Balancing Science and Story

Effectively communicating sustainability across sectors

What do European climate scientists, Midwest U.S. organic farmers, and small arts organizations have in common? They all have a huge amount of data (or potential for it) and battle with balancing science and more personal, emotional messages in their communications.

In the past few months, I’ve presented to scientists at the Copernicus Climate Change Service general assembly in Europe, to organic farmers at the Midwest Organic Farming Conference (MOSES), and to artists and arts organizations as a panelist at Data for Art.

Copernicus Climate Change Service

Arlene at Copernicus Climate Change Service General Assembly

In order help audiences grasp the very complex scenarios involved in each of these industries, we have to both produce solid, objective research about these subjects and provide more subjective entry points into the information. Our goal: Help non-experts grasp the concepts and navigate the content. These entry points should show how the data can be understood from a variety of different perspectives, and aim to tell stories with the data. Visual stories reach audiences and help people connect with these complex concepts.

We have to improve how we communicate this important information, so that our audiences — policymakers, stakeholders, businesses, consumers, and citizens — can more fully engage and ultimately take action. Because if people can’t grasp the information, they default to ‘Business as Usual’: they ignore the information and do nothing (and that won’t help our planet one bit!). We can do better, and when audiences are more engaged, our organizations benefit and so does our common cause. — AB

‘Emotional’ Sustainability for a Post-Truth World

Visual storytelling reveals context and appeals to our individual beliefs

Riding the tails of Brexit and the U.S. presidential election, Oxford Dictionaries has selected “post-truth” as 2016’s international word of the year.

Emotional AppealIt’s not hard to believe, given the events of the past year, to see how people do not make decisions based purely on fact. Appeals to our personal beliefs and emotional centers are important. Data alone does not influence decisions. To a large portion of society, facts simply do not matter.

Feelings matter. Connection matters.
I can spout off statistics and information, but unless you — my audience — feel connected to it, it won’t make a difference. The author of ‘How to Convince Someone When Facts Fail’ also describes the mental stress that we endure when we hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time (a.k.aCognitive Dissonance). He acknowledges the need for a calm discussion when presenting new information — and new facts — to an individual with a strong pre-determined worldview. So what are some ways visual communication can help make sustainability information appeal to our emotions, and allow us to gradually open our minds to new information?

Here are a few key points and resources: 

Show & Tell Data as a Story
Numbers, by themselves, are not generally very welcoming. Deciphering numbers and comparisons requires a lot of effort and time — particularly given that 65% of the population are visual learners (Mind Tools, 1998). Icons and illustrations can provide context for the numbers. Diagrams can show how a set of data flows over time.

Use Visuals that Connect to Individuals
This research shows how people interpret visual images of climate change. The report finds, for example, that protest images do not resonate, however images of real people taking action in a local context do resonate.

Communicate the Context of your Social or Environmental Goal
Show individuals how bigger picture climate consequences will impact their personal lives. This can mean mapping out the narrative in a visual infographic or developing a diagram to walk audiences through how a larger goal is connected to individuals and their families.

MEDEA Talk on ‘Visualizing Sustainability’

Arlene Birt presenting at MEDEA in Malmö, Sweden on Dec.10 (15:00-17:00 Central European time).

Arlene will present two projects that she’s done as artist-in-residence at MEDEA and a behind-the-scenes view on her work on how to visualize ‘background stories’. One project is a visual mapping of the sustainability-oriented systems at work within the Västra Hamnen area of the city through a collaboration with Unsworn Industries to show this information using the parascope technology they’ve developed. Another project visually communicates the benefits of bicycling – in terms of CO2 saved, money saved and calories burned.

Details on the talk here. There will also be a live-stream of the talk.

Artist Residency to Visualize Impacts in Malmö, Sweden

Arlene has begun an artist residency at interactive center for new media MEDEA, where she will develop work to visualize the impacts/benefits of bicycling for the Västra Hamnen area of Malmö in order to encourage and celebrate a culture of bicycling.

More on the progress of the project, which will run Oct-Dec 2010, is posted on the MEDEA site.

sketch of visualizing sustainaiblity in bicycling

WORK-IN-PROGRESS

I, Pencil – A Sustainability Story From 1958

I, Pencil by Leonard Read, is an essay on the life cycle of a pencil. Written in a way that references all the strings attached and people involved in the back-story of this simple, everyday object; this story is an excellent text to tie products to global social and environmental concerns. And it was written in 1958.

“Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others.”

I, Pencil is referenced in this TED talk by Matt Ridley about the collective effort that leads to innovation,

Tracing A Box’s Life

Colombia Sportswear is asking you to ‘Consider the box’ with their project: A Box Life. A Box Life brings awareness to an often-overlooked part of mail-order products’ life-cycles: the packaging.

Box life transparently tracks the back-stories of where boxes have traveled.

Box life transparently tracks the back-stories of where boxes have traveled.

Not only is it a clever way to encourage people to reuse packing materials, but telling the stories behind the travels of things also acts as a tool for transparency, and reminds consumers of how individual actions impact sustainability.

read more: Springwise

Mapping the Mississippi: Through Time

In a beautiful example of layered visual information, Harold Fisk mapped a portion of the Mississippi River in 1944. The series of plates show the changes in the path of the river through time. I’m drawn to the simple and clear detail, effective color palette and the amount of information communicated through this simple technique.

Fisk Map of the Mississippi through the ages

A portion of Fisk’s visually-stunning map of the Mississippi

The full map is available at the US Army Corp of Engineers.

Toaster, from Scratch

The Toaster Project: A design student’s fascinating project to make a toaster – starting with finding and processing small quantities of raw materials.The project took him all over the UK searching for raw minerals, and developing methods to process them at home.

His whole process was about re-creating the background story. I’d love to see a graphic outlining all of his steps.

the final toaster (photo Daniel Alexander)

the final toaster (photo Daniel Alexander)

The project is featured on we-make-money-not-art.com

Tracking water droplets: Playing raincloud.

An exhibit on Water at the Science Museum of Minnesota contains an interactive display that allowed people to ‘become’ a raincloud. By rubbing a ‘raincloud’ tool over a series of screens displaying a topographic map, the cloud rains drops of water onto the topo-map. Visitors can see how the drops of water run down the sides of a topographic map to slow and pool together in the valleys between mountains. Colliding together, the blue drops create rivers which meander through valleys until falling off the screen.

Interactive table created interaction for watersheds

Interactive table created interaction for watersheds

As a fun way for visitors to interact with the exhibit, this project helps people understand how water flows (the fact being downhill- which I thought was obvious, but apparently there is an overwhelming number of people who are surprised when rivers turn to flow North instead of South, as on maps they must have an idea that gravity makes the water flow off the page.)

Reality, augmented. […sustainably?]

Merging analog and digital, this new tool allows users to use their webcam to make a simple printed page come to life. In 3 dimensions!
Augmented Reality: a virtually 3-d landscape unfolds via your computer's webcam.

Augmented Reality: a virtually 3-d landscape unfolds via your computer

An incredible display of technology, it’s not hard to imagine the communication possibilities for sustainability, communicating the background stories of products…or anything for that matter. However it’s not immediately clear how this technique is as exclusive to the future of sustainable communications as it would have us believe (the tool is introduced from within GE’s micro site promoting sustainable technologies like the smart grid and smart power meters). Though a extremely promising tool, a slight scent of greenwash clouds the air.
Watch the video, as presented by Adobe CTO, then try it for yourself.

On the topic of eco-magination, there are some wonderfully communicative info-graphics throughout the micro site. However, overall the site is excessively flashy: lots of pretty pictures…but not much overall content.  It seems to have been created as a playground for cutting-edge graphics more than to support sustainability. (Though, one could argue that’s GE’s intent…) More easily accessible information to back up the claims that GE wants to communicate through such elaborate – and interactive- visuals would lend significantly more credibility to this site.
bar graphs bring information to life with visual virtual worlds

Bar graphs bring information to life with visual virtual worlds

Environmental and financial savings stack up in a bar graph.

Environmental and financial savings stack up in a bar graph.

GE infographic - Mapping CO2 Emissions

GE infographic - Mapping CO2 Emissions