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Dialogue between Kat Borlongan and Chance Coughenour

50 Minds for the Next 50. Imagining Heritage in the Digital Dimension Session

Kat Borlongan

Technology entrepreneur and Board Member, European Innovation Council

Chance Coughenour

Digital archaeologist and Head of Preservation at Google Arts & Culture

Vision for the Next 50

In the Next 50… Heritage in the digital dimension is built on the basis of digital accessibility and a balanced representation of heritage.

In the Next 50… Heritage sites are digitally recreated with the help of innovative technologies as well as in close communication with local and international experts.


Kat Borlongan and Chance Coughenour discussed digital innovation and inclusivity. As thinkers, they explored the interconnection between technologies and heritage, agreeing that an inclusive digital environment is fundamental to promote and share heritage values. Kat applied her experience in developing diverse tech ecosystems to envision heritage in the digital dimension, which requires two pillars: digital accessibility and a balanced representation of heritage. Coughenour explained how technologies, from photography to 3D, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning, have gradually changed the field of digital archaeology. He emphasized the importance of communication with local and international experts in order to address ethical concerns when digitally recreating heritage.


Could you explain what is digital archaeology and why it is so important today?

Digital archaeology is simply the next stage in the evolution of archaeology over the last 100–250 years. It focuses on using digital technology in ways that was not accessible or even available just 10, 15, 20 years ago. Digital archaeology can create 3D models of archaeology sites, digitizing objects using 3D laser scanning and making them publicly available online. Machine learning will also help process, synthesize and record data that would otherwise take an army of archaeologists to do, interpreting that information and making it more accessible.

So this is like a shift from paper news to digital news, or is it more groundbreaking? I discovered that 10 years ago you were still a student at the University of Stuttgart and a lot has happened in 10 years, such as AI, machine learning, but also virtual reality (VR), video games, the metaverse. How has tech really changed the field of digital archaeology and are we looking at incremental changes or something that is really game-changing for everyone?

I think it is incremental, but then there are moments when the technology has gone to the next level by allowing people to visualize an archaeological site deep in the past, in a virtual kind of metaverse, where they enter a world that they could not previously.

From an incremental perspective, taking photographs of cultural heritage and archaeological sites has really changed the world. Photography was invented in France about 100 years ago. It gave people the ability to see an object or building rather than a painter’s subjective visual representation of it. Fast forward to five years ago and you could put your phone into so-called Google Cardboards to instantly explore a new location virtually. That was one stage. Today, VR, augmented reality (AR) and extended reality (XR) are exciting ways that people can do archaeological work. They don't need to be tied to the field nor transport objects anywhere. They can scan an object and it can stay in the country or museum. They can then 3D print it in the lab, even before they return home, producing actual copies of the objects. It is really entering the digital realm of the ancient past.

On the topic of digital heritage and conservation and archaeology, I've looked into some of the tech initiatives you've undertaken over the years and your work for the French Government. Having worked in creating inclusive and diverse tech ecosystems in France, but not only in France, in Europe and globally, how would you apply this vision for digital heritage conservation, which is such an important topic?

I was the director of a government start-up initiative called La French Tech. It is actually pretty small. People usually know each other. Most went to school together or grew up in the same cities. At the time I started, there was this question of experiencing the bubble as a policy-maker and as part of a bigger ecosystem, and what would be our vision.

There’s always incredible talent that we’re not accessing because the barriers to entry are so high. Those barriers can be networks or training, but they can also be psychological, or social barriers if seen from a social justice perspective.

We could also look at the situation from a macroeconomic perspective as seen by the Ministry of Economy, specifically during the COVID crisis. In order for La French Tech to succeed, we've needed the best founders and professional entrepreneurs from everywhere.

So I built this programme that actively sought out 250 of the best, from refugee backgrounds, rural areas of France, and from low-income neighbourhoods. The idea was to mimic the kinds of advantages we have in our company, a company that started with €40,000, as well as incubator accelerators, access to a network of people curated by an ecosystem of investors.

The question was how to apply this to digital heritage conservation. The advantage we had was that we're in the digital build phase. We have an opportunity to build inclusively as part of the design. It is about two things: conceptual accessibility and digital accessibility.

Conceptual accessibility is part of representation. As someone who grew up in a country outside the European Union, which was colonized before it was even created, knowledge of our heritage came from archives of colonizers, and so nothing was ever really ours. So there's a lot to say about making sure that – as we change into the time capsule – heritage is represented in a balanced way in the media.

As regards digital accessibility, it's a very bleak and painful topic as internet is not accessible to people with disabilities. If you have a visual or hearing impairment, you cannot access most of the internet either personally or professionally. So these two aspects will hopefully be dealt with.

Yes, I absolutely agree. I've actually noticed this even though I'm not visually impaired. But there were some recently launched projects, for example, by Google Arts & Culture, which actually made an audio version of a website. We were going to release an online museum exhibition about this curated visual art. But we really need to be thinking more about making the internet more accessible, and not only in 40, 50 or 80 different languages but for people with disabilities, and creating an audio version of the visual experience is a step towards achieving that.

What are some of the other ethical concerns when recreating heritage in the digital sphere? I'm guessing inclusivity is one of them, but what are the others?

I've met with this issue at different points in my career, but one that stands out is my work in Mosul. I've never been to Mosul, but we worked with people, tourists, who had taken photographs of heritage sites and objects that were destroyed by Daesh in Iraq and Syria. We created a volunteer initiative that was called Recreate, an online volunteer Open Source Initiative, and ensured the ethical ramifications of recreating lost heritage that is global heritage, which we all share. We got in contact with museum curators and the Mosul Museum that hadn't been open for a very long time. They helped create the descriptions, the metadata, and they shared the information with us in order to make the 3D reconstructions of the lost heritage., Although it has been destroyed physically, we now have a digital version of the heritage. But we needed descriptions in English and French by people who are experts in their fields. We actually created 3D prints, which were sent back to Mosul and put on display in Mosul for the first exhibition as a celebration following the occupation of Daesh. This was also done with local artists who displayed their artwork. This example worked well, but there are also very challenging situations that can arise. But communication with local and international experts is important.

It sounds a little scary because you have a lot of power. There are not many organizations like yours that can actually engage in terms of the quality scale of digital heritage. But what are some of the ethical questions that you ask yourself, or what failsafe measures are in place to ensure that you are always striving to be ethical?

This was absolutely new terrain for us. We reached out to the Iraqi Embassy in Germany explaining the Open Source Initiative. It was getting a lot of press attention, which we needed as people would then donate their photographs, and it worked out really well. We asked other archaeologists whether we could do this and in fact no-one had actually tried to do this before. The Iraqi Government, the Minister of Culture, and the curator of the Mosul Museum were happy with the way this was done. I think it's about communicating, especially when entering new terrain that hasn't been established before. But I understand that there are other examples that are very challenging from an ethical perspective.

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Explore other sessions

Five dialogue sessions covering five themes take place in 2022, each joined by thinkers in paired dialogue from diverse regions. The interdisciplinary dialogues inspire new visions for the next 50 years of World Heritage.

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Imagining Heritage in the Digital Dimension
Heritage in the post-COVID World
Sustainable Tourism & Sustainable Heritage
Towards a Balanced Representation of World Heritage Sites