Science Centers for All

This year’s ASPAC (Asia Pacific Network of Science and Technology Centres) Conference was held last month in Beijing, China, with a theme of “Science Centres for All.” ASTC Board Chair Linda Conlon (chief executive of the International Centre for Life in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, United Kingdom) was an invited speaker at the conference. Read her engaging presentation below.

In my presentation, I want to take a look at the emerging megatrends that will impact on our sector in the next 20 years or so.

Let’s begin by defining a megatrend—it’s very different from a fad or a trend in that it represents a major shift in environmental, social, and economic conditions that will substantially change the way people live. Megatrends usually take a 20–30 year horizon. They affect everyone, everywhere in the world, irrespective of the size of the country or the levels of prosperity. These megatrends are already starting to impact on science centres. But are we doing enough as a sector to really question our current way of operating and to ask ourselves if the models we use today will be fit for purpose in the future?

Science centres are remarkably similar. If you look at the mission statements of any science centre anywhere in the world, they focus on making science accessible, relevant, and inspiring for people of all ages and backgrounds. We are united in our quest to do this.

The scale and diversity of our sector does vary from the very big to the very small—and from the rural to mountain to the urban and even from sea to sand and centres currently nearing completion.

But our core function is the same:

  • We all have a critical mass of hands-on interactives.
  • We all welcome school children and have distinct programmes for them.
  • We all have people whose job it is to interact with visitors to help them get the most out of their experience.
  • We all go out into our communities to reach people who do not, for whatever reason, visit our centres, and
  • We all explore complex issues that affect society like climate change, and gene therapy, through conversations and debates.

There are also a great many similarities and patterns in the way that visitors behave and their spending habits, operating cost ratios, and market penetration rates.

Exploratorium and Ontario Science Centre

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When the first science centres appeared nearly 50 years ago, they were well ahead of their time. Here is a very early photo of the Exploratorium in San Francisco which has, of course, moved to its completely new home on the waterfront, and of the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto. Being able to interact with exhibits was a completely new experience for people.

It was ”please touch” instead of ”don’t touch”. Times of course have changed dramatically—and they will continue to change. This change will be fuelled by a series of megatrends that could shake the very foundations of science centres and lead to completely new ways of operating.

We feel comfortable, and we expect to change and adapt to suit local circumstances, but the megatrends point to changes to our fundamental models—a seismic shift that we cannot ignore.

The megatrends I would like to explore today are:

  • Changing Demographics
  • The Rise of the Individual
  • Sustainability

Changing Demographics

Higher life expectancy and falling birth rates are increasing the proportion of older people across the world—in 2012, 11% of the world’s population was aged 60 plus. By 2030, it is estimated to be 16%, and 2050, it will rise even higher to 22%. The scale and rate of global population ageing is quite staggering. In just over 30 years, over two billion people will be 60 or older. In other words, the whole world is getting older—but the good news is that, on average, we are also living longer, healthier lives.

A key contributing factor in population ageing is declining birth rates.

In the 1950s, 37 women out of every thousand were having babies; in the 1990s, it had dropped to 24.3, and by 2030, it is predicted to be as low as 16.

Because of falling birth rates there will never be more children in the world than there are today—as statistician Hans Rosling says, “The number of children is not growing any longer in the world. We are still debating peak oil, but we have definitely reached peak child.” This, too, is a staggering statistic.

Ninety percent of the global youth population will reside in developing countries. This presents a challenge: will it be possible to integrate large youth populations into saturated labour markets? Will these young people choose to stay, or will they seek work elsewhere?

What does this mean for science centres?

Through the Mechelen Declaration, science centres have made a commitment to ”engage even more effectively with local communities and increasingly diverse audiences”. Looking to the future, we will need to re-define our definition of the typical visitor—if indeed such a category exists.

Today most science centres welcome families and schoolchildren as their core audiences—to many we are still perceived as primarily fun factories for kids.

Given changing demographics, it is fair to assume that we could see a rise in the number of older visitors coming to our centres and a corresponding rise in older people as part of our workforce .

Audiences will be increasingly diverse. People are moving around the world more than ever before—sometimes willingly and sometimes unwillingly; sometimes they settle permanently in a particular country, and sometimes their stay is a temporary one.

Centre for LifeAs someone from the UK, I am acutely aware of the current refugee crisis in Europe. The surge in refugees has provoked a palette of reactions in public opinion, from unconditional solidarity to pure xenophobia. This slide is from my home city of Newcastle in northeast England—I’m pleased to say that the welcome group was based at the Centre for Life . If our science centres are to remain true to their mission, we need to seek effective ways to engage with refugees—wherever in the world they might be.

We are starting to do so. For example, the Stiftung Neanderthal Musuem in Germany is working on an exhibition on migration where the aim is to show that Europeans are all migrants. They are asking refugees to give guided tours and to tell their own stories of their way out of Africa and the prehistoric routes.

Again in Germany, the Deutsches Museum found that offering free entry to migrants was not enough. As their exhibitions director said: “How can you feel at ease and learn anything if you wander round on your own in a cultural institution whose codes and language you don’t understand?” Instead, the museum provided German lessons linked to an understanding of the country’s technological culture and way of life. It also catered for young refugees with low educational backgrounds offering workshops run by their own retired craftsmen who volunteered to share mechanical and technical knowledge.

And in Norway, a country which historically has not experienced an influx of migrants, the Norsk Teknisk Museum is using cutting edge techniques to confront the old but persistent notion of what race means.

These examples are encouraging. But it will require a step change in science centre thinking to accommodate such major shifts in demographics and increasingly diverse audiences.

The Rise of the Individual

Advances in global education and technology have helped empower individuals like never before. Today the global literacy rate is 84%, the status of women is improving, millions are being lifted out of poverty, and the internet provides a platform for everyone to be heard and to take action.

Seventy-five percent of the global population has access to a mobile phone. Ironically, in some countries more people have access to a phone than to a bank account, electricity, or clean water.

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If we look at Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, it tells us that people first meet their basic needs—food, shelter, water—and then go on to satisfy more advanced needs such as social networking and self-esteem.

In both the developed and developing world, it is estimated that incomes will grow considerably over the coming decades—60% of the world’s population will be middle class by 2030. It is worth noting that middle class is defined as earning between $10 and $100 per day. In Asia, over one billion people will transition out of poverty and into the middle income classes.

People will be able to look beyond the basic necessities of life—at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid—and search for higher level services and experiences, nearer the top.

As people become wealthier they spend more money on activities such as tourism, education, and entertainment. Indeed, tourism was one of the few areas of consumer spending that increased in the year after the 2009 global financial downturn, contributing to evidence that people are seeking experiences and not products.

And it’s not just generic experiences that the individual wants—it’s personalised experiences that acknowledge his or her specific preferences and needs.

The unbelievably rapid development in technology means that the world is becoming more and more connected. People, businesses, and governments are increasingly moving into the virtual world to deliver and access services, obtain information, perform transactions, shop, work, and interact with each other. Why bother going to a physical office every day if you can transact your business from a beach in Bali?

The statistics are mind boggling.

There were 360 million global internet users in 2000. By 2012, that number had jumped to 2.4 billion with over a billion of them added in a five year period, mainly from Asia. And 90% of the digital data in the world today was created in the last two years.

Information is available from numerous sources at the touch of a button every minute of every day. The individual can post his or her opinions—and a call to action—online whenever they wish. The individual has a voice like never before; we are all social commentators and reporters now.

What does this mean for science centres?

It means a lot!

Science centres are operating in a highly competitive world. We compete for leisure customers who are bombarded with choice.

We do not own the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) agenda. And there are many other players out there offering science experiences, some of which use incredibly sophisticated technology way beyond our budgets. We need to define what it is that we do better than any other organisation – and make it even better.

First and foremost, we provide an essentially social experience—people rarely come to science centres on their own—instead they come with another person or with a group.

Despite the high participation rates in sites like Facebook, there is still a preference for face to face interaction. It is unlikely that online platforms are able to provide strong, nurturing relationships. In a recent survey, 49% of American teenagers said they preferred face-to-face communication with their friends—as one of them said, ”It’s the only real way to be with each other.”

Technology is wonderful. It makes life easier. But there is a danger that it becomes an end in itself and not simply a tool to make engagement more effective. Science centres can and should use technology, but it should be applied in an intuitive and elegant way. We have moved from a 20th century world where technology was visible all around us to a world where technology has become intuitive is everywhere but is largely invisible. Technology is advancing, but the presence of technology is diminishing—I like to think that we are the master and it is our servant—at least that is how it should be.

Personalised content is becoming increasingly important. For the last decade or so, some centres have started to move away from providing all visitors with the same content. They have been using personalisation to connect audiences with content—and ultimately science. Undoubtedly, what people are interested in is themselves. Capturing the moment with a selfie stick and taking videos is routine visitor behaviour. The challenge for science centres is to go further and engage with visitors in ways that they cannot do at home, at work, or elsewhere. This brings us to the very heart of what science centres can do best—we are great at doing real and physical things which are personal to the individual.

It is no surprise that the maker movement is sweeping the world.

Is it a reaction against the digital arena? I don’t think that it is, but I do feel it is a particular response to it. People are keen to find out how things work, pulling them apart and putting them together again, seeing what happens when different processes are tried out, making and creating and ultimately producing something that is personal to them and, therefore, more likely to be treasured, remembered, and shared. From my experience, makers are very digitally aware people, but they use digital tools to augment the physical experience of making.

This curiosity driven, personal approach is being used in more and more science centres. In my own centre, we have moved towards open-ended exhibits, which do not have a right or a wrong answer. The focus is on the process of science and how individuals learn and build on that process.

If we ask the question: “What does it take to be a scientist is the modern world?” The obvious answers are deep knowledge of a discipline and mastery of the scientific method. But there are other key requirements such as the ability to think critically and solve problems, creatively and collaboratively. For generations, classes in STEM have been focused almost exclusively on building knowledge alone. A steady diet of lecture-based learning was designed to fill students up with facts and test their ability to memorise them. But that is changing, albeit slowly. Educationalists are waking up to the fact that creative thinking, problems solving, motivation, and persistence can and should be taught and fostered.

Science centres have a key role to play in this—and we should play to our strengths.


The earth has limited supplies of natural minerals, energy, water, and food resources that are essential for human survival and maintaining lifestyles. Many of these resources are being depleted at sometimes alarming rates and are driving a complex mix of unpredictable changes to the environment that are taxing the resilience of both natural and built systems.

The statistics are familiar and frightening:

With a warming of 2–3 degrees Celsius, the Amazon rainforest could dry up, irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet could occur, and up to 50% of species would be at risk of extinction.

Much in the natural world that humans value and depend upon is at risk of being lost forever. The actions taken by human beings in the coming decades will set the scene for global biodiversity over coming millennia. As U.S. President Barack Obama said, “Not only is climate change real, it’s here and its effects are going to rise to a frighteningly new global phenomenon: the man-made natural disaster.”

What does this mean for science centres?

This is an area where science centres have been extremely active—we have a great track record, but we need to do more.

All of the science centre networks participated in the COP21 climate conference last year in Paris where young people from South America, Europe, South Africa, India, and the United States presented their climate change plans to a panel of experts. Many more gathered in their science centres to engage with the topic in hugely imaginative ways. Before COP21, a similar exercise was undertaken by science centres in 2012 to maximise the potential of the Planet Under Pressure Conference where Austria’s First Lady Margrit Fisher spoke on behalf of the international science centre community.

She said: “Science, like music, is a global language that is spoken in 3,000 science centres and museums, actively engaging over 300 million people each year in over 90 countries.” It is sometimes worth reminding ourselves of these impressive statistics.

And looking ahead, we have an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate our impact on the global stage when we celebrate the very first International Science Center and Science Museum Day on November 10, 2016. This is an innovative partnership with UNESCO and ICOM (The International Council of Museums), but its success will depend on the active and enthusiastic involvement of every single science centre. I’ve been hearing about some of the great ideas that ASPAC members have been developing, and they sound incredibly exciting.

This initiative, which we hope will become a regular event in our calendar, will be an excellent precursor to the next Science Centre World Summit which takes place in November next year at the fantastic Miraikan centre in Tokyo.

So two important dates for your diary.

November 10 this year to celebrate the very first International Science Center and Science Museum Day, and November 14–17 next year for the World Science Centre Summit in Tokyo.

I have explored some really big issues today.

The world is always changing, but the pace of change is faster than ever before.

The effects of changing demographics, the rise of the individual, and the sustainability of our world will impact every single science centre—perhaps some more than others, but the effects will be felt by us all.

That is why science centres need more than ever to work collaboratively, to share knowledge, and to learn from each other. Our network organisations are incredibly important in providing us with a voice, with services, and with professional development for our field.

We need to hear that voice and hear it loudly.

I want you to make a noise and contribute to International Science Center and Science Museum Day on November 10.

And I want you be in Tokyo in November 2017 to take part in the World Science Centre Summit.