Stories of change are powerful

Here are some paragraphs from an article I’ve just put together for DEFRA’s (the UK government’s Dept. for Environment) sustainable development newsletter that explains the long-term multi-media environmental change diary project Creative Climate we’re building at the Open University.

Stories of change are powerful – Introducing the Creative Climate project

Question: what issue is: the biggest driver of technological innovation? fuelling the most compelling research? catalyst of new ethical and interfaith debates? inspiring leading work in design?

Answer: global environmental change. Climate change, biodiversity loss, urbanisation and resource depletion are mobilising some of the most creative enterprises in human history. So why doesn’t it feel like that? Rather this complex bundle of issues seems to sit under a large, dark, de-motivating cloud.

Creative Climate is a long-term web diary project that lets the sun in (http://www.creativeclimate.org). It takes a new approach that aims to inform, motivate and network people through narratives of change. Curated by the Open University, and working in close partnership with the BBC, the project aims to reframe these issues in terms of dynamic and diverse human stories that people want to be part of. Working with the BBC we’ve commissioned TV and radio documentaries and launched a film competition for top student filmmaking talent. As for the online diaries, twice a year we’ll prompt a diverse mix of individuals and institutions to update a diary that gives an account of how they understanding and are acting on these issues. This mix of professionally produced material and user-generated content will grow into an unparalleled online resource. We offer supporting material for visitors to the site, including free learning materials and the broadcast documentaries.

We have designed the project with an eye on social science research that shows that ‘route 1’ communications haven’t worked. While the styles have varied, many past approaches, whether from government, researchers or NGOs have been variations on: ‘tell them it’s a fact – tell them its scary – tell them again’. There is now plenty of evidence that this kind of messaging only carries things so far, and creates a few problems of its own. These problems include green fatigue and the odd exaggerated or misquoted ‘fact’ becoming hostage to contrarian bloggers. A substantial (and currently growing) slice of the population sense that they’re being bullied by woe betiding do-gooders.

It is a difficult balance to strike. Creative Climate doesn’t mean to suggest that these issues aren’t serious and urgent… But communications, learning and public engagement initiatives have tended to chase after short-term impacts – whether they emphasise the immediacy of problems or trumpet quick fix ‘solutions’…

We’re fascinated by the potential of Internet based media to hold stories that can support debate and change. One important inspiration is the work of the Mass Observation project in the 1930s and 1940s. They sought to generate an ‘anthropology of ourselves’ with lay observers across Britain giving accounts of everyday life. Writers, filmmakers and photographers developed new forms of documentary to extend the project. The Creative Climate project could be said to have arisen out of asking: what the Mass Observation people would have made of the web as a medium, and how would they have explored global environmental issues and our responses to them?…

The project is experimental in terms of its scope, its approach to environmental communications and in its use of media. We know that we will have to learn and change with the fast moving media that the project inhabits… We welcome collaboration and actively encourage people to use the evolving platform in ways that serve to support their own work. Please get in touch with me with any queries or comments you have at j.h.smith(AT)open.ac.uk or join the mailing list by emailing obu-creative-climate(AT)open.ac.uk and we will contact you at-most four times a year with updates on the project, including an invitation to update your own diary every six months.

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