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Civic Tech and Fine Arts Team-Up to Tackle Climate Change

Fueled by a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, Anchorage, Alaska, is building a lab inside an art museum for artists, designers, engineers and the community to team-up to tackle climate change.

Alaska is on the front lines of climate change, with some estimates suggesting the state is experiencing its impacts at a speed twice that of other parts of the country.

As such Anchorage, Alaska — the most populous city in the state — recently received a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies Arts program, a grant that will go toward the city’s new Solutions for Energy and Equity through Design (SEED) Lab, which is to be housed in the Anchorage Museum. The SEED lab will be a workspace for an eclectic bunch, including artists, designers, engineers and other members of the community. Within the SEED Lab, the group will be working to create projects that blend art and technology, in the hopes of spreading awareness about climate change while developing solutions.

Kate Levin, who oversees the Bloomberg Philanthropies Arts program, said that while the Anchorage project is unique in its specifics, it fits into a larger and growing national movement that combines fine arts approaches with social causes, tapping new technology and innovations to serve their goals and vision.

“There are an increasing number of artists now that kind of work at the intersection of technological issues,” Levin said, “very much including environmental and other issues that might be considered social policy.”

The Anchorage Museum is perhaps a perfect locale for such work, given that the same building houses both a science and an art museum. Levin also said that one of the hopes behind using art in such a way is to communicate the dangers of climate change in a different way, one that perhaps appeals more to emotional logic than it does the parts of the mind that processes things like reports and facts.

“It’s about awareness and it’s also about a sense of empowerment,” she said. “Climate change is not an abstraction, it’s something that’s happening. How do you wrap what could seem like an abstract message and give it a sense of immediacy?”

That’s what the artists, engineers and others involved with the project will seek to accomplish. There’s almost a precedent. While tackling a different subject matter, previous grant recipients in Upstate New York used a combination of social policy and art to take on a rash of vacant buildings. Dubbed Breathing Lights, that project also received a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies Arts, which participants used to create a public art installation that made vacant buildings look like they were breathing and alive, spreading awareness of the impact it could have for neighborhoods when buildings felt inhabited. Did it work? A local paper wrote a story examining just that, in which Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy credited the product for bringing the community together around the issue and helping to build a foundation for a new initiative to address it.

From a certain perspective, this public Alaska arts and engineering project also joins a growing list of civic tech and other local government strategies to address and combat climate change in places ranging from Minneapolis to Sacramento, Calif. Esri, a prominent technology vendor in the public sector, has also created a map of climate threat acceleration.

So, while Alaska may be on the front lines of this battle, it’s far from alone in the fight.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.