Stories of Change: arts and social sciences support energy transitions


Feast on the Bridge, London, Tim Mitchell 2010

This post outlines a new research project I’m heading up, funded by the AHRC. It’ll run for the next three years. The post will appear in a couple of newsletters and blogs here and there. Its a great team and we all feel the project has really interesting potential. Do email if you want to keep in touch with its development.

A new three-year research project led by The Open University is set to challenge the terms of public debates about energy issues. “Stories of Change: Exploring energy and community in the past, present and future” has received nearly £1.5million in funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to examine areas of conflict, make space for more diverse voices and support a more open public conversation about change. The project will explore energy transformations of the past, present and future through an innovative mix of social science and humanities research, digital storytelling, short films, and other creative work. It will also be generating a publicly accessible collection of ‘stories of change’.

Societies the world over are faced with pressing shared challenges about future energy choices, particularly in relation to climate change. At the heart of the UK Government’s Climate Change Act of 2008 is a cross-party commitment to cutting carbon emissions. Polling points to wide acceptance that actions will be required to reduce demand and cope with future environmental hazards. But new developments and measures to manage or reduce demand can generate conflict. Research shows that many people feel disengaged from or even hostile towards the changes needed to meet the UK’s carbon reduction targets. Public and political conversations about energy have stalled and we aim to return some momentum by looking in a new way at its past, present and future. Our project seeks to make space to work through the areas of conflict and identify elements of a collective vision. One of the dominant features of current energy debates is that it is difficult for society to imagine a system that isn’t fossil fuel based. Amongst other things we want to remind people that relations between social and energy systems have been very dynamic in the past. We are approaching this by sketching out these historical transformations, but also by drawing on the lively imaginings of possible futures that appear in everything from the latest sci-fi to recent manifestos, to the work of pamphleteers of the more distant past.

Community is an important term in our work, and we are exploring energy transitions in three contexts via three ‘Stories’. ‘Industry Story: Future Works’ is rooted in the English midlands, and seeks to unearth fresh accounts of the long relationship between energy, industrial making and landscape, and explore where it might go next. ‘Everyday Story: Life Cycles’ engages with the role that energy resources have played in shaping communities and everyday life in south Wales, from migration, for example from within Wales and as far as Somalia to work with coal, to new movements of people and things that support one of the UK’s largest new wind arrays. ‘Policy Story: Demanding Times’ gathers and connects the mix of communities of interest around energy policy at local, national and international levels, and generates new accounts of energy policy and politics past, present and future.

If you want to explore the complexities of the past, present and future of energy transitions an interdisciplinary approach is vital. Hence the team includes architects from the University of Sheffield, leading digital storytelling experts from the University of South Wales, geographers from Birmingham University and the Open University, literature specialists based at the University of Bath and a historian from the University of Exeter. The team also includes leading IT researchers who will support meaning-making across the mass of material we are gathering via new digital tools. The arts organisations TippingPoint and Visiting Arts have also joined the team to help build strong partnerships with creative practitioners. The project is rooted in a body of ambitious partnerships, including government departments, business, NGOs, museums and community groups. Creative partners include a mix of poets, puppeteers and other theatre makers, filmmakers, writers and artists. All of the creative partners involved are experienced in helping to give voice to people and/or things that are often unheard.

We are working with stories because they offer a popular and engaging route into thinking about the past and present and imagining possible futures, and also because stories, narratives and narration are concepts that people from a range of academic and creative disciplines can gather around. History, digital storytelling, fictional narratives, and scenarios of the future all communicate different ideas about the consequences of change for everyday life, and explain different perspectives and attitudes towards change. But in the development phase of the project we have been surprised to find how much the more technical and policy-oriented communities welcome the idea of looking at their concerns through the lens of stories. To put in simply: we all love to listen to and tell stories.

The project, and its interest in stories, is in part inspired by the example of the Mass Observation movement’s gathering of accounts of everyday life in the UK, above all in the 1930s and 1940s. Their work combined a desire to give ordinary people a voice, radical innovations in social research and bold new ideas about media and the arts. It has inspired our three objectives. First, we want to listen to and give a platform to more diverse, often unheard, voices, including voices of the past and future, and to try to find ways to give voice to the interests of the non-human world. Second we want to mobilise change through humanities and social science research and the arts, and demonstrate that they are much more than a ‘nice to have’, but rather provide essential means for deliberating and acting on challenging new knowledge such as the natural science of climate change. Thirdly we aim to innovate in our use of digital media with our Stories of Change online platform. The platform will hold hundreds of individual pieces of content, ranging from proto-industrial conflicts over the rights to use rivers for power prior to the industrial revolution that have been identified by our historian, through to nature writing across the centuries, and science fiction depictions of future energy utopias and dystopias, gathered by our literature specialists. It’ll also hold excerpts from major energy research and policy documents, as well as interviews with key players. Next to them will be digital stories told by communities that have been formed by their relationships with energy production. We will hold all of that material on an intuitive and approachable platform, but also make it available as linked open data so that others can do their own work with it.
But we will be adding whole new layers of meaning through the stories we decide to tell. Some of these are stories we will curate and present, in collaboration with our arts and design colleagues. But we will also equip any user of the site to create their own journeys through the content, and share them with others. We think that this feature will be particularly useful to teachers and learners engaging with energy and environment issues at higher school and university levels, as well as lifelong learners.

The academic team is also developing academic articles and a book, policy briefs and popular materials. The communities, our creative partners and the research team are also collaborating to produce a mix of creative writing, songs, short films, performances and museum and festival shows. In order to scale up the impact of the work we are doing we will also be looking for media collaborations. We want to catalyse new approaches in mainstream media storytelling about environment, society and energy. We want to help them to move on from stale, incomplete representations of conflicts or static accounts of energy systems. It is always hard for researchers to get heard, or to maintain the integrity of their work when they engage with the media, but early interest, ranging from news journalists to comedy producers, suggests we may be onto something with our ‘stories of change’ approach.

Although we don’t hold our own position on what energy futures to pursue we do take our lead from the incredibly ambitious de-carbonisation targets found in the Climate Change Act and the work of the institutions created around it. We want to create greater awareness amongst policy makers of the range of responses to and ideas about low carbon transitions, but also to support them by pointing to the past and present evidence of capacity for energy system change. The work will be rooted in the kind of rich account of the diversity and dynamism of humanity’s life with energy that an interdisciplinary mix of history, literature, design, arts and geography can provide. One of the distinctive contributions we want to make is to remind the policy community, the media, and wider society that however high the obstacles may seem to be, change isn’t just possible, it is inevitable. That in turn invites the question ‘what kind of change do you want?’  

Dr Joe Smith is lead researcher on the Stories of Change project and Senior Lecturer in Environment at The Open University. If you want to find out about or engage with the project please email


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