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How do you preserve an algorithm?

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Bartlett Professor Richard Sandford is putting heritage at the heart of futures thinking to help policymakers better understand what matters to society in the long term.

How do you preserve an algorithm?

What constitutes future heritage? Photograph of digital artwork from KANAL - Centre Pompidou.

Credit: Miguel Discart

How do you preserve an algorithm?

View of an orbital debris hole made in the panel of the Solar Max experiment.

Credit: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office

Who owns our Facebook data when we’re dead? How do we protect algorithms so that they can be studied in 50 years time? If we genetically engineer crops in the face of climate change, what responsibilities do we have to preserve what came before? How do you list a building that flexes and moves, and doesn’t stay still?

These are the kinds of questions that Richard Sandford, The Bartlett’s new Professor of Heritage Evidence, Foresight and Policy, is grappling with. “Heritage is fundamentally about the future,” says Sandford. “It’s a deliberate effort to intervene in the society to come, to pass on an inheritance to future generations.” Previously based in the UK civil service where he worked with futures themes over the long term, he joined The Bartlett’s Institute for Sustainable Heritage (ISH) in 2018 to head up its ‘Future Heritage’ research strand.

How do you preserve an algorithm?

Photographs taken from inside the video game Watch Dogs 2.

Credit: Virtual Geographic

Policy is often reactive, says Sandford, and while many policymakers want only to maintain business as usual, there are plenty who would love to be able to take the long-term view but the day-to-day pressures of their job makes this very hard to do. A lack of heritage thinking is one of the limiting factors, he believes, and part of the reason he decided to join ISH. “Thinking about heritage means thinking about future generations, but it also means being grounded in the past,” he says.

The ISH has spent the past two decades showing that heritage isn’t a passive thing that’s under threat, but something that plays an active, constituting role in society. Sandford describes it “as the resources we draw on when we think about our response to everything from climate change to the nation state”. He believes ISH’s positioning of heritage as essential to society’s response to the future is what makes it distinctive. This, coupled with its strategic partnership with Heritage England, means that it can make lots of its ideas operational.

Heritage in the Anthropocene

Sandford sees the role of ISH’s Future Heritage research strand to explore future contexts, future forms and future roles of heritage. “What is our response to living in the Anthropocene epoch?” he says. “Lots of our current assumptions about how society is organised come from the post Second-World War period and it’s clear that we can’t rely on those anymore. Shifts in context, such as the sharing economy, represent particular stances to the world.”

In thinking about new kinds of heritage, it’s not just new materials (ISH has already done a lot of research into how plastics and hydrocarbon-based materials degrade over time, for example) but intangible heritage – the cultural value of Notre Dame, say, how you archive and manage digital technologies, and what sort of access the public should be granted to its own digital heritage, even if that is effectively owned by private companies.

Sandford says these ideas will be represented in ISH’s teaching and the way it engages with policy and industry. He is currently developing a project on algorithmic heritage, for example, working on the premise that algorithms will change the shape of industry, real estate and cities just as the watermill did.

“The discipline of futures studies is ultimately about broadening people’s horizons. It’s not about predictions, but about alternative futures that enable people to see the present in a different way. 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.”

The Institute for Sustainable Heritage is solving real-world cultural heritage problems through groundbreaking, cross-disciplinary research and teaching for future heritage leaders. It is part of The Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources (BSEER) in UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more: https://ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/heritage

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