OUR world is changing – the poor are getting poorer, the rich are getting richer, technology is on control of our lives – but is art adapting to reflecting this changing world? Here, Simon Sharkey of the National Theatre of Scotland, explains why Scotland, with its history of the enlightenment, industry and leftwing politics, is the perfect place for ordinary people to use art it to tell their stories and change the future

I was working in Motherwell when they pulled down the Ravenscraig Steelworks towers. I still have their specific shade of blue emblazoned on my mind. It was there, and then it was gone. This was a momentous occasion in the midst of the Thatcher era. The communities were devastated and the future was bleak. It was, however, nothing new to me. As I grew up I had witnessed the decommissioning of the Clyde shipyards, listened to Jimmy Reid address thousands of shipyard workers, watched the miners strikes, lived through the blackouts and seen the lives of workers all over Scotland torn apart. A whole generation of skilled workers and labourers retired to their sheds and waited for the future to consume them. Three-hundred years of industrial evolution were coming to an end. I didn’t realise it then, but I was living through the dawn of a new era.

Twenty-six years on from Ravenscraig and the industrial shift in Motherwell, I am returning to what is now known as North Lanarkshire to make a show called “SHIFT.” The show is about how the pace of social change has shaped our outlook and is defining all our futures.

As Associate Director at the National Theatre of Scotland and a theatre-maker, I am in the enviable position of being able to travel Scotland and internationally, asking people to share their stories with me. These stories, with the involvement of the storytellers, I turn into theatre productions, often staged in impactful, unusual locations, which have a special resonance to the audiences that come to see them. These productions are created by professional actors, and a team of creative designers, who work alongside a large cast made up of community members.

Our community cast from North Lanarkshire are one-hundred strong. They will be walking out onto a large-scale industrial set, in the grounds of Summerlee Museum of Scottish Industrial Life, later this month to tell the stories of the many ‘shifts’ put in by the workers who built our world. Told through, song, poetry, prose and video, sound and light, SHIFT audiences will get to meet the ordinary people and the extraordinary leaders who shaped and tested our society through hard graft.

Though this is a very local story, it resonates on a universal scale, beyond the lives of the extraordinary people who shaped this community and this country’s industrial past. In our dialogue with the people of North Lanarkshire we realised we had to adequately explain the pace of change that communities like this have gone through, and what it means for their future. We had to look further, beyond North Lanarkshire and even Scotland to put this story into its proper context.

Ten years ago, in Boston, I met a futurologist who had written a book called “The Shift Age.” David Houle opened my eyes to an historical and future perspective that was at once terrifying and exhilarating. He mapped the speed of change from our hunter gatherer period, through the agricultural revolution to the industrial then technological revolutions. He used Adam Smith and John Knox as reference points to demonstrate how capitalism and the work ethic of the American citizen had been constructed, but also how the current economic political system and people’s working lives were going to change.

Society is about to leave behind the information age, an era which marked a shift from our reliance on traditional industry, to an economy based on information technology. The end of that era is now upon us and, according to David Houle, we are now entering The Shift Age; an age characterized by constant change where, through the power of choice and a new interconnectedness, people will be more in control of their futures than ever before.

We are witnessing unprecedented personal, political, economic, ecological and social change that is manifesting itself in behaviours and structures that are the foundations for our new world order. You can see it on a daily basis. Ask yourself how dependent you are on your smart phone, or how much time you or your children spend in front of a screen of some sort. How much faith and trust do you put in an algorithm to guide you through a map or a purchase compared to the faith you put in the old religions or knowledge of others? It is astonishing to think that the iPhone is only ten years old and that there are now over five-billion mobile phone users in the world today. It is equally astonishing to think that the first oil from the North Sea was switched on in 1975 and is now being decommissioned. We are bombarded by predictions of our future: electric cars, artificial intelligence replacing 48 per cent of our jobs, living until we are 150 years old, free fuel, the death of democracy, the end of capitalism, ecological catastrophe, drone deliveries and space tourism. We have become motionless in the headlamps of progress, sleeping through the dawn of this new era, and we need to catch up.

When I went to study at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in 1980, 7:84 [the left-wing Scottish theatre company] were touring The Cheviot, the Stag and The Black Black Oil. Wildcat Theatre had just been formed, the Scottish Theatre Company were making shows about Jamie The Saxt, The Three Estaites, and Wallace. The message was explicitly Marxist, the music was folk and rock, and the artists were unashamedly reaching out to the masses to give them a voice in the face of what has been called a paradigm shift: the inevitable move from one political era to another.

Those years were thrilling and formative, but looking back, it was already too late. The revolution had already begun and the momentum of the march towards the new world was unstoppable. Back in the 1980s, seven per cent of the population owned 84 per cent of the wealth and controlled everything. We are now living in a world where that seven per cent has become one per cent.

I had my first glimpse of this new world whilst working in Singapore with the Necessary Stage Company. During my visits my eyes were opened up to a global village driven by consumerism, gadgetry and a 24/7 culture lived through mobile connectivity. China was modelling its future through its influence in Singapore. China is now the second largest economy in the world. Once again this made a lasting impression upon me as I witnessed ordinary people create bold works of theatre and art that defied the dictatorship and spoke truth to power, sometimes at great personal cost. As with what I had witnessed in Scotland in the 80’s, the voices of the people were being drowned by the noise of the economic boom and the din and clatter of globalization.

When I took up residence in Egypt’s Alexandria library as part of a NESTA international cultural leadership programme, I got to sit with artists and thinkers from across the Middle East and North African Countries. The library was a space where the usual rules on censorship were relaxed in order to invite the world in for a conversation about a new Mediterranean future. What struck me here was how quickly ideas took root through the shisha cafes where a network of thinkers and doers shaped the culture. What gave the voices impetus was the mobile phone. Street hawkers rented their Nokias by the minute and word spread anonymously and quickly between Alexandria and Cairo. I didn’t recognise it at the time but the foundations for the Arab spring were being laid right here. What I felt was a wind of change, and I couldn’t have imagined how quickly that wind grew to be a storm.

In Port Glasgow and in Fife I have worked with communities that had been destroyed by the de-industrialisation of Scotland. I have witnessed how dependency on work has shaped our society. I have wondered whatever came of the movements, led by humanitarians like Robert Owen, who alleviated the impact of the Industrial Revolution on workers lives with educational philanthropy. What has happened to the concept of the nobility of the worker, and how did our labour become a commodity?

In Jamaica and in Brazil I worked alongside some of the poorest people on earth living in modern democracies. I witnessed the polarisation of wealth and politics. I saw the trickle-down of the Shift Age at large. I saw humanity being turned in to data, people managed by algorithms while struggling to eke out a living from the meagre resources around them. I saw the legacy of the empire and how a new one was being built through the monopolies of interconnectivity. I saw how dreams are sold for profit and how people are betrayed.

I travelled to Philadelphia with a group of Scottish artists to visit People’s Light Theatre Company. We picked up the conversation about Smith and Knox and the influence that the Scottish Enlightenment left on the world. It was in Philadelphia that two Scots signed the Declaration of Independence. We explored working class communities and industrial labour and how immigrant populations have shaped a city’s economic and cultural landscape.

Many authors are grappling with work and modernity, looking at areas such as how emotional feeling has become commercialised in Arlie Russel Hochschild’s The Managed Heart. Joanne B Cuilla explodes our notions of work by asking questions in her book The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work, like; “When you are on your deathbed, will you wish you had spent more time at the office?”. Mark Stevenson, currently the National Theatre of Scotland’s Futurist in Residence, finds the innovators who are adapting to this shift and making the world a better place, in his book We Do Things Differently. I also read screeds of blogs and interviewed hundreds of people about their work and lives. I was looking for ways to wake us from our sleepwalk.

Linda Gratton from the London Business School, in her inspired management book The Shift, gave me hope for the future. Her argument offers us two futures: a crafted future or a default future. In the crafted future we will have the vision and resources to manage ‘the Shift’. In the default future, she argues, we will shift inexorably towards crisis after crisis and exhaust all our systems and resources. She asks, are we capable of moving from a consumer to a creative society?

This prompted me to ask whether we are we capable of finding new ways of celebrating our diversity and individuality, of sheltering, feeding, surviving and sharing. I was determined to take all that I had learned and seek answers from the people of Motherwell, Airdrie, Wishaw, Bellshill, Coatbridge and Cumbernauld. I returned to the site of Ravenscraig, and from there reached out across North Lanarkshire. It was here that the pits were sunk and the iron mills took hold to build our place in the world, and it is here that they are reshaping a new sense of place and identity. It is here that they are crafting a future.

To understand our future we need to know our past. We asked the people of North Lanarkshire to tell us about their life and work, their hopes and fears for the future. They were fearful, but at the same time hopeful that a future can be crafted and created. As part of the Shift project we have young people making their own media broadcasts for online platforms, youth theatre groups exploring “future literacy”, and how the use of technology and the power of the collective can shape their future. Audio installations have been set up across the region, and shared online, so that the community can listen to each other’s voices. Groups of people from all walks of life are turning up to rehearsals to make a piece of theatre that will, we hope, not be too late to shape how we craft our future. They are the 99 per cent, their stories and their voices will help us reflect on the past and project it into a future that we can shape.

On the gates of the Summerlee Museum, where Shift will be performed, there is an inscription in steel. It says: “The past we inherit the future we build.” We hope people will join us and begin to help shape our connected and creative future.

Shift will be performed at Summerlee Museum of Scottish Industrial Life from 29 March to 1 April 2018. For more information please visit nationaltheatrescotland.com

Simon Sharkey is an Associate Director of National Theatre of Scotland. His previous work includes Home Away, Granite, To Begin, The Tin Forest, Jump, Extreme, and 99 … 100.