Shaping the Future with Transmedia Storytelling

The emergence of transmedia storytelling presents a tremendous opportunity to those working professionally to shape visions of the future. Shaping the future means shaping popular perceptions of the future and transmedia storytelling can be a powerful tool for doing that.

Over the past two decades I’ve used a lot of different techniques in my role as a professional foresight practitioner and futurist. Given my background as a journalist — more that 15 years as a newspaper and magazine writer and many more years writing the occasional freelance piece — I’ve always felt that storytelling needs to be an integral part of the toolkit that futures professionals use.

I’ve been reading science fiction since as far back as I remember. As a science fiction fan I had the great pleasure of being on the set during the taping of Ray Bradbury’s The Veldt, one of the episodes from The Ray Bradbury Theatre television series that ran from 1985 through 1992.

This particular episode was produced in the late 1980s and has a distinctive ’80s look that makes it seem dated now but the story itself, first published as a short story in 1950, is ageless. Looking at the episode now and re-reading the original short story brings into clear focus a number of the human aspects associated with technologies that Bradbury imagined almost 65 years ago and which, at the time, were purely science fiction. Now, however, as information technology advances relentlessly, some aspects of the story are already reality and things like virtual reality and augmented reality are with us in their early iterations.

Today’s complex media environment is changing audience expectations of how, when, and where information is consumed. Media convergence is driving the development of new forms of storytelling in which integrated narratives are presented across multiple media. Participatory engagement of audiences through games, remixing content, and original user-created content is increasingly common.

The rapid evolution of digital media technology makes transmedia storytelling a viable option in foresight projects. Professional and prosumer hardware and software provides sophisticated, low-cost tools for the production of transmedia stories. Consumer level cameras can shoot high definition video and still images. Software like Adobe’s Creative Suite provides a series of applications for creating illustrations, editing photographs, recording and editing audio and video, developing websites, and creating e-books for a monthly subscription of around $50. Other applications, some free, can be used to create three-dimensional images of people, objects, and settings that can show what exists only in the imagination. Using these tools will give futures practitioners an opportunity to develop transmedia stories that engage individuals, organizations, and popular culture in a way that was not possible in the past.

Storytelling as a guide to the future can be traced back to the very beginnings of civilization and has been used to foster the development of new values by linking the present and future. Storytelling’s ability to trigger or block change has focused attention on their use in change management efforts.

In the early 1990s, while in the graduate program in futures studies at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, I used storytelling techniques along with role-playing during workshops in which participants took on the personas of citizens of 2030. Another technique used at the time was the creation of mockups of newspapers or magazines to highlight key issues through stories set at a particular time in the future. At about the same time, the futures consulting firm GBN used live stage performances to act out scenarios developed during multi-day scenario workshops. More recently, narrative and storytelling have become a common topic for discussion among futures practitioners. As I’ve noted elsewhere, transmedia storytelling techniques been used in a number of projects designed to change perceptions on key issues or encourage social activism.

In an article published in the Journal of Futures Studies I take a deeper look into how transmedia storytelling can be integrated into the field of futures studies. The article contains a framework for developing transmedia stories that transmedia practitioners will also find helpful no matter what their field of interest.

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