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  • Writer's picturekatrice horsley

Story-Driven Systemic Design

The image is from a workshop I delivered for SafeGrowth in New Orleans some years back. My work focused on re-storying communities and developing systems of support to make this happen. It is often the case that those who are directly affected by various systems are not involved in creating them. My work gave practical ideas for ensuring that the voices and stories of those impacted would be a vital part of any decision-making process - so that their stories could be shared, heard and valued.

I was relating the narrative process that I used to a friend who said it was really a design process ... I was intrigued and asked her to tell me more, she did and this led to me being in contact with the inspiring and visionary Pia McAleenan of Förnyelselabbet (The Renewal Lab) here in Sweden. Take a look at this link to have an idea of some of the work they do (it is in English.) The organisation, initiated by the Swedish Industry and Design Foundation believe systems change happen when the many feel engaged in setting the direction and feel supported testing it out. They want to empower citizens, practitioners and policy makers in this transformation. so that nobody falls through organisational gaps in the systems. In order to do this they use a systemic design approach to ensure that people's experiences are part of the process. So one could say that they want to hear stories from the people who experience the organisational gaps of the systems. This is where my work comes in, as all of the 'processes' that I have developed based on story and narrative structures, are focused on the sharing and telling of stories at a very granular level. The fact that story structures are used in the approach also provides a certain security and comfort to those people sharing their stories. (Take a look at the article I wrote for OUP that looks into this in a slightly different way here.) Let me explain.

Some years ago I delivered training to Research Fellows at LSE (London School of Economics) on narrative research techniques. Narrative research is part of human sciences and describes the process of collecting and analysing stories people are telling about their experiences and this qualitative analysis helps to then interpret the collected narrative data. However, it is also recognised that the power dynamic between researcher and the 'teller' can often prohibit the true sharing of stories and experiences. The interviewees will often give answers or relate stories that they feel the 'official' researcher wants to hear, rather than being truthful about their feelings and experiences. Many of the sensory techniques and processes I use, mitigate this effect by using non-literacy based approaches. (In the book, 'The Evaluator's Cookbook' that I co-wrote, I share a number of these techniques for collecting evaluative data.) Also when working purely with narrative, which by its very nature follows the 'storyline' of the persons experience, then the person is the one with the knowledge, not the interviewer/researcher. This inverts the power dynamic and the 'teller' becomes more confident and secure within the process. The use of artefacts and sensory materials to notate the 'narrative' also means that people are free to change the sequence of events within their story and additionally it provides a distance between themselves and that experience which enables them to be more reflective. (See my blog, The In-Between Space.) It is a simple yet impactful way of collecting complex stories.

What should happen when we collect those stories and share them with those who design the systems is something like this:

Whereby the sharing of the story with different agencies and stakeholders that are involved, create intersections of collaboration that support those who use the systems - so there are no big gaps that they can fall through.

I know some may say it is an over-simplification but I do believe that often the most complex problems require the most simple solutions. Story and the sharing of stories is a known aspect of what it is to be human - people recognise and feel secure with the idea of a story, perhaps with 3 challenges and 3 solutions, (the echoes of Goldilocks and the 3 Bears, The 3 Billy Goats Gruff are found within them.) Perhaps with a quest to find the solution to the demon of poverty, (think of the Heroes Journey.) If the processes we use are couched within this ancient memory that we have, then they will be more effective and impactful in enabling people to share the truth of their stories and for us to design systems that respond to those truths. I also think that many of the concepts around systems design and thinking are modelled and shown in traditional stories. In fact I think many of the older stories, especially those from the original 'One Thousand and One Nights' or from the Sanskrit 'Kathäsaritsägara' (Ocean of the sea of Story,) are mirroring complexity theory. Dave Snowden states that 'systems thinking' is goal-based, whilst 'complexity thinking' is direction-based and involves entanglement and intersections. He talks about the adjacent possible concept which is the question, "What is adjacent to where you are to which you can shift?" In the 'Thousand and One Nights' collection there are framework stories (that reflect the operating systems of the stories) and within them other stories that link and intersect, sometimes there are even two or three framework stories and everything becomes very complex! Often the characters within the stories make tiny incremental changes with each repetition of a task in order to become who they are destined to be. I think this whole area is worth far more attention.

Finally, one of the most important aspects of this work is in the language that we use. It is easy to develop a 'short-hand' language within our professional spheres. I have heard my daughter, who is a senior design researcher, talk to her colleagues and I literally have no idea of what is being said, with phrases such as, 'low hanging fruit, gigamapping and visual codexes.' Language can include people and make information accessible or exclude them and keep them out. In working with those who do not inhabit the 'design' world, it is necessary to be as inclusive as possible in the language that we use in order for them to know that they are important to us and the work we do; for without each voice being present and each story being valued, no system will be representative of those it aims to serve.

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