Story Books - storytelling in social labs

The value of storytelling for social labs – eyes on Chicago

“Storytelling is what connects us to our humanity. It is what links us to our past, and provides a glimpse into our future.” – Jon Ferreira

In November, we hit the road and headed to Chicago to spend some time at Grove 3547, a next-gen social lab focused on building resilient livelihoods for young people.

The time in Chicago led us into various conversations about the value of storytelling in social labs.  What struck us was the multiple levels at which storytelling was needed, could be used, and the effects it could have.  This is a short look into some of the layers at which storytelling was at play, and reflections.

Storytelling as a means to share updates about the lab

Unsurprisingly, this was our entry point into the conversation, and a first major noticing about how Grove 3547 were attempting to get the word out about what was happening in their lab. The Grove deployed roving social media coverage to live tweet particular quotes, Instagram behind the scenes footage from the film-maker’s studio set up, and live stream some of the group presentations. These are tactics often seen more at conferences than social labs.

So why work so hard to get the word out? After chatting with the team, it was clear there was a few reasons:

  • to enable serendipitous connections with the wider community of Bronzeville and Chicago, thus supporting the lab teams to open doors for their prototyping work
  • to build awareness of the Lab amongst potential future applicants
  • to create a permeable layer of the Lab which would enable it to be increasingly shaped by its stakeholders

This led us to another realisation as we were watching the pratice presentations of the lab teams on Day 1 of the Studio; story was being used as a way to rapidly prototype and iterate the projects in the lab.

Story as a means of prototyping

Whilst some programs, such as incubators and accelerators, often hammer their participants on pitching and presentation skills, this wasn’t happening at the studio. The teams were giving their presentations as updates to their peers, getting a little feedback, and then going back to work.

This wasn’t ‘story as sales’, it was about finding a narrative for their projects’ progress midway through the lab. Communicating progress is half the battle when you’re prototyping, as things often don’t move in a linear fashion.

Some insights about prototyping with stories from the team:

  • If a prototype is about learning something about your idea, as it comes into contact with a user or stakeholder, then story is a simple and cheap way to do this.
  • Prototyping is about rapidly updating and changing your ideas, so stories are one of the cheapest and fastest ways of doing so
  • Some people get lost in the jargon of prototyping, and find it hard to create a sketch or a 3D model of their idea. However if you ask them to ‘tell you a story about how someone would experience it’, then they naturally do so. Give them some feedback and ask them to adapt their idea with this new information, and tell you the story again, then they’re already prototyping.

This is a great way to get people started, and reinforce the value of a prototyping mindset.

Storytelling as a vehicle for change

The final layer we noticed, was the value of storytelling as an ongoing lever for re-shaping the future of a community.

To some extent, our communities and societies are shaped by the dominant narratives which are told and re-told over time. Whether it’s about a region being ‘innovative’, a community being ‘full of discontented young people’, or a neighbourhood being ‘creative’, we collectively shape the stories of the places which people grow up in, and live their lives in.

So, how do we start telling new stories? New stories of hope and excitement, of resilience and possibility?

One way is that the awareness of what’s happening in a neighbourhood becomes widespread. So for example, if a social lab is running in a neighbourhood and you’re out there effectively telling people about the lab and sharing what’s going on, over time you will build a new shared narrative about the community.

But for most social labs, at some point they will close down (maybe to come back another day in another form). With all the value that comes out of a lab, much of it will be diffused into a community – much like a space program generates a wide range of new products, services and skills in a nation, the mindsets, skills and connections travel with people onward in life. But we think there’s an interesting opportunity to go a step further: an open archive of stories and insights which will last the test of time.

With change in the ease and affordability of media creation and storage, most labs should be able to create a website, and publish a series of videos, blog posts or the likes, to share the stories of participants, learnings from the lab teams, and what is possible because of the work of this lab. Not as marketing, but as a social archive, which anyone in that area can access and build on.

Much like IT developers have open source libraries which other developers can borrow from and build on, social labs could be creating their own open source archives which can continue to affect change even after they close their doors.

Why do this?

  • Social labs are strategic responses to complex problems. By nature they are experimental and the results of their work are emergent (much like technical and scientific labs). To create an ongoing asset which can affect change, seems like an important investment to make.
  • Using story as the ‘musical notes’ of communicating what social labs are doing so that others can learn and build on your work, may be a shortcut to making change faster.
  • Who else is doing this? We’ve seen Grove 3547, Shift Edmonton, WellAhead, Lifehack and are actively looking for others, as well as supporting people to do so through our platform.