Sustainable development: Show, don't tell

Thursday, 19 June 2014 14:28 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

People need to see it, touch it, hear it and walk through it - as with General Motors' 1939 Futurama exhibit

Creating “experiences” may be the missing component of the global campaign for sustainable development. Marketers have long employed “experience” as an essential tactic encouraging consumers to take the latest car for a test drive or try on a new jacket in the fitting room.

Experience is built into marketing and sales processes because it has the power to seal purchase decisions. But since its inception in the 1980s, the campaign for sustainable development has lacked such a component.

On the contrary, it has mostly been driven by abstract declarations from global summits like the Rio+20 mega conference in June 2012.

International organisations, statesmen and women, philanthropists and celebrities perhaps overvalued the assumption that the weight of their authority alone would convert the masses into sustainable development activists.

Undoubtedly, persistent public diplomacy has had an impact. For example, “sustainable development”, as a concept, has been adopted in many languages. It has made its way into legislation, agriculture, urban planning, business management and many other areas. It surfaces in culture too - Avatar, the top-grossing movie of all time, was at its core a story about sustainable development.

Nonetheless, it’s been mostly “talk” so far.

It might be argued that promoting an intangible public policy isn’t suited to the same “experience” strategy as selling a new car or clothing range.

But if an effective experience platform were identified, it could go a long way towards boosting sustainable development’s rather dull image.


In 1939, at the World’s Fair in New York, General Motors opened the groundbreaking “Futurama” pavilion to mobilise support for massive public investment in building infrastructure for cars.

Officially called “Highways and Horizons”, the exhibit advocated for a network of motorways on which automobiles could deliver “more things to more people”.

In the pavilion, “visitors in sound-equipped chairs on a conveyor experienced the illusion of flying low over the cities and countryside of 1960,” according to the Queens Museum.

The models of future cities and landscapes were shockingly real. They featured “over one million trees (with18 varieties), 500,000 buildings, (and) 50,000 autos (with over 10,000 in motion).”

In a revolutionary way, Futurama projected people into a future where highways and cars were shown as a means to happiness, prosperity and self-realisation.

Nearly 5 million people visited the pavilion.

Today, nearly every American city looks exactly like the models exhibited in 1939.

It’s not that General Motors’ idea won the fight for public spending and determined what the future would be like. Rather, it was an effective part of a larger campaign to sway opinion in favour of government investment in infrastructure for cars.  

This “experience” approach could also help the outreach for sustainable development. People need to see it, touch it, hear it and walk through it.


The good news is that there is a potential “experience” platform under construction on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

Powered by renewable energy, Masdar City will be home to 50,000 residents once it is completed in 2025, and will produce virtually no waste: a sustainable city.

Once it comes to life, it could host conferences, concerts and sports events. It could be a prime location for study visits, policy forums, civil society meetings, business gatherings and media stunts.

Masdar could do for the sustainable development sector what Futurama did for the automobile industry.

In an ideal world, other Masdar-like cities would open in political and industrial power bases around the world, allowing the effect to multiply.

The need is quite urgent. By 2050 the world’s population will expand to 9 billion while natural resources shrink. As soon as possible, millions must pass through these modern day Futuramas so a sustainable development transformation can begin.

Stanislav Saling is media relations and public relations manager for the United Nations Development Programme offices in 36 countries in Asia and the Pacific.