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Addressing the most obvious question about us are Sarah Stein Lubrano, Strategy Director at Future Narratives Lab, and Daniel Stanley, the lab’s Executive Director.

Sarah: Okay, so let’s get right to it, with perhaps the trickiest question: what do you mean by ‘narratives’?

Daniel: It’s the obvious place to start! Certainly it’s a word people use in many different ways, not always very clearly, but one of the more straightforward ways I like is just the things we take for granted – the collections of ideas and concepts in everyday life and conversation that don’t need to be said, as they’re assumed to be true. 

The reason that’s important is they are very often what governs what we see as possible and impossible, or relevant and irrelevant, so they have a lot of power over what is seen as even worthy of consideration. As a result, these narratives are definitely limiting as much as they are enabling – in particular we tend to focus a lot on many cases in which things that have actually been politically or technically determined are presented as the natural order of things, like the way technology is associated with progress, or the inertia of our current land system.   

There’s a lot more that could be said about this and different ways people think about narrative, but hopefully that gives a good starting sense of how we use the concept. We do have a section on our website that gives our working definition in a bit more detail, as well as explaining what it means in practice in terms of what we actually do.

S: And — why a ‘Lab’?

D: That’s an easier one! Really we just chose that word because we wanted to point to the way we are actively investigating and experimenting. We analyse existing narratives in our society, and then create and test new ones to aid in social change. So we’re a research organisation really. We develop new approaches to problems, and then test them–in contrast to some approaches that we see as a bit too theoretical.

S: So then bringing that together — what exactly does a ‘Narratives Lab’ do then?

D: In practice, it’s a lot of different stuff really. But recently I’ve been describing what we do as generally falling along a spectrum between two points. At one end, the more in-depth narrative research and analysis, where the intention is to dig into and get a better understanding of a particular narrative landscape, often to inform strategy, or start a conversation. And then at the other end, the more implementation focussed work, where someone has a practical challenge, often around communication or messaging, and they want us to bring a narrative perspective, but also particularly to create and test new approaches to achieve a certain goal. 

In reality most projects are some combination of those two things, but some certainly are more at one end than other. So for instance, the work that we did with PSHE Association, was about looking at the narratives that are already in place around education in the UK, getting an in depth understanding and mapping of the relevant context and how people already think about their issue area.

S: That was a great one in this respect, definitely.

D: Yeah it was a whole process through from the initial interviews, right up to publication of a report, launch event and beyond. But at the heart of it was a mapping out how different groups of people saw the goal of education–there’s a particularly strong division between those who believe in the goal of “skills” and those who believe in the goal of “knowledge,” but a lot of variation and nuance, also. What was great was that PSHE Association understood that there was a really powerful narrative dynamic in their world at play, and they knew they needed to understand it better in order to achieve their goals.

S: Yeah what I really enjoyed about that project was I got to interview all kinds of interesting people, the education secretary for Tony Blair, for example, and the folks at the OECD who think about this stuff, but also the head of a Teachers’ Union. It was fascinating to hear what they thought about not only how the education system works but how it should work (and where they saw the other players in that field!) On the one hand, people would often tell me how wrong other people had it, but there was also a lot of fertile ground for compromise once you dug into the weeds. And perhaps the narrative is ripe for change there because everyone is aware that there’s a big crisis incoming in at least two areas: teacher recruitment and children’s mental health.

D: Yes, it’s a combined crisis/opportunity in that area! And I think this sort of mapping and contextual analysis that we did there is present in all our work really, and plays a crucial role, even if it’s less obvious in some of the projects that are more about messaging and testing and so on. 

One of the other things we do also is quite a bit of convening–bring together related groups who have a shared challenge and want to build a shared narrative. We held a workshop with Landworkers’ Alliance in Bristol last year bringing together experts to look at narrative barriers to food systems change, and we’re doing some more similar convening work soon in Europe on the same subject.

S: I think that convening is also very interesting work to do because it means that the people in question often leave not only with a better shared understanding of the challenge at hand but also often plans to work together.

D: Yes. And then of course, we can build lots of work on the back of our findings, once we’ve done some research. So for the PSHE association, we not only got them a bunch of intelligence and insights, but also their published report, a panel event, which built their network, and now some blog posts after. The analysis we do with partners usually gets built into new things. The network in particular was quite useful to [PSHE]; it gave them credibility and has likely prevented people pigeonholing them.

S: I think it also helped them prioritise their messaging and communications. After that, they talked to us about how they now knew what it made sense for them to be speaking about publicly, and how they wanted to situate themselves in the “debate” that was happening. The work helped them escape bad paradigms eg. false binaries.

D: Yeah we can’t take full credit as I know they had a lot of these plans at least as ideas before working with us, but some of the stuff they have done since is really great to see – they’ve created a research arm with its own projects called Fully Human, including an ongoing podcast, investigating topics really at the cutting edge of thinking about what education can and should be about. Highly recommended!

S: Yep! It’s one of my favourite groups we’ve worked with.

D: We don’t have favourites! Hah. Honestly though, we do work with a really wide variety of partners. Generally they (partner organisations) are experts in a particular field. Usually with a social mission… and also with some kind of challenge or barrier. Sometimes it’s a funder who is concerned about a particular area, and helping the organisations they support to understand and influence it better.

I do want to mention another specific example though, because I think they’re both interesting and show that other end of the spectrum in the kind of work we do.  

Make Polluters Pay is an organisation campaigning for a ‘Loss and Damage Fund’ to compensate for damage done across the world by climate change. They wanted specific guidance about how to message around this campaign. There’s a lot of research being done on communications in the climate space, so they had quite a lot of studies and data to draw upon, but not a clear sense of how it could be interpreted or applied. Partly I think that’s because many of the studies done on climate communications are just straightforward polling or public attitudes test studies, which have big limitations – but that’s a post for another day. 

In this case what we did is take that existing data, speak to the people who had been wrestling with the challenge of communicating on the topic, and then approach it from a narrative analysis perspective to really distil and define what people’s actual assumptions about pollution and responsibility really are. And through that we identified some of the key barriers to getting their message across, how these could be pre-empted or undermined through their communications, and realised this in some clear new messaging and guidance, which helped them figure out what to prioritise when communicating.

S: I think one challenge of this work is that it really makes the most sense to analyse narrative in a specific set of circumstances.

D: Yes! Sometimes issues are just not quite ready to be rethought by the public, the existing narrative hasn’t “failed” yet in some sense…

S: Or there isn’t the right kind of organisation to implement the long-term work that might be needed. We’re always hoping people we work with really have the resources to redo their communications… Do you have any thoughts on how to judge this, and what people should be prepared to do if they want to influence a popular narrative?

D: Well, firstly what we’ve just said — the time has to be right, there has to be resources available to remake things. And then of course you need a narrative challenge of some kind. The problem really should have to do with how people see the issue and the limits of their understanding or imagination. It’s often good to work together if things are stuck in a binary or if it’s unclear what should be said about a particular problem at hand.

It can help to carefully narrow things down, too. For example, we worked with Landworkers’ Alliance. We quickly realised it was too big of a problem to change how British people think about “food sovereignty”, as they originally had in mind, because it is simply a very large and abstract concept. So we just focused on coming up with a realistic way of approaching three more defined areas, and convened experts to talk about this.

S: What was your favourite project of the last year or two?

D: That is a difficult question to answer! We’ve done some really interesting work, as we’ve grown as an organisation. I think alongside Make Polluters Pay and ‘How to Disagree Better about Education’ (with the PSHE Association), I’ve really enjoyed the stuff we’ve been able to do on technology and AI. Probably the most standard ‘project’ part of that has been a Design Lab workshop on Data Narratives we did for a great organisation called Connected by Data, but there’s also been a messaging guide on AI we did for New Economy Organisers Network, and an essay for Joseph Rowntree Foundation on AI Narratives. Even going back further we ran a couple of events on similar projects during the pandemic, in our early years. So it’s been something we’ve been interested in for a long time, and hope to do more on soon definitely.

S: And what do you hope to do coming up?

D: Well we have a lot on actually at the moment, so it’s pretty clear what we’ll be doing for the next few months! Some really interesting projects, developing and testing messaging around mining in the green transition, on speech and language development, and child financial harms. All really important topics, but not the easiest to communicate, so really worthwhile but challenging, which is how we like it! 

And then there’s a great project I mentioned briefly earlier, designing and convening a narrative workshop in Ireland on agriculture systems change. And some really exciting other prospects on the horizon. 

Alongside this, we’re always striving to invest in our own areas where we see the need and opportunity for us to contribute also, so there’s a couple of projects there which we’ll be doing soon that I can’t talk about yet, but which are obviously great to be able to do.

Curious about our work or looking to collaborate? Get in touch here.

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Future Narratives Lab

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E: info@futurenarrativeslab.org