sustainable Development[14] in 2010. This document reiterated Jon Hawkes’s original observation that the three (economic, social and environmental) dimensions of sustainable development alone are not enough to accurately reflect our complex society. It was also acknowledged that creativity, knowledge, diversity and beauty are the unavoidable bases for dialogue around peace and progress, as these values are intrinsically connected to human development and freedom.[15] 

“Despite the steady campaign in both academic circles and local governments, the final document of the most recent international conference[16] on sustainable development, called The Future We Want, proved disappointing. In the document, participants renewed their political commitment to sustainable development. However, it still failed to acknowledge culture as the fourth pillar of sustainability[17] and lacked a holistic, solid consideration of culture in sustainable development.[18]
The current UN development agenda for 2000-2015 will soon have run its course. Bearing that in mind, the pressure for the recognition of culture with regards to sustainable development is becoming more intense. 

“An important document in this connection is Culture as a goal in the post-2015 Development Agenda.[19] This document establishes that the new development agenda should include a goal focused on culture. It firmly declares that there is the necessary will to do so throughout the international community: all the actors in the field are ready for it.[20]

The role of culture

“Achieving sustainability in its widest sense, that is, embedding the notion of sustainability in our way of life, is a cultural process.” Jon Hawkes[21]

The recognition of culture as part of sustainable development by the international community has been on the cards for a long time but has not yet fully materialised. However, the pillar concept and more specifically the notion of culture as the fourth pillar of sustainability is in itself problematic and restrictive. By using the term ‘pillar’, one almost immediately visualises three (or four) parallel strands, all of them vital, but in the end, sovereign entities that are independent of one another. The word ‘pillar’ does not do justice to the interconnected and interdependent nature of the three dimensions. In addition, including culture as one of four pillars disregards the unique, transversal nature of culture. Culture is interlinked with each of the traditional three dimensions of sustainability, and cannot be regarded as a separate field or pillar.

The ‘bridging’ nature of culture encompasses more than one might initially think. Culture is linked to our economies through income generation and employment, but it cannot be reduced to an instrument of economic growth. Culture is linked to social programmes that deal with poverty, equal rights and civic engagement, but it cannot be simplified to provide cohesion to a society. Culture is also linked to the environmental dimension, but it cannot be downgraded to become just a tool for raising environmental awareness and responsibility. For culture is much more than an instrument. It is the soul, the foundation on which progress towards a sustainable society is based. Sustainability is a process, not an end product. From a cultural point of view, this process is merely a search for alternative sets of values, norms and knowledge through which reality as we know it is reformed. It is therefore a cultural evolution that facilitates the improved understanding of patterns that connect the economic, social, political, cultural and ecological dimensions of our reality.[22] This is what can be regarded as the cultural dimension of sustainability. In Sacha Kagan’s words, the search process for sustainability is first and foremost to be understood as a search for ‘cultures of sustainability’.[23]

So let us embark on this search process. However, first we need a point of reference. After all, the first step in identifying an alternative set of values and norms is exploring the characteristics and shortcomings of the current mindset.

Industrial civilisation encourages goal-oriented, problem-solving rationality and tends to ignore the complexity of our reality and the interdependence of many of its aspects. In our highly developed societies, specialisation has taken place, leading to fragmentation and compartmentalisation of knowledge. There is little or no crossover between these ‘islands’ of knowledge. As the majority of people live in urban areas and technology has taken off to such an extent, our connection with ‘Mother Earth’[24] becomes less automatic, less natural. Nature is increasingly seen as an exploitable resource rather than something for all humans to respect and enjoy. Indeed, even the concept of being ‘human’ has changed, gradually becoming synonymous with ‘consumer’ or ‘manpower’.[25] 

As a consequence, we are gradually losing our capacity to react and adapt to outside change (such as changes in the ecosystem). As such, ultimately, our societies will become unfit for survival from an evolutionary point of view.[26]

This grim prognosis leads us to conclude that the search for sustainability requires profound and transformative changes. It calls for a paradigm shift or, better still, a global mindset change. We have to change our perspective, our perception of events, look beyond our past and present and start imagining a future that is yet unknown but is truly sustainable. How can this be achieved? What skills and competences do we need to rediscover or learn afresh? And how does arts and culture contribute to this process?

“The cultural sector is a natural change agent, instigator and provocateur in paradigm shifts and mind-set changes.” Ada Wong[27]

Papergirl Istanbul. Photo by Stefanie_Buhlmaier

Papergirl Istanbul. Photo by Stefanie_Buhlmaier

Receptivity and imagination

The shortcomings of the human mind can be countered by a single, tremendously potent weapon: the imagination. Human beings are unique in having the capacity not only to perceive phenomena on the basis of previous experiences, but also to anticipate their potential, to understand what they have not yet become. We can think about what the future may bring and, more importantly, we can think back from a future perspective to what should be happening now.[28] And if we perceive what has not happened yet, we are able to shape it. Despite having this capacity, we often lack the skills to be aware of the world’s inherent potential. We need to enhance these capacities, such as creativity, critical knowledge, empathy, intuition, trust, recognition and respect, which are currently neglected by our overly cognitive, rational minds.

Imagination is the key to reinforcing these skills and capacities. Emotional experiences unleash our imagination and stimulate creative processes. However, in a world dominated by rational and analytical thinking, the emotional, imaginative parts of our brains are underused. This is precisely where arts and culture have an important role to play. Artists and artistic practices are capable of creating “emotional experiences that are powerful enough to move people to imagine new possibilities”.[29] Art can challenge us to look at the world in a different way, creating new stories that are alternatives to the reality we already know.[30] Through art, our intuitive and imaginative capacities are stimulated. This enables us to imagine truly alternative futures; worlds, social structures, habits and cultures that seem almost unreal, but that also surprise, challenge and disturb, and ultimately contribute to the transformation towards sustainability. 

Complex thinking and creativity

How can we capture the complexity of our world? The one-dimensional logic of today’s worldview does not seem to fit the bill. We have to engage in an unprecedented leap towards complexity by learning to think in terms of networks, ecologies and complex systems. Real solutions will be those that not only reflect the complexity of our reality but also create new ways of thinking.[31]

Arts and culture can play a crucial role in this. Artists encourage their public to engage with multiple layers of meaning. People who regularly engage with contemporary art learn to question what they see, to find new meanings and new perspectives, and to feel increasingly comfortable with complexity. Artists today reveal this complexity by reflecting their environments. They see the world differently and enable us to see it differently too. By encouraging new ways of approaching daily life, the arts facilitate thinking, reaction, discussion, debate and deliberation in public spaces, thus stimulating creative intervention.

“The future of Europe is not fixed. We have to imagine where we want to go and what we want to work towards. Both citizens and leaders need to think creatively about the road ahead. We need creativity to innovate, to help overcome challenges and recognise and seize opportunities.” HRH Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands[32]

Creativity can help us to find effective solutions for complex issues and arts and artists can provide society with new perspectives that build the capacity for change.[33]

ECF in transition: a new way of working

“Re-sourced, re-sponsive and re-sponsible organizations and meeting places are prerequisites.” Trevor Davies[34]

Earlier on (both in this chapter and the ECF and its cultural mobility schemes chapter), STEP Beyond has already been cited as the most perceptive and sensitive element in ECF’s work when it comes to prevailing socio-political challenges. Over the last ten years, ECF and specifically its mobility scheme has attempted to respond to certain European socio-political developments, as well as responding to the ultimate goal of supporting the mobility of emerging artists and cultural workers:

  • Initially, APEXchanges aimed to revive and strengthen cultural relations between countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
  • Later on, following EU enlargement, STEP Beyond’s main priority became to avoid new divisions in Europe and to connect the old and new member states.
  • The late 2000s saw yet another shift of Step Beyond’s focus towards cultural exchange between the EU and its immediate neighbourhood together with the development of a strategic interest in Turkey and the Southern Caucasus region.

In the light of the evolving crisis on the Eastern borders of the EU, the support of mobility and the strengthening of cultural relations between the EU and its neighbourhood both seem as urgent as ever. However, there are several threats and pressing concerns that look beyond borders and beyond continents. Challenges such as climate change, hunger and malnutrition, health, poverty, global political, financial and economic crises are ones to be faced both nationally and globally and they all concern different dimensions of unsustainability. As also established earlier in this essay, the international community has yet to achieve a breakthrough in its fight against these global challenges,[35] as well as recognising the role of culture in this process.

These current trends and challenges are prompting ECF to broaden its focus and look beyond pan-European geopolitical emergencies and reassess its role and way of working. With the launch of its new strategic focus Connecting Culture, Communities and Democracy, ECF has embarked on this process, with the following initial assumptions in mind:

  • The key to social transformation lies within communities: they are the places where change through culture appears first.
  • Change is already happening at a community level, primarily because technological development has provided the necessary tools and also because the recent financial and economic crisis has forced us to think differently.
  • Artists are able to engage with people and start from the bottom up, from a community-level, through which “transversal interventions are set in motion directly in communities”.[36]

By initiating a new 2013–2016 networked programme, ECF acknowledged that the challenges facing communities today are complex and require extensive collaboration and partnerships beyond the non-profit sector. By connecting change-makers across Europe and supporting alternative democratic practices and developments, ECF aims to facilitate cross-sectoral collaborations. Furthermore, it also re-affirmed the transversal nature of culture, i.e. that culture has a reach and an influence on society that goes beyond its own sector.

This new focus and new way of working launched in response to current global challenges, not only triggers new programmes and new ECF activities, but it also affects the existing schemes and activities. This is particularly the case with STEP Beyond, which has always been a sensitive barometer of socio-cultural and geopolitical changes. Accordingly, the next section will explore possible reactions STEP Beyond could bring about in response to current challenges and will also look into how sustainability considerations (both on a socio-cultural as well as an environmental level) can be implemented in the mobility grants scheme.

Sustainable mobility


The process of exploring the possible future directions of the STEP Beyond Travel Grants programme kicked off with an extensive survey among STEP Beyond grantees in August 2013 to commemorate STEP Beyond’s tenth anniversary. The objectives of the survey were:

  1. To gain a better understanding of the demographic and professional background of grantees, as well as their supported project (travel).
  2. To identify new trends and phenomena within the arts and culture sector that require new approaches and new answers and to test the general awareness and sensitivity of grantees towards these current issues (with a special focus on the different aspects of sustainability, including its social, cultural and environmental aspects).

An email invitation was sent out to approximately 1,500 email addresses. Personalised emails were sent out to a selected group of 25 grantees who were particularly active members of the STEP Beyond community.

282 responses were received, 204 of which were complete. This data was used in this essay and will be used for fine-tuning the programme to meet future challenges.[37]
The survey provided some interesting feedback from grantees. When asked how they felt the travel grant contributed to their professional development, grantees explained that the grant had been:

  • A source of motivation as well as acknowledgement of their work
  • A facilitator for the expansion of their professional networks
  • Unique in supporting the exploratory phase of their projects
  • A great tool for scaling up their professional activity to a European/international level.

In addition, STEP Beyond has contributed to several ‘life-changing’ moments and achievements. In one respondent’s own words: “(…) the travel grant has been monumentally important to my professional development. It gave me the ability to interact, collaborate and learn from artists working across many different disciplines and from different cultures and backgrounds. This has, without a doubt, affected the way I view art and the potential for my own career as an artist. I have maintained strong bonds with both the host organisation and the other artists on the residency. I am currently working on collaborative project proposals with other artists whom I met through this opportunity. This ECF grant will continue to affect both myself and other artists for years to come, enabling us to see things from different perspectives, work in different environments and shape the art we make both now and in the future.

Nevertheless, without losing sight of the original mission of STEP Beyond (i.e. stimulating transnational cultural collaboration and the mobility of artists in Europe and its wider neighbourhood), the moment has come to reconsider ECF’s approach and objectives in relation to artists’ mobility in order not only to reflect ECF’s evolving work in general, but also to improve the sustainability of its mobility scheme. For this purpose, in the following section two aspects of sustainability are explored:

  • A ‘meta-level’ sustainability relating to the impact of the supported travels and on a more general level, of the overall goal and mission of the STEP Beyond Travel Grants Programme.
  • A more practical level of sustainability, concerning the environmental sustainability of STEP Beyond, i.e. possible ways of promoting and supporting green travel among grantees and thereby reducing the grants programme’s carbon footprint.

Sustainable impact

Thematic revision
As already discussed, for the past ten years, despite the changing (expanding) geographical scope and focus, ECF’s approach to artists’ mobility has centred on geography and geopolitics. Currently, in line with the objective of facilitating cultural exchange between the EU and non-EU countries (including the wider European neighbourhood countries), the guidelines regulate the eligible combination of departure and destination countries. As well as other limitations, this means that trips within the EU are not eligible for support. However, the time seems to be right for ECF to reconsider implementing an integrated and more developmental approach to mobility funding. This would be enhanced by the inclusion of a thematic rather than solely geographic approach. In this alternative approach, the cross-sectoral element can potentially play a substantial role: it is already present in ECF’s focus and other activities, reflecting a firm belief in cross-sectoral collaborations opening up new possibilities, creating new collaborative knowledge and bridging multiple professional approaches and ultimately steering towards a more sustainable way of thinking and working.

Sustainable outcomes

According to the current guidelines, “funded travels should represent a starting point for continued collaboration and the resulting projects should have some impact on the local/regional arts & culture scene and/or policy-making”. Although this shows ECF’s preference for sustainable outcomes, it does open the door to one of the most common pitfalls of cultural funders, i.e. immediate results are more tangible and easier to follow up and evaluate. However, these more tangible outcomes are very often short lived and are not suitable for achieving sustainable results. Consequently, there is potentially less support for artists’ mobility that does not trigger quick results, but produces sustainable success only over the longer term. Nevertheless, if the intention is to support projects with sustainable outcomes and/or long-term impact, this could be more clearly articulated and more consistently implemented.


The power of change lies in the combination of knowledge and collaborative action.[38] Forming strategic partnerships and collaborations can multiply efforts towards contributing to transformative changes on a broader scale.

There are several organisations within the wider arts and culture scene that are leading the way in this respect. One of them is the UK-based Julie’s Bicycle. Their work has been unique in tackling the issue of how the arts and culture sector can deal with the challenges of sustainability and climate change. This essay relies heavily on their expertise, resources and publications. Julie’s Bicycle has already established valuable partnerships[39] in the private and public sector, predominantly in the UK and in Australia. ECF has also been following and occasionally promoting their work through its own channels. But perhaps it is now time for ECF to scale up and build more strategic partnerships with organisations like Julie’s Bicycle, not only by seeking consultation and guidance, but also perhaps by joining forces and creating new collaborative projects.

However, there is another layer to potential collaborations, which also relates back to the element of cross-sectoralism. Namely, that it is not only within the arts and culture scene and the non-profit sector that ECF could establish collaborations. The STEP Beyond Travel Grants programme provides great opportunities for ECF to build partnerships outside its traditional scope, within the private, public and social sector. For instance, ECF could collaborate with railway and bus companies or companies such as Eurail,[40] environmental activist groups, municipalities, youth organisations either in the form of strategic partnerships or occasional alliances with regard to specific projects or causes.

Green travel

As mentioned before, there is also a much more practical aspect of sustainability when it comes to cultural mobility. Every year, hundreds of trips are being funded, and the vast majority of these journeys are being made by air. As air travel is considered to be the fastest-growing contributor to global warming,[41] by providing financial support for air travel, ECF is contributing to our growing carbon footprint. With these hard facts in mind, we used the survey to test the general attitude and awareness of grantees regarding environmentally friendly travel and the issue of climate change. The results were that the majority of ECF’s constituency:[42] 

  • believes that environmentally friendly mobility should not cost more 
  • makes a pragmatic decision between air transport and travel over land travel, based on costs and journey time.

Furthermore, although most respondents appeared to be generally concerned about the long-term effects of climate change, this concern is not a motivational force when it comes to practical choices. There seemed to be a general consensus that there are no clear alternatives when it comes to more environmentally conscious travel options. Green travel options are considered only to be accessible to a privileged few, those who have the financial means and/or live in places where such options are available. As some grantees observed, “it is not always possible to afford environmental considerations”. There is a perceived “gap between ideals and practical realities” and “many artists often struggle between their ideals and the rough pragmatic reality we live in”.

Although travelling by train is considered to be the most environmentally friendly means of transport, ECF currently sets no requirements for travel methods.[43] Consequently, the pragmatic choice of the vast majority of grantees is air travel. Aviation has a disproportionately large impact on our climate. Hence a potential tool in making the travel grant scheme more green could be to diversify grantees’ means of travel, primarily by cutting back on air travel.[44]

Short-distance travel
Travel over land could potentially be a realistic alternative for shorter distances. However, under the current guidelines (which do not support travel within the EU), possibly eligible short distance travels are limited to a rather restricted scope of cross-(EU) border trips, such as Poland-Ukraine or Hungary-Serbia.

How can we define short-distance travel?
In the survey, respondents were asked what they considered the furthest distance for travelling over land as opposed to flying. The answers were rather divided. Around 28% of respondents said 600-800 km (e.g. Sarajevo-Bucharest) at most, while a further 27% said that they would travel as far as 1,200-1,500 km (e.g. Munich-Kiev) over land. Therefore, what is considered as a ‘short-distance travel’ is very much a personal choice and it is not necessarily possible to come up with a unanimously acceptable concept. Accordingly, any definition of short distance by ECF in the future would have to be tested in the constituency and should be carefully reviewed based on the feedback and experience of the travellers.

If ECF makes the strategic decision to open up the geographical scope of STEP Beyond and travels within the EU fall within the scope of support, the number of potentially short distance trips will grow significantly. This would mean on the one hand, that travelling over land (and thus, in a more environmentally friendly way) could be a realistic alternative for grantees and that it could also be promoted by STEP Beyond on a much broader scale. On the other hand, the number of incoming applications would be likely to increase exponentially and the whole grants scheme would need to undergo a significant scaling-up process (for instance, from a human as well as financial resource point of view). All these options would need to be measured against long-term, strategic decisions regarding the future of STEP Beyond.

Slow travel
Introducing the concept of ‘slow travel’ into STEP Beyond could be another possible method for cutting back air travel. Although not explicitly stated in the current guidelines, it appears that in practice, projects in which the travel is considered to be part of the project are very rarely selected for support. As movements like ‘slow travel’[45] and ‘ecotourism' [46] rapidly gain popularity, ECF may want to reconsider this approach. In our fast-living society the potential pleasure of the journey is often lost by overly eager anticipation of arrival. Slow travel, which typically involves low-impact travel styles (over land), allows travellers to engage more with communities along their route. As one of the grantees noted in the survey, it “offers a wide range of possibilities for observing, interacting and learning”.

Having said that, it is a well-known fact that time is money. It is fair to assume that overland travelling requires more effort both in terms of time and costs. As such, most grantees cannot afford to take longer journeys. This assumption is also backed by the survey results: most respondents’ main consideration in terms of travel options were time and cost efficiency. Green travel demands more time and money, so the best way for STEP Beyond to promote alternative, environmentally friendly travel options is to offer ‘compensation’ for the increased efforts.

Green mobility incentives (extra motivation)
In the survey, several motivational factors/tools were tested to see which of them could be most effective in inspiring travellers to consider more environmentally friendly means of transport. The most popular tools were all related to financial compensation (e.g. the chance to win an extra grant or increased amount of grants).

Although it is clear that the main motivator is ‘money’ (financial compensation for the extra time and effort), promoting ‘green projects’ as best practice on STEP Beyond Lab, other social media platforms and in other publications is also very important and mutually beneficial. It offers both extra exposure for the project itself but can also be very informative and inspiring for other applicants. One survey participant pointed to the possible threats in this regard. He claimed that extra financial support for ‘green projects’ “are not the appropriate solution as they can lead to positive discrimination of countries with more means to afford green alternatives. It would be better to support countries less concerned with environmental issues by promoting awareness towards them mainly through online activities”.

What is a ‘green project’?
As part of the the primary mission of STEP Beyond, which is supporting the professional development of up-and-coming artists and cultural workers, we also promote green projects that not only focus on issues such as climate change and the environment but also encourage participants to take environmental impact into consideration during their logistical planning and implementation.

Having said that, ECF also needs to be aware that differences in infrastructure and macroeconomics could result in unequal opportunities in terms of living and travelling in an environmentally friendly manner. Financial incentives alone are therefore not the path to take. Hence, besides financial compensation, raising awareness and disseminating information is a crucial and integral part of any incentive scheme to be developed for STEP Beyond.

Information dissemination
A recurring theme in respondents’ comments was the lack of knowledge and information about low environmental impact practices. The participants flagged that “most people were not aware” of the disproportionately large impact aviation has on the climate. Others said that, although they are “aware [of the dangers], they lack practical examples of working in an environmentally sustainable way” and that information on alternative travel options is scarce. Grantees need assistance and support in order to embed environmental awareness and decision-making in their activities.

There are already several initiatives (sites) that not only provide tools and practical information about green travel, but also manage a database of accommodation, destinations and public transport options. The Green Traveller and Travel Effect sites are worth mentioning here, although their scope is admittedly limited (UK and USA respectively), and they focus more on leisure travel. Ecopassenger is another useful site. With a few simple clicks, one can easily calculate the environmental impact of trips through Europe.

Admittedly, ECF does not have the ambition or the resources to set up a complex search engine allowing users to browse for flights, hotels and cars according to price and carbon footprint (almost like a “green skyscanner”, as one grantee noted). Nevertheless, its social network platform, ECF Labs could provide an excellent, easily accessible tool for raising awareness and disseminating information on environmentally sustainable project planning and travelling. With ECF Labs being a user-generated database, growing organically through contributions from its users, it is up to these users to create useful content through sharing and discussing ideas and resources. Ideally, this knowledge exchange platform would stretch from extensive background information, scientific material and contextualising to very concrete practical tips and links that are useful in planning the traveller’s itinerary.


Climate change and sustainability are challenges that have been ubiquitous in the global scientific, political and public discourse for the last few decades. What is more, essentially all dimensions of today’s global crisis (such as malnutrition, poverty, health, political, financial and economical) relate to and comprise different aspects of non-sustainability. It is also evident that the international community has yet to achieve a breakthrough in its fight against these challenges and, that conventional methods for tackling them have failed so far. This essay argued that due to its transversal nature, culture could provide the definite answer that we have been seeking. It is neither sufficient nor adequate to argue for the inclusion of culture merely as the ‘fourth pillar’ (besides the original three pillars of economic, environmental and social) in discourses on sustainability, as culture serves as a bridge between all three dimensions. Culture encompasses the entirety of a society’s intellectual work and the conditions in which it functions. It is an open space whose borders are being constantly expanded by imagination and creativity.

It was exactly these characteristics that — in our opinion — qualify culture and the cultural sector as natural change agents, instigator of paradigm shifts and mindset changes which are essential in achieving any breakthrough in terms of sustainability.

It is in this context that we attempted to place ECF’s body of work and specifically its STEP Beyond Travel Grants programme. ECF has a long history of receptivity towards socio-political developments in Europe. With the launch of its new strategic focus Connecting Culture, Communities and Democracy ECF has demonstrated its awareness of the current global trends and challenges and its willingness to look beyond European geopolitical urgencies, setting out to reassess its way of working. We argued that following a successful first ten years, the time is right to look into the STEP Beyond Travel Grants programme as well and explore what relevant answers it could give in relation to the socio-cultural and environmental challenges of unsustainability. A two-fold approach was proposed:

  • strengthening the ’sustainability of the awarded projects’ through combining the existing geographical approach with an integrated, thematic approach, as well as through strategic collaboration both inside and outside the cultural sector;
  • tackling the environmental considerations related to the mobility scheme, mainly through encouraging over-land travel (thus, cutting back on air travel) by introducing concepts like ‘slow travel’ and by offering financial compensation for the extra time and effort it requires.

On a final note, we would like to quote again Alison Tickell (Julie’s Bicycle): “There has never before been such an exciting time to be involved in sustainability within the creative industries — now is the time to act.”

Special thanks goes to the Open Society Foundations, our partner for STEP Beyond travels for the Southern Caucasus and Turkey, for co-funding this publication.

You have just read the introduction to the 10 years of STEP Beyond Travel Grants eBook. You can read the full eBook by downloading the ePub or each individual section from our Library (see the list below).