Adaptive Storytelling: An In-Depth Look at 4 Social Innovation Projects

In other posts, I’ve talked a bit about adaptive storytelling and how we can think beyond ‘content’ or ‘engagement’ or ‘conversion’ by considering stories as enriched experiences that sustain our interests for things that are meaningful and purposeful.

As such, I thought I would share a few projects I’m working on with some very talented people as a means to show how we can apply these innovations to create real, sustainable change in the world.

“Narrative is the structure, story is the form.”

I’ve borrowed this quote from my friend Stephen Dinehart to establish that narratives already exist everywhere in nature, to include the myriad aspects of commerce and culture. Think of them as overarching themes and patterns that emerge through specific stories or bits of information that are exchanged through the context of experience, over time.

There are environmental narratives, presidential narratives, war narratives, peace narratives, scientific narratives, secular narratives, brand narratives, and all sorts of ongoing themes tied to mythos and ethos that have existed for centuries. The key is in extracting them and cultivating them to give people a better understanding of why they exist in the world, and the roles they might play in shaping it. John Hagel has elegantly described the heightened relevance of narrative in culture and business, and other friends such as Lina Srivastava, Lance Weiler and Brian Clark have been exploring with multi-modal narratives across non-profit and commercial domains for years.

We are all storytellers.

You might think of stories themselves as extensions of our individual and collective conscience; they not only provide the connective layers for understanding the way we see things, but for contextualizing them. Stories also allow us to share data as a social currency. More on that in a moment.

In the work I do, I tend to think of applied uses of stories, or storytelling, in three primary modalities which are not mutually exclusive:

* Dialogic

* Immersive

* Participatory

Dialogic stories are thought- and action-directed, and usually connect to other works and other authors; this is how narratives can evolve over specific periods of time. Immersive stories tend to operate through specific experiences that can be found off- or online, or across multiple domains. Participatory stories bring people into an experience and give them opportunities to shape dialogue or storylines, and can create a ‘meta-narrative’ that bridges various themes together in an inspiring, cohesive manner.

As of late, we’ve significantly advanced our uses of participatory constructs to help solve big business, brand and civic problems. Further, we’ve used all of these mechanisms to test products and services, experiment with new business and market models, as well as open up stakeholder appetites for various forms of innovation.

“Algren” (dialogic storytelling)

This is a project that started in late 2010 with my sister, Gail Sonnenfeld, and Michael Caplan, a writer/director and social activist.

Nelson Algren was a very muscular, iconoclastic, counter-culture writer (and infrequent pugilist) who influenced a wide range of popular and alternative artists including Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Art Shay, Philip Kaufman, Johnny Depp, David Mamet, Russell Banks, Kurt Vonnegut, John Sayles, Richard Wright, Joe Meno, Wayne Kramer, Bill Savage, Rick Kogan, Billy Corgan and William Friedkin.

Algren was the National Book Award-winning author of The Man With the Golden Arm and A Walk on the Wild Side, who moved with his family from Detroit to Chicago during his formative youth. His centerpiece effort, Chicago, City on the Make, was a scathing essay that outraged the city’s boosters but beautifully presented the back alleys of the town, its dispossessed, its corrupt politicians and its swindlers. Algren was probably most infamous for being the jilted lover of feminist icon Simone de Beauvoir as portrayed in her book, The Mandarins. Much in the same way that Simone rejected him by refusing to leave Jean-Paul Sartre (the great philosopher and writer), Algren expressed considerable disdain towards Hollywood. He scorned the film industry after money battles with Otto Preminger regarding The Man with the Golden Arm, and bristled at Frank Sinatra in the role of Frankie Machine.

An early interest in both poetry and sociology led him to write eloquently and in a unique journalistic cadence about the underclass — criminals, prostitutes, wrestlers, and addicts — whom Algren felt represented the true Midwest of 20th-century America. And in the true spirit of a tortured soul, Algren had his own run-ins with the law… Perhaps the artist imitating the life he so often wrote about and admired.

What’s intriguing about Algren as a reformist archetype is the unbridled passion and empathy he expresses for the dispossessed in his work — a wide swath of people, who for various reasons, have fallen out of the good graces of society and have sought other forms of existential self-worth. If you look at the sweeping socioeconomic challenges we face in the America of today, Algren’s stories transcend those political and cultural narratives we find among the brokedown palaces of Detroit, New Orleans, Chicago, Topeka and East Camden, and they offer us, as readers and thinkers, new opportunities to explore our humanity on terms that are more evocative than clinical or judgmental.

The core Algren documentary tells his personal story in 13 chapters, and offer up extensions of a redemption narrative that can live as artist renditions of his life in gallery exhibitions, physical installations, poetry readings and musical experiments, episodic and webisodic vehicles (film, TV, online and/or otherwise), and perhaps even social games and cognitive learning tools. Rather than telling the standard biography from birth to death, we will portray Algren through his interests and the people he has influenced; from boxing and horse racing, to the women in his life and his love for the world of art and literature — elements we hope can also translate into powerful philanthropic, educational and institutional offerings. The data pieces will explore how related stories can evolve through deepened audience feedback, and journalistic methods for developing ‘side narratives’ via blog editorials and print exposés.

Photographer Art Shay’s portrayal of Nelson Algren’s “Eternal Chicago” is one of a few physical and virtual installations that explore the dispossessed and reformist narrative with depth and diversity…

“Wuxia the Fox” (immersive/participatory storytelling)

This is the brainchild of my good friend Jonathan Belisle, a French-Canadian polymath and ‘business poet’ who has architected an amazing storyworld. Our friend and executive producer Vincent Routhier of SAGA craftily spearheaded a successful Kickstarter campaign that invites parents and kids to connect with nature, reinvent bedtime stories, explore their dreams and introduce them to the poetic potential of technology.

Starting as an iPad app, the Wuxia narrative platform is more than a game or a software program: it is an exact replica of the antihero, Tonalli, discovered by explorer archetypes Oremia and Wuxia. It is the secret passage that allows young readers to enter the world of Wuxia the Fox and join the two heroes in their quest for meaning in a world that has lost its imagination.

Like Tonalli, the app functions as a mysterious musical instrument with magical powers, opening the way to new stories and interactive elements such as:

  • Different soundtracks and sound effects that react to specific words or the rhythm and tone of the voice telling the story
  • “Forgotten” sounds of nature and symbols associated with them
  • New audiovisual scenes activated by combinations of specific sounds and gestures
  • An Augmented Reality Storytelling Engine that displays complementary interactive audio-visual elements above the book when using the iPad rear camera and physical objects (Masks, Printed Symbols in the Illustrated Book, Street Signs-Graffiti, Wood Tiles)
  • Icons, musical instruments and audiovisual extras that appear in the iPad app when the storyteller wears a mask

What’s exciting about this project is its potential as an educational tool for parents and their children that embraces a unique pedagogical approach through a dream narrative. This will explore a mentor-learner relationship (rather than just teacher-student), and inspire parents and children to use technology in a way that is both mystical and alchemic. One central goal with this is to use the data that is shared amongst families and communities to better understand how haptics and sensorial components can enhance the capacities for creative development, knowledge sharing and generational wisdom.

“IoTheatre” (immersive/participatory storytelling)

This is another initiative I am working on with Jonathan, Vincent and John Havens of The Happathon Project that we describe as a “storytelling engine for programmable environments”.

Influenced by previous work in the Montreal and Quebec City areas, IoTheatre merges the potential of people + technology in physical environments (the oft-spoken about ‘Internet of Things’) with the coordinated experience design of interactive storytelling in public spaces. In short, it’s a platform connecting people to each other and people to products through stories that are engaging, opt-in and non-intrusive.

Considering that cities and retail outlets have infrastructures with WiFi connections and physical artifacts such as phone booths, and the fact that people can readily access important socioeconomic issues through social media, there is a huge opportunity to harness emerging technology without having to bombard people with overt messaging and constant product upsells. Incorporating wearable sensors that link to a citizen’s physical, biometric and mood-based data, we can lever physical interactions to provide real-time information that offers immediate benefits to tourists, citizens, businesses and cities alike.

As important, it is a means for people to get in better touch with their well-being and self-awareness, much of which is achieved through the use of data as a control mechanism that monitors and supports daily activities tied to fitness, weight management and nutrition — a version of what is commonly described as the Quantitative Self. Even more exciting are the ways we can reinvent econometric modeling with this data, as well as open up public perceptions of privacy and consensual data management.

We will release more details in the coming weeks on how we are actually designing these interactive experiences through select pilots, as well as how narratives can break down cultural mores and enable people to relate better to themselves and each other, at scale. Stay tuned.

“The Hero’s Journey of Open Design” (participatory storytelling)

For years, agile product development has used cultural narratives as proxies to better connect with customers and develop brand utility; web, product and experience designers literally use ‘stories’ to describe product, service, business, and of course, brand functions. What’s changing quite a lot is our relationship to information, and customer archetypes reveal many dimensions of how those elements are interdependent.

With people truly at the center of the design process, I started experimenting several years ago with different ways to solve complex or ‘wicked’ problems using open data, storytelling and experiential design techniques. Even more recently, I’ve had the good fortune of teaming up with friends and social innovation visionaries Ferananda Ibarra and Jean-Francois Noubel in applying those techniques as an emerging science sometimes described as group or collective intelligence. This intelligence can be levered to not only solve complex problems very quickly and quite seamlessly, but it can also identify and take advantage of new market opportunities. As well, it gives us tremendous purview into how industries can be reinvented and brands can be redefined.

As just one example, late last year we convened in the south of France (Grasse) to reinvent the perfume/beauty industry with all representative stakeholders in the value chain. One of the most important things I’ve been learning from Ferananda and Jean-Francois is how to design creative spaces for stakeholders, and how to guide their interactions through self-empowerment. In corporate and innovation circles, the empathic and imaginative evolution of self tends to be a very small factor (if at all) in the process of developing ideas and creating solutions that can go to market. Storytelling naturally opens up those areas of the mind and heart that allow people to explore new territories and discover the ‘unknown unknowns’.

Part of our experiential design brought conversational data from the web into the physical space, coordinating a relationship between the ‘outside’ and the ‘inside’ information (in essence, making the ‘big data’ accessible, relevant and collaborative). Another very important aspect was making participants aware of what is happening ‘out there’ and what is happening ‘in here’ — here being their own consciousness and a relatedness to others, especially those in the room (or in the field). As various groups got deeper and deeper into developing a new perfume ecosystem, their interactions — through emotions, touch, communications, and mutual understandings — went directly into their collective thought process. It was as if they didn’t have to think about what they were doing — they were just doing it, creating it, manifesting it. As such, their storytelling capabilities were amplified and they were literally able to express their insights in incredibly inventive ways.

In the coming weeks, we will be issuing a report on this experience along with its outcomes, and will make some of the methodologies available for anyone to use or expand upon under a Creative Commons license.

If you have any questions about what has been written here, or you want to discuss ideas and approaches related to open innovation, please do not hesitate to reach out via email.

Grace and good fortune to you in all of your storytelling pursuits…