Sustainable Storytelling Lab: Introduction

Enjoy this awesome skull sculpture, The Storyteller, while I figure out what the SSL visual scheme will be!

This project has been germinating for a while, and you’d be correct in thinking it is very similar to the overall “Playable Comms” initiative. I’ve been told I have a strong brand. In this case, however, the comms aren’t only those that are playable—we want to look at narrative-based stories in a variety of media, including interactive media, prose, comics, film, journalism, documentary, and more.

The Sustainable Storytelling Lab (SSL) aims to analyse, create, and employ stories that effect positive behaviour change regarding the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. While some elements of these SDGs are technical in nature, almost all require adjustments to how we (from the broader public, to subject-matter specialists, to policy makers) think and act in our individual approaches to daily living. Addressing climate change, human ecological impact, community health, and sociocultural inequalities require action from every individual, informing how we interact with others, how we consume, how we travel, how we entertain ourselves, and how we vote and pressure those in positions of power to enact sustainable policies and practices.

The problem that arises, therefore, is: how can we effect positive attitude and behaviour changes across the range of human age, education, culture, language, religion, and orientation? As several of the SDGs and related issues, including climate change and disease outbreaks, are pressing in terms of time, we cannot depend on education structures to enlighten future generations and wait for them to act; we must also educate audiences outside formal education infrastructures, often with vested interests or cultural value systems that oppose elements necessary to realising the SDGs.

The SSL proposes to explore and evaluate storytelling as a method to reach these audiences on topics of global importance. Play and narrative are fundamental learning techniques stretching back before written culture and formal education; even when popular entertainment does not intend to teach, it nonetheless affects public knowledge and behaviour—see any story about untrained people who use their TV knowledge of CPR to save a loved one’s life. As science communication scholars have been advocating for entertainment media producers to include authentic science in their work, the converse carries merit: entertainment media with accurate and persuasive educational content can have positive benefits on audiences.

The SSL not only aims to create stories that communicate and educate on science and health topics, but to provide empirical measures of how effectively they do so. Though mass media has long been recognised as influential in delivering messages related to health, safety, and science, few systematic, empirical studies have been conducted to determine the direct efficacy of any given narrative type or technique.

The SSL comprises multiple teams, each addressing a topic supporting one or more UN SDGs and incorporating a non-academic partner. Each team brings together researchers, writers, designers and subject specialists, following a Lab protocol to conduct background and audience research, create and test multiple types of narrative communication works, and conduct controlled trials with the target audience designed to measure attitude and behaviour change. Comparative analyses of narrative efficacy and responses will be conducted across the range of projects, in order to evaluate the relative affordances and limitations of different forms of narrative for public communication. Results of the research will be communicated through academic publications, public talks, lay publications, and consultations with key stakeholders including those specialising in public communications, public education, and public campaigns.

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