Explaining and exploring our common future

Using the power of storytelling to achieve an ambitious goal of making carbon neutral cities believable and attractive.

Per Grankvist
Oct 13 · 15 min read

I cried the first time I watched Wall-E. And I cried the second time too. Since becoming a parent, I’ve noticed that I’m much more easily moved to tears watching movies, reading novels or a watching an emotionally charged moment in an episode of Queer Eye (tears roll down my cheeks every time). Still, from the outset, it may not be entirely clear why I would cry to a movie like Wall-E.

If you haven’t seen it, the story is set in the 29th century and is about a robotic trash compactor, Wall-E, and its interaction with an unmanned probe, Eve, searching an uninhabitable earth for plants. The movie conveys a dystopian image of a world in which humanity have abandoned earth after years of over consumption and environmental neglect. As the probe is shown a plant, it goes into permanent standby, leaving the confused Wall-E trying all kinds of ways to reconnect with Eve, to no good. We all know network connectivity issues can be a cause of great stress and emotional drama (anger mostly) — but it doesn’t normally move us to tears. But this scene certainly does.

The reason why the scene where Wall-E and Eve (still in standby) watch the sunset together it’s deeply moving is because its also a deeply human behaviour.

My new job

The reason why I’m sharing my tendency to cry to children’s movies (and Queer Eye) is because there’s a point here to be made, that I’ll expect to use a lot in my job as the Chief Storyteller for Viable Cities. For those of you unfamiliar with this program, it’s a large government funded research and innovation program in Sweden, with the audacious mission of making a cities in Sweden carbon neutral by 2030. The program is based on the ideas of economist Mariana Mazzucato who have written extensively on the importance of clearly defined missions to drive innovation.

Earlier this year, they decided on appointing a Chief Storyteller — the first of its kind in the world for a government research and innovation program of this magnitude — the theory of change being that that stories have the power to engage people in a way scientific facts seldom can. In short: to reach the program’s mission, storytelling is believed a key to get people engaged enough to change their behaviour and norms. Whether in everyday life or in our perceptions of the ways things are or could be.

In this post, I want to lay out some of my ideas on how tho achieve this. For obvious reason, I will not be the one telling all the stories and that’s the way it should be. In many countries and cities, there’s been a call for a unifying story with the power to unite an increasingly fragmented society but I don’t think that would be possible today, it fit ever has. It’s true that history often has been written by the winners, but it’s also true that countries that have agreed on one story had done so during authoritarian leaderships or in periods of decimated public debate. To put it in a post-modern terms: the narrator is often a person of power and that you can tell from the story.

At Viable Cities, we often talk about how the future city is already in beta, and that goes for these plans as well. At the moment, my hypothesis is to create some kind of framework to enable telling stories about the future of our cities from the perspective of different stakeholders. For instance, for the public to describe their wishes for a city, and for city planners to tell the public about their ideas.

This will be in turn be a part of a play book I envision is needed to support a process where citizens are involved in co-creating the stories about desires, human needs, underlaying problems and possible solutions a city might face. With the help of these collections of stories, one can then create a better understanding of various perspectives and nurture engagement from all those affected so that once can find solution that will satisfy the needs of as many as possible, thus easing implementation and adoption of the solutions agreed on.

The playbook itself will be a co-creation, as the framework, as well as stories that we can use as an example to let people know various ways of telling stories in the most effective and emotional way possible. (All we will do in the storytelling efforts of Viable Cities will be made available to everyone else, via open source, so you will be able to steal or borrow as much as you like).

That said, let’s look at how storytelling can play a role in getting us to the carbon neutral society faster.

Stories are effective

We easily buy into stories of future versions of our society — like in Avatar, Black Panther, Star Trek, Zootopia and Wall-E — whenever the heroes in those stories behave and express emotions in ways we are familiar with. As long as we recognise the reactions of the characters as emotionally true, we seem to be willing to accept story as true, no matter how strange it seems from the outset.

Like in that sequence of Zootopia where Judy takes the train to the city where she hopes to make it as a police. We too feel the awe and excitement Judy feels when she’s approaching the city because chances are we’ve felt the same at some point in life when we’ve travelled to a city of our dreams. And that help us accept the premise of a city run by animals and where desert neighbourhoods exist alongside winter ones. (Of course, a catchy theme song help us open up our minds too.)

Everyone trying to tell a story about a future in cities has to remember that we at the same time are telling a story about a fictional city, and borrow a page from fictional storytelling in order to make it believable.

The future can be frightening

Given everything we know about the consequences of climate change by now, and all the facts the scientific community have gathered on how our reliance of cheap fossil fuels have gotten us in this situation, the question neither why we need to change nor how to do it, but why that change isn’t happening faster and on a broader scale?

As sociologist Paul R Lawrence pointed out 50 years ago, in an 1969 article in Harvard Business Review on how to deal with resistance to change, what people resist is usually not technical change but social change — the change in their human relationships that generally accompanies technical change.

The thing is that the necessary technology needed to live in a viable city in a sustainable way is to a great extent already invented and in use! Buses running on hydrogen, electric cars that gets shared as easily as scooters, buildings powered by the sun and the wind, healthy food produced locally, organically and based on plants rather than animals. It already exists. How about shifting to consumption patterns based on the idea that access is better than ownership and where stuff either gets repaired, reused or recycled into new products at the end of its life? We know how to do all that already because it’s already being done that way in many places. The solutions and technology isn’t new, it’s only not as widely used nor as broadly distributed as it should be.

The Norra Djurgårdstaden Neighbourhood in Stockholm, a test bed for all kinds of climate friendly solutions, many of them solutions with a potential to scale to other countries as well.

When scientists, researchers and climate activists describe how our everyday life has to change, they often lay out the necessary steps we must take to tackle two of the biggest causes of GHG emissions: burning fossil fuels for energy and heat generation, and meat production and consumption. This usually boils down to them transmitting factually correct advice to on how to stop flying, use cars as little as possible and changing to a plant based diet.

On the receiving end however, the advice sounds a lot like someone is trying to steal my hamburger, take my car and prevent me from going on a holiday. In other words: like someone is imposing limits to my way of life and how I interact with other people.

In his 1969 article Lawrence notes that resistance is usually created because of certain blind spots and attitudes which specialists have as a result of their preoccupation with the technical aspects of new ideas.

According to sociologist Rosabeth Moss Kanter, who have listed various reasons why people resist change, not understanding how new concepts and technology will change the way of life people are familiar can make the suggested changes interfere with autonomy and can make people feel that they’ve are about to lose control over their territory. It’s always easier to say No than to say Yes, because a No is is perceived as a way to keep control. If we don’t understand the future, it’s inevitably going to feel frightening.

Populism is a proof of how effective storytelling can be

It might even explain the rise of populism, with its alluring promise of making the future like the past allegedly was. At its core it’s little but fast food politics, offering quick satisfaction with little substance.

The political products of the past were solutions to problems of a different era, where solutions were analogue and fossil fuelled, where the state played a prominent role and markets were predominantly national. Despite the conspicuous lack of detailed plans, people vote for them because it’s always easier to vote No to change than to vote Yes, as an attempt to keep control.

As soon as a populist party has enough influence in politics of a country, other parties in that country are easily corrupted into becoming populists of sorts, hoping to gain power or retain power. And in the absence of parties talking about plans for how to change the country for a better future, cynism and pessimism starts to spread among the public.

If the task ahead seem too daunting, that might be a cause of pessimism too. What point is there in me changing my behaviour to combat climate change if no one else seem to be doing it? We might as well be stop pretending to be able to do something about it, some people say, pointing to what they see as the inevitable climate apocalypse. But there is a fair share of climate de-nihilists, to use Mary Annaïse Heglar term, echoing this pessimism in media. They claim it’s too late to do anything, claiming the world once was perfect, and that therefore, an imperfect version of it is somehow not worth saving, or fighting for. It might be intellectual click-bait, but it’s factually not true.

Still, it makes for a depressing read. In April, researchers from the renowned Allensbach Institute published a report showing that the percentage of Germans who believe in progress has reached a five-decade low. Asked if they thought that “humanity is headed toward a better future,” only 32 percent responded that yes, they believed in progress. (And then, on top of everything else, new research found that pessimism lower your odds of living a long, healthy life.)

Of course, optimism isn’t entirely out of fashion and especially not among the young. People like Greta Thunberg is an example of the increasing willingness to both take a stand for the climate and to act in accordance to science to combat climate change.

There are also many courageous politicians, members of parliaments and mayors who all encourage hope and action, who have detailed plans and based their actions on facts. And even if there are millions of them, there are not as many as there should be and their movement not as evenly distributed around the world as one would wish for. At least not yet.

Facts are overrated, stories always wins

In my experience, whenever someone talk about a sustainable future, the likelihood of them bringing up a long list of to-dos is pretty likely. They say things like ”here’s where we need to be in according to the Paris Accord 2050” or ”here’s what needed to be done to achieve our national goals of zero emission cities by 2030” and ”we need to lower our emissions from 11 tons GHG per capita in 2010 to below 1 tonnes of in 2050". As relevant as all that might sound to any of us who are somehow involved in the transition to a sustainable tomorrow, it doesn’t ring true to a random person on the street.

That’s because facts are overrated. As journalist and a researcher I long believed that presenting facts and figures and curves and studies and charts and graphs would make people take the appropriate action, indicated in all that. But instead they asked what all that would mean for them. And my response would be to show them another PowerPoint slide, another graph, another fact on the expected impacts of society.

But one day I realised that they weren’t asking what it would mean to them, but really how it would make them feel. Instead of talking about the ability to fulfil human needs and desires when describing a vision for a sustainable future, I found myself talking about national obligations and the technical transformations required for our society to reach our goals in line with the Paris accord.

So, when we talk about how other people’s understanding of the world is limited by cognitive bias and filter bubbles, we tend to forget that we cannot escape the big bubble that is our own life. As a journalist, I was in my own bubble, presenting facts and conditions for our future. My audience wanted stories about what it would feel like.

They were afraid that they wouldn’t be able to feel as free if they wouldn’t be able to have a car. They feared they would not be able to express love by offering their kids hamburgers and junk food like parents always have done. They felt uneasy about the fact that they wouldn’t be able to treat themselves to a new jacket to look better on a day when they felt sad.

Hear me out here: I’m not saying facts are not necessary nor that we should avoid building our stories on solid science — Viable Cities is after all backed by a whole host of well renowned universities—I’m just making the point that stories don’t need facts to be effective, but that facts always need stories to make any sense. Using facts will only get you so far to get people to understand what you want, but storytelling can take you further than you ever expected. Even the OECD is laying out the elements they think is needed for a new narrative on economic growth.

Regardless of what one thinks of Donald Trump’s political ideas, one has to appreciate that what got him elected wasn’t a cohesive presentation of facts but an effective way of using storytelling. The stories he told about a vision of a better America weren’t based on facts, but to a large number of voters they still felt true. And feelings always trump facts.

Again, I’m only trying to make the case for how effective storytelling can be by telling you that, contrary to what you’d expect, you don’t ned a plan to get into the White House. All you need is a story. At Viable Cities, we are bound to tell stories based on science and that’s the way it should be.

A story of change

Trying to get people to alter their behaviours and norms for something that doesn’t hurt the climate, or giving up some really bad personal behaviours in favour of a better future for all, requires more than the presentation of facts and the adoption of new technology. It needs a story.

That story should be about a good life, a high quality low carbon life. (Underpinned by scientific evidence, such as the 1,5 degree lifestyle report by Sitra, based on the aspirational target of the Paris Agreement). Our life will inevitably be different from the one we have gone accustomed to since it will need to be within the planetary boundaries, but with an equally high life quality.

It’s evident that the willingness to change and the technology and other solutions needed are already here, albeit unevenly distributed. It’s because the future is already here, albeit unevenly distributed, to quote author William Gibson. Hence, the story of the future doesn’t need to be about a distant future but about the future already present today, using everyday people as characters that conveys what it feels like to be living the good life of the future, already today. (This echos a recent report from OECD that highlights the need for refocusing policies, through a well-being lens)

Let’s be clear: it’s not about creating one unifying story about the future. No human experience the present in exactly the same way, and that’s not going to change in the future. (Nor will we create commercials, portraying an idealised view of what life could be in the future.) Instead we hope to foster many stories of the future, a multitude of narratives and experiences of what it is to live in a city today and what it could be like tomorrow.

That said, the stories will have to be within a framework of the meta-narratives that describe our era. Thus they can’t be too utopian in terms of how life is lived or how society is constructed (or involve flying cars) and at the same time have to avoid the top-down perspective we often associate with grand narratives. (For more on how meta-narratives shape the way we see our world I’d recommend thinker Tomas Björkmans book The World We Create — from God to Market as well as psychologist Katarzyna Stemplewska-Zakowicz piece on the philosophical and historical viewpoint on problems related to grand narratives.)

Life will different and the same

The other day, I watched a cool woman on a cargo bike stop on her way to work for a red light on the bike lane. She was dressed in a mix of vintage and sustainable brands, turtoise-framed glasses and a Hövding bike helmet, clearly not wanting to ruin a hair do with inspiration by the 1970s, and on the cargo bike was a sticker urging me to support my local organic farmer. This model of an sustainably concious citizen then did something that surprised me. She took a long look at her watch and as the lights turned green, she stayed behind, reached into her jacket and pulled out a cigarette.

Another point worth making is that living in a carbon neutral city does not make it a utopia where all challenges and problems have suddenly vanished, nor where we no longer indulge in little guilty pleasures. There will still be time to a smoke a cigarette on your way to work, if that’s your thing. A glass of wine will not be forbidden. We will still love pizza with too much cheese because that’s whats makes it taste delicious. There will still be mean people, unfair people and sexist people. There will be traffic jams, armed robbery and overpriced restaurants. There will still be vegans who behave like pigs when they eat. And pedestrians will still be killed by cars, albeit electric ones. And the emotional drama of teens will still be an endless source of frustration in cities that rely on renewable energy.

As long as we recognise the reactions of the characters as emotionally true when their lives are described in a future already present today, the changes we all need make to create that future will no longer feel as frightening.

The plant that Wall-E found on Earth was the reason Eve went onto standby. Transmitting information about the plant ended the mission the probe was sent out to accomplish, the plant representing a hope for a better future and the possibility of re-defining a way of living on earth.

When you tell stories effectively, you have the power to change peoples lives for the better by connecting with them emotionally to make them rethink needs and behaviours, and to engage in being proactive in the inevitable change to climate neutral cities. It’s about engaging the heart and the mind.

Presenting facts when explaining the future never got anyone crying. But telling stories can. That’s how powerful they can be as a force for change.

You’ll find more about what we’re trying to do at Viable Cities here.

Viable Cities

Viable Cities is a Swedish innovation programme for smart and sustainable cities. The aim is to accelerate the transition to inclusive and climate neutral cities by 2030 with digitalisation and citizen engagement as enablers.

Per Grankvist

Written by

Exploring storytelling as a tool to get us to sustainable future even quicker @viablecities + Förklarar aktuella ämnen ur nya perspektiv @vadvivet

Viable Cities

Viable Cities is a Swedish innovation programme for smart and sustainable cities. The aim is to accelerate the transition to inclusive and climate neutral cities by 2030 with digitalisation and citizen engagement as enablers.

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