Writing a New Narrative for Tasmania’s West Coast
As I write this, I’m reflecting on the power of stories, people, and the collective belief in a new direction as a motivator for action and change.
In my two years at For the People I’ve been incredibly humbled, proud and honoured to have worked with ambitious brands and organisations. But in January, we received brief from the West Coast Council of Tasmania that was truly ambitious — and would challenge me personally and professionally. Our task: design a brand that would be owned and used by a community, that would help the region grow tourism, investment and population numbers.
“It’s true that while ambition creates fear, it also creates the story.” — Donald Miller
I’ve long been fascinated with our relationship with stories as powerful agents for change. In much of our work at For The People, developing a logic and rationale for a brand strategy starts with a narrative. A strong narrative changes the way we think about the world. It changes the way we think about what has been. It will change the way we think about the future. It will even change the way we think about our own role in the world we live in today, our everyday habits and realtionships and about the way the world should look like in the future.
A narrative for the West Coast needed to do all of this — and we hadn’t set foot in the West Coast yet. You can read a bit more from Bec about how we set up a pop up design research studio in the West Coast, here. We needed to do more than research in this trip, though — we also needed to write our brand strategy and narrative after 8 days of research and present our findings to the West Coast Council on the 9th day.
Bec, jason and I visited Tasmania’s West Coast — all of us first timers to the region — in mid-Februrary to conduct design research. The week we spent gathering research, stories and information was one of the most intense work weeks of my life. I echo Bec’s words when I say it was also one of the best weeks of my career thus far. The post below is focused on how we wrote the narrative that shapes the West Coast brand strategy: the role of a transformation narrative, our observations about the West Coast, and the narrative we presented on day 9 of our research trip.
What is a transformational narrative?
Anthropologists tell us that when the structure of a core myth begins to change, everything else about society changes around it, and fresh new possibilities open up that weren’t even thinkable before. When myths fall apart, revolutions happen.
This juncture can be the beginning of a slow decline, or it can be the inciting incident that rallies people to choose a new direction.
In order to catalyze true transformation, a story needs to spell out what is at stake. I have borrowed a framework from narrative counselling which I think is useful for understanding the role for a transformational narrative in charting a new course for Tasmania’s West Coast. A transformational narrative should contain:
- A transformation point: a pivotal moment in time in which a key decision is made. Usually, there are two ways (or perhaps more than two ways) to go from there. One way will most likely lead to a significant change while the other will reinforce the status quo.
- Indicators of how a group of people / organisation is changed by this point: Can be positive or negative. Will mostly likely be internal as well as visible externally.
- Actions that are different to those before: whether or not the actual situation has changed.
- A sense of forward movement, including evidence of overcoming barriers, hurdles, roadblocks, negative thoughts and feelings.
- Effort — reaching into previously untapped resources, and utilising external resources in a new way or for the first time
- Uniqueness — the story has universal appeal but at the same time expresses the uniqueness of the protagonist
- Surprise — often, transformative narratives contain things that are normally taboo, however this will be less ‘confessional’ in nature and more in the vein of ‘confident honesty’
- Reflection — the ability of the protagonist to be able to understand and tell about his or her journey.
- Power — the sense that the story will empower the protagonist, and others, and will persist (or be replaced by an even more powerful narrative)
- Voyeurism — others will want to read or hear the story, they may even hunger for it.
The need for a new narrative in the West Coast
Our brief was a story that could be simply told by everyone in the West Coast Council, and local businesses, councillors, and tourism operators. The purpose of this particular narrative for the West Coast is to equip the region to make the best use of opportunities or moments that otherwise might be passed by for lack of awareness or readiness.
The West of Tasmania is far from the rest of the world, and it’s very different to Tasmania’s East Coast, which is enjoying the MONA effect. That tourism boom isn’t translating to the West Coast: visitors often spend 2–3 days to see Hobart and skip the West Coast.
The West Coast’s unique geological and natural conditions have always made the West Coast attractive for explorers and pioneers. Over the last 150 years, it’s been a site of mining and pining. At one time, the West Coast boasted a population of over 30,000 people. But as mining has dried up in some communities, and conservation has shifted the economic reality around the profitablity around mining and pining, the region’s population has shrunk to 4,000.
There’s a critical question that Tasmania’s West Coast is asking about it’s future:
How can we connect to a new narrative that preserves this part of our history, while also recognising that we can’t rely on these industries in future?
After all — the rest of the world is waking up to Tasmania’s raw and rugged beauty — and there’s no place that beauty is as evident as the West Coast. Much of the West Coast is a UNESCO World Heritage site, listed for its irreplaceable legacy that the global community wants to protect for the future. Home to some of the tallest flowering plants in the world, rock formations dating back to the Precambrian era, Pleistocene archaeological sites evidencing human occupation during the last ice age, the Tasmanian Wilderness is truly remarkable — not only for it’s raw beauty, but for it’s sheer distance from the rest of the world. It is truly one of the last wild places.
Located below the beautiful and ancient Tarkine rainforest, west of stunning Cradle Mountain, and along a wild coastline, the West Coat boasts so many of the gems that draw visitor to the East Coast — and some completely unique to the West Coast itself. Those gems are waiting to be discovered on the West Coast. The West Coast needed a good story, well told, in order to chart a new direction.
Here’s how we went in search of it.
Observations in Search of a New Story
Jo and I have spoken before about how good work feels less like building something new and more like uncovering the truth — through snippets form interviews, site visits, observations, museum visits, and diggings through Google and history books. This was was how we approached Tasmania.
From the point we landed on the ground in Hobart, everything was a potential line in the story of the West Coast. I set out on the road with sunnies on, a 70's ABC radio documentary about the West Coast in my ears, and eyes peeled for details along the road.
I’ve heard people say that Tasmania is one of the last ‘wild’ places left, and I truly felt it as I drove out to the West Coast. Mobile reception dropped out as I drove towards west and felt like I could breathe properly for the first time in a long time. The West Coast is stunningly wild and beuatiful, and that’s evident. Driving over Lake Burbury as the sun was setting was absolutley awe inspiring. I was the only person around for miles (as far as I could tell!).
1. The West Coast is a land rich in resources
The West Coast is the only place in the world where Huon pine grows. Huon is incredibly rich in oil, making it perfect timber for boat building and shaping. It was so popular for boat building that at one point it was called green gold, and there was indeed a gold rush on the West Coast. Today, the pine is protected. Many of the trees were cut down for mining purposes, and a certain number are released each year for salvaging. The West Coast is also one of the most geologically diverse areas in the world.
Being up close and personal with this tough land brings wisdom, too.
As early as 1897, a Parliamentary Select Committee of Enquiry was held to explore the Huon pine industry, with particular reference to the age of the trees. The very first explorers knew that there was only one generation of these trees to use, and we had to make the most of the timber we had. The Franklin dam controversy is embedded in Australia’s national memory, but many don’t know that this movement happened in the West Coast.
2. The West Coast has a history of ingenuity
The thing about a landscape so remote, but rich in resources, means that those who grapple with it must be clever, original and inventive in the face of challenge. In our desk research, we listened to ABC Radio’s West Coasters radio documentary and heard a confronting story about a mining manager who had to execute a impromptu amputation in a mine. His swift thinking and cold-blooded ablity to sacrifice a limb saved his entire crew from perishing in the collapse of the mine minutes later. Gruesome? Absolutely. Ingenious? You betcha.
3. West Coasters have a deeply rooted stubbornness
In our interviews with people, we’d often hear things like, “we just get on with it,” or “find a way, or make a way,” which is the original motto of the Mount Lyell Railway Company. This sense of getting things done, without making a fuss, with a deal of perseverance and ingenuity, came through in many of our converations. It is not a place for the faint of heart.
A stubborn land forges stubborn people.
The land and facilities themselves forge a tough people. Queenstown’s locals proudly bear scars form their sports oval, made entirely of gravel. In Zeehan, similar injuries are inflicted on skateboarders who brave the metal surfaces of the local skatepark (“Our kids fry eggs on the surface on really hot days,” one mum told us).
This stubbornness is never, perhaps, so evident as when intertown rivalry is on display. Complaints about having to drive one town over are common, though when the shoe is on the other foot and residents are invited to meetings in other towns, they simply refuse to go. The West Coast’s towns all cling to fiercely different identities and refuse to be painted with the same brush — except, it seems, in crises.
It’s time for the West Coast’s towns to come together and tell a new story.
A New Story
It is clear that there is a clash between mankind and mother nature. Tasmania, and the West Coast, in particular, is at a critical juncture for how it handles that clash, and the story it chooses to tell about itself will chart the direction of its future. Tasmania is, and always has been, left of center, rich in nature and ripe for exploration. This is the story we wrote as a discussion point for the transformation that the West Coast sees for itself.
Normally writing these kinds of things happens in the office, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. But in this case, Bec and I were pulling together all of our research on day 8 of our 9 day research trip … and due to our tight schedule, we started working on it at 4 p.m. on a Thursday…and we were due to present at 9 a.m. on a Friday.
This particular narrative was written around 3 a.m., and while it’s safe to say that we were pretty wired on caffeine, running on very little sleep, Bec and I were feeling pretty inspired by the rawness of the West Coast’s beauty, the richness of its history, and the size of their ambition for the future. We set pen to paper, and this is what came out:
The Clash between Mankind and Mother Nature
Long before there were people, the earth formed rich mineral deposits, the rains came, and waves carved the coast of Western Tasmania.
The land provided for the original native people, who lived off the sea, and the land, and sometimes, the heavens: Tasmanian Aboriginal people hunted with stone tools from ‘impactite’ (Darwin glass) which was formed when a meteorite struck Tasmania and vaporised rocks and soil, some 750,000 years ago.
It is precisely because of this excess of nature that Europeans came to the edge of Tasmania, where thousand year old trees stood, and ore was rich for the taking. So men fished, and hunted, and mined, and felled. It was a boom.
But boom turned to bust.
Copper smelting and acid rain stripped the slopes of Queenstown bare. Huon pine supply was decimated by greed. Mines, the economic life support of the West Coast, are living on borrowed time. Fish suffocate en masse in fish pens. Death is a fact of life.
It is a killer landscape.
This is a human drama of boom and bust and life and death. It brings us into conflict with the land, with each other, and with ourselves. This tension produces interesting things: ingenuity, craft, stories, new ways of thinking.
We are the home to a 10,000 year old Huon pine. The birth of the Greens party. The home of Man Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan. Of Glover Prize winner Raymond Arnold. The home of a black hole research laboratory in the bottom of a copper mine.
It is a life-giving landscape.
It is a place in conflict.
It is the West Coast.
The rest of the story
The very definition of a story requires that a character undergo change in order to get something they want. A new story demands a new course of action. In order for a character to fulfill their goal — it has to undergo trials. Hardships. Battles and scars.
What might that look like for the West Coast?
The West Coast could decide that from its roots of stubbornness, a land rich in resources, and a history of ingenuity — it wants to chart an entirely new course for itself. To embrace it’s pioneering spirit once again and explore the groundbreaking regeneration and repair of land, to study what the future of humanity might be.
How do we know if we’ve got the right story?
We test it by telling it, gauging responses, asking locals to respond to it, and asking what we’ve left out. We test it by holding it up to the region’s ambitions and asking: is it big enough? Is it too big? There’s no point in telling a story that the characters themselves don’t believe. It has to be rooted in truth, and rooted in real desires for the region: it can’t be made up.
How will the West Coast answer its call?
We’ve seen the West Coast Spirit at work as we’ve spent time there. We’ve heard about bold ambitions. And this is the time to choose: do we play on the same turf we’ve played on before? Mine and pine and cross our fingers for slightly better luck? Or choose to chart a new direction. To discard the belief that the mine will always be there. To set aside dismissals that the West Coast is too far from Hobart for tourists to trek. To do away with parochialism and operate as one region. To demonstrate to State government and investors that we are open for business and committed to excellence. To welcome tourists and new residents with West Coast warmth. To demand better from our residents, our partners, our government, and our fellow regions.
This piece was written after our first trip to the West Coast of Tasmania. If you’re interested in this project, I’ll be writing more about the implications for this narrative as we develop the brand strategy and identity for the West Coast. If you’re interested in learning more about our research methodology for the pop up design studio we set up in the West Coast, Bec has written a piece about it, here. We’ve just gotten back from our second trip where we’ve presented two brand identities for community feedback, and we’ll be writing as we develop final identity. If you don’t want to miss an update, follow me here, or on Twitter. Thanks!