Transition towards urban sustainability through socially integrative cities in the EU and in China


1. Purpose(s)

Storytelling has been a crucial tool for humans to pass on important knowledge from generation to generation. Before the technologies of writing and reading were invented, oral storytelling was a central way in which humans transmitted knowledge over time. Still today, storytelling has a central part in helping humans in telling and re-telling narratives and myths that help us stick together and organize into larger collectives (e.g. Harari 2014). With the rapid process of development and transformation of societies and the built environment at various levels, the accelerated transition in the means of communication and interaction has led to the introduction of many external variables affecting different cultures in a harmful and destructive way acting upon their physical environments, traditions, and values. Storytelling, as the oldest way to deliver a message, is a tool used to preserve the values and communicate the qualities and attributes of a culture, in particular its communities’ identity, by sharing and interpreting its experiences in an interactive way. The tool described here represents a more structured form of storytelling to be used in a workshop or local context setting where a variety of stakeholders meet to discuss a particular topic.

The goal of this tool is to use storytelling as a facilitation technique to make stakeholders with different backgrounds, experiences and points of view recognize and learn from the various perspectives that exist in a community. Through facilitation that ensures everyone a voice the storytelling tool can in turn make it easier to gain a mutual understanding--but not necessarily a consensus--which can generate common action towards a shared local goal. Using storytelling as a tool is a way to ground the different participants so that they start out from a shared experience of telling a story irrespective of political views and similar. Such an approach can help to create shared learning through a dialogue that is “levelled, open, empathetic, and non-judgmental with respect to different ways of working, defining and approaching problems” (Mourik et al. 2017, p. 7). This is particularly important in settings where complex issues are at stake, such as how to address sustainability locally. Storytelling, have been applied both in workshops as well as museums.

Key Words: collective knowledge; storytelling; communal values; shared learning; community building

2. Relevance and Impact

The storytelling tool is mostly relevant to the aspects of socially integrative cities relating to ensuring a cohesive, livable and vibrant urban area, with particular emphasis on building trust, mutual understanding, strengthening a sense of community and fostering a sense of place, as well as empowerment and participation of the population. The way in which storytelling can work to connect people and groups that previously did not know about each other, or that did not communicate, makes it a relevant tool to foster enhanced inter-human dialogue. Moreover, storytelling allows envisioning human-oriented future scenarios, which are guided by shared values stemming from the grassroots level and from the experience of local communities.

The tool as such was not tested on a large-scale in the project. However, it was tested as an approach in occasion of the workshop on community building and place-making, held at the end of August, 2019 in Chengdu, Wenjiang, China. During the workshop, several sessions were organized in collaboration with representatives from urban-rural communities, from the local authorities and public agencies, from relevant social organizations and community planners as an attempt to address several issues and discuss the relevant measures and possible strategies required for instance to rethink the typical governance pattern of large-scale residential neighbourhoods both in urban and rural areas, the development of international communities, etc. Based on the stories and narratives of different stakeholders it was possible to share advanced experiences and exchange achievements and concerns at all levels of community planning, research and practice, that were deemed by local authorities as useful for the envision and planning of creative and vibrant community living spaces in the future.

Stories are, as Gubrium and Holstein (1997, p. 147) have claimed, ‘meaning-making devices’ that connect available elements and link them into a meaningful whole. Moreover, they can be performative, as they can mobilize people into action (Garud et al., 2014). Stories and the act of shared storytelling, as identified in this tool, can therefore be recognized to provide meaning to the activities of the different actors, and, at the same time, to navigate, amend and adapt their desired future outcomes through shared means of communication.

By introducing perspectives from a diverse set of participants, the impact that storytelling can have is wide-ranging. It can lead to innovations and new solutions to existing problems, i.e. through a reformulation of the problems at hand. It can also lead to common action to reach a goal, such as creating stronger and more inclusive and integrative communities. Nevertheless, this all depends on the way in which the workshop of storytelling is facilitated, as well as the interest and commitment of the participants to the topic in question.

As pointed out by the Shape Energy final report on the impacts of the storytelling tools, important strengths of storytelling methods were “their capacity to support: learning and unlearning, empathy and conflict solving, inclusion and participation of different voices.” (SHAPE 2019, p.10). The impact of stories on learning are also documented by Rossiter (2002) who point out that the fact that the listener is engaged make stories easier to remember: “Stories make information more rememberable because they involve us in the actions and intentions of the characters”. This is also a reason why stories can engender more emphatic responses than mere presentations of facts: “It is the particularity of the story—the specific situation, the small details, the vivid images of human experience—that evokes a fuller response than does a simple statement of fact.” (Rossiter 2002).

3. Strenghts

The strengths of this tool are that it allows relatively diverging stories and understandings to come together and be discussed in groups. This can generate a common understanding of both the problems and the potential solutions at hand to a particular issue. Moreover, storytelling has the potential to generate open, emphatic and non-judgmental environments, which can lead to a stronger sense of belonging and community.

Storytelling as an approach and tool to preserve memories, values, traditions and identities, brings different communities together, transforming the workshop or the museum into a community and inclusive platform. Storytelling, beyond bringing various visitors together, uses different techniques to engage them with past history and memories. It is also an important tool to reflect on the present and re-think the future in a more sustainable and human-oriented way, trying to maintain cultural identity and uniqueness in the face of rapid changes and transitions. Stories beyond being a vital form of communication, they have the ability to interconnect communities with each other and with their society by relaying messages, experiences and knowledge to others. According to Reichert (1998), storytelling is an approach with the potential to make hidden experiences visible, and be a facilitator for the generation of relationships and support networks (Banks-Wallace, 1999). Sharing and listening to stories not only promote awareness and reflection by drawing understanding and knowledge from the different experiences and events, but it also generates a desire for positive change. In his work focusing on stories in an AIDS support group, Dean (1995) stressed the importance of storytelling in building resilience. In fact, learning from previous events through storytelling, can help generate coping mechanisms and supportive networks, foster a greater sense of connectedness and belonging, which are essential to the development of individual and group resilience (Chadwick, 2004), and consequently the ability to see things from different perspectives and tend to make a positive impact. Hence, storytelling is not limited to delivering a story, but it can be seen as the starting point of a process of change at the individual and community level.

4. Weaknesses

When a story is told and retold, some narrative building blocks become accepted ingredients, whereas others are transformed or forgotten (Deuten and Rip, 2000). A story is more than words that are spoken and listened to. Rather, a story is ‘produced by the setting, in the broad sense, and the actions and interactions are played out in and with it’ (Deuten and Rip 2000, p. 68). A limitation that is important to remember is therefore that a story should be understood in the context within which it is produced.

A workshop where storytelling is used as a tool requires very good and well thought through facilitation, with around three to four people in the facilitation team, in a group of about 25-30 people. The story spine used in the tool needs to be developed and adapted beforehand, which requires some knowledge of the local issues at hand [1]. The limitations of this type of tool is also that some people participate more than others. This again requires good facilitation, to make sure that all the gathered stakeholders participate and contribute with their different perspectives. There is also a risk that participants disagree too much to make a productive dialogue. This can be improved by ensuring a safe and comfortable discussion climate, e.g. through warm-up and “getting-to-know-each-other” exercises at the start of the workshop. Another potential weakness is that in order to lead to actual change, it needs anchoring and agreement from local authorities, which is not always easy to secure.

In the museum field, storytelling is still a relatively new concept. For storytelling to be effective and achieve its goals and particularly communicate its message to the public, museums should assure that the story has a clear and concise meaning to keep the visitors focused. Storytelling as a tool should be used to create experiences and foster emotional responses as a way to engage visitors and leave a lasting impact. The storytelling could tell the museums’ own history, its impact, influence and how they inspire and matter to communities everywhere.

[1] A “story spine” is a guideline that will help participants in telling their stories. For more information, see page 9 of this report from the SHAPE Energy H2020 project: Visited in Dec 2019.

5. Good practice examples

A multi-stakeholder storytelling workshop in Turin

On December 1st 2017, a multi-stakeholder storytelling workshop took place in Turin, Italy (map), co-hosted by Politecnico di Torino and IREN, one of the largest multi-utility companies in Italy. The topic was the ‘Decentralization of renewable energy production and transmission for the Turin metropolitan area’. Innovative storytelling methods were used to facilitate interdisciplinary and multi-stakeholder collaboration. The stakeholders included a wide variety of actors such as energy producers, local municipalities, research institutions, natural parks, trade unions and associations from various sectors (consumers, homeowners, commerce, industry, small-medium enterprises, cooperatives, construction, students, etc.). The storytelling approach was applied and built on combinations of the dimensions: ‘centralization/decentralization’ and ‘renewable/non-renewable’ (Figure 1). In each story, the group imagined a common day in the 2030s Turin and the depicted scenarios were told in a plenary session, where participants voted for the most desirable one. A final story was then written by all participants, trying to understand what the current barriers and opportunities are to get to the envisioned state of the city, with special attention to new business models for energy providers and new roles for the social sciences. Health problems, loneliness, protests for poor air quality and world wars were all identified in the story as ingredients potentially impacting citizens’ daily lives, indicating leverages and signs with which to measure and tailor future energy strategies at the local level.

Storytelling as an approach to revive Beijing’s hutong lifestyle: The case of Shijia Hutong Museum

Located in Wangfujing, Courtyard 24 of Shijia Hutong, Shijia Hutong Museum is a historical museum first of its kind in China that became a comprehensive storytelling tool in itself, which using modern technologies and preserving the traditional building, revives the old lifestyle and social atmosphere of Beijing (map), where the high-speed development is still causing the disappearance of its most authentic cultural heritage: the courtyard houses. Dating back to the Qing Dynasty, used as a residence by famous writers and artists, Courtyard 24 performed different functions, especially related to education, before its renovation under the initiative of the local district government and the Prince’s Foundation. The museum today features items and techniques that collectively bring back memories of Beijing in the 1920s and 1930s. Beyond the many typical items exposed, ranging from bicycles to bus tickets used by the Beijingers in that era, and the multiple exhibitions, the museum has a very special storytelling room, the ‘Sound of Hutong’, where the visitor is brought back in time by professional audio equipment playing the records of traditional sounds that could be heard within Beijing’s hutongs of the 20th century (Figure 2). The preservation of the traditional courtyard house, in combination with the exposition and playing of typical items and sounds, forms a storytelling mechanism enabled by modern technologies that communicate in an interactive way the traditions, customs and qualities of the communities who lived the traditional courtyard houses of Beijing in the early 20th century (Figure 3). The urban regeneration project of Shijia Hutong allowed the protection of a strong cultural heritage reinforced by the storytelling approach, which helped reviving the residents’ declining sense of cultural memory of the Hutong as one of the most representative parts of the traditional style of Beijing’s old city.

6. References

Banks-Wallace J. 1999. “Storytelling as a tool for providing holistic care to women.” The American Journal of Maternal Child Nursing, 24, 1: 20-24

Chadwick S. 2004. “Peer-led programs: promoting resilience.” Educare News, 148: 24-26

Dean RG. 1995. “Stories of AIDS: the use of narrative as an approach to understanding in an AIDS support group.” Clinical Social Work Journal, 23 (3): 287-304

Deuten, J.J., Rip, A. 2000. “The Narrative Shaping of a Product Creation Process.” In: Brown, N., Rappert, B., Webster, A. (Eds.), Contested Futures: A Sociology of Prospective. Ashgate Publishing, Hampshire, pp. 65–87.

Garud, R., Gehman, J., Giuliani, A.P. 2014. “Contextualizing entrepreneurial innovation: A narrative perspective.” Research Policy 43, 1177–1188. doi:10.1016/j.respol.2014.04.015

Gubrium, J. F., & Holstein, J. H. 1997. The New Language of Qualitative Method. New York: Oxford University Press.

Harari, Y. N. 2014. Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. Random House.

Mourik, R., Robison, R., and Breukers, S. 2017. Storytelling - SHAPE ENERGY facilitation guidelines for interdisciplinary and multi-stakeholder processes. Cambridge: SHAPE ENERGY.

Reichert E. 1998. “Individual counseling for sexually abused children: a role for animals and storytelling.” Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 15, 3: 177-185.

Rossiter, M. 2002. Narrative and Stories in Adult Teaching and Learning. ERIC Digest. Visited in Dec 2019.

See more info and video of the best-practice case, Turin, here: Visited in Dec 2019.  

SHAPE. 2019. Europe’s Local Energy Challenges: stories and research priorities from 17 multi-stakeholder city workshops. Online: Visited in Dec 2019.

Shijia Hutong Museum. 2014. Visited in Dec 2019.

Shijia Hutong Museum: Memories of old Beijing. 2019. Visited in Dec 2019.

Storytelling as a tool: facilitation guidelines for interdisciplinary and multi-stakeholder processes from SHAPE ENERGY H2020 project: Visited in Dec 2019.

Storytelling. Visited in Dec 2019.

Wen Z., Liu J., Zheng Q., GUO C., Zhen Y. 2017. Tracing the historical evolution of Shijia Hutong: For a new approach of Hutong renovation and integral protection of Beijing Old City. [Jiāqiáng lǎo chéng zhěngtǐ bǎohù tànsuǒ hútòng gǎizào tújìng zhuīxún shǐjiā hútòng de lìshǐ yìnjì] in Chinese. Beijing Planning Review, 6: 115-123

7. Author(s) of the article

Badiaa Hamama (THSA), Marius Korsnes (NTNU)