UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage


Future Heritage

Shapes From Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Credit: James Pollock

About the theme

The Future Heritage research strand complements other UCL ISH research in heritage science, modern and contemporary heritage, and heritage risk and resilience. It is concerned with heritage that does not yet exist, and which may require radically new approaches to the way heritage is theorised, curated, and protected. And it seeks to highlight the ways heritage can contribute to societies’ successful adaptation to a warmer, more complex and uncertain world.

How can heritage inform our understanding of what it means to be alive in transitional times? What resources can it offer that support people to accept and live through change? How might heritage contribute to, critique, and enrich the development of positive future imaginaries? In a transforming world, what continuity can heritage provide, and how can it help us accept change?

Through addressing questions like these, the research will support present and future researchers, policy-makers, practitioners, and publics to identify, share, and care for heritage still to emerge that will contribute to the sustainability and wellbeing of future society. By helping the field of heritage to anticipate and work with unavoidable change, while ensuring the continuity of heritage values, it will be a venue for thinking about what is important to society over the long-term

Why future heritage? 

Heritage has a unique relationship to the future. It encompasses society’s deliberate efforts to intervene in the society to come, to pass on an inheritance to future generations. This inheritance reflects the values of our time: heritage is what we care about, and what we think future society should have the chance to care about, too. In this way, it is the source of continuity between the society of the past, present and future, underpinning our identity and guiding our aspirations. 

The heritage we create now, the ideas and materials that we pass on, will also be what future society draws on in responding to change and uncertainty. Current scientific evidence and consensus suggests that radical change can be expected. Over the next hundred years, the resources upon which life in the global North currently depends will be greatly reduced. Information technologies emerging today will have engineered new forms of sociality and identity. 

New geopolitical structures will have replaced those established during the late twentieth century. Through the arts and culture, societies will reimagine their relationships with a changing planet. The forces shaping future heritage over the coming century will look very different to those active in the last century.

Future Heritage research

These changes raise many challenges for heritage. The Future Heritage research strand contributes to addressing these challenges through three broad areas of work:

1. Future contexts for present and emerging heritage

In what sort of new circumstances will future heritage be situated? Using models and data from heritage science and engineering alongside other natural and social sciences, and drawing on the experience of strategic foresight and futures practitioners, the research will explore how best to make robust and generative claims about the possible futures in which heritage will exist. 

2. Future forms of heritage

As new materials and technologies emerge, as new patterns of consumption and production develop, and as new senses of what is valued gain currency within society, the nature of heritage will evolve. The research will identify speculative and prefigurative work across the arts and sciences exploring what (for example) synthetic biology or artificial intelligence offer artists and designers, and engage with the new forms of practice and artefact that will result. It will track—and foster—innovations in cities, in building materials, in digital preservation, in artistic expression, to imagine new possibilities for heritage beyond current framings.

3. Future roles for heritage in society

What different roles might heritage play in future society? What can society expect of heritage? How can the capability of heritage to support responses to challenges of resilience and sustainability be developed? In addressing this question, research within the Future Heritage strand will pay attention to the need for heritage policy and leadership to develop a critical and informed view of the future, working with the multiple forms of evidence needed to anticipate change, and understanding how these forms of evidence can best contribute to decision-making.

Practical contribution

The Future Heritage research strand aims to connect academic research to practical applications. Our work, through research, teaching and knowledge exchange, will equip heritage practitioners and leadership teams with the skills and critical perspective they need to ensure that heritage contributes to the challenges of transitioning to a sustainable society, working with national policy groups, institutions and property developers to ensure that research is grounded in practical contexts. A central partner in this work is Historic England, the national body for the historic environment.