Insight article

Storytelling gets real: How we can world-build our way to a better future

Skid Row is many different things, depending on who you speak to.

At the level of moniker, it is a space defined both by placelessness and haunting, visceral proximity: a catchall catchphrase for the streets of deprivation and misfortune that squat, omnipresent, behind more comfortable, more affluent lives. To others, it’s an icon of the failed American Dream. To most, as the downtown LA for the down-and-out, Skid Row occupies a far more literal, yet equally impermanent, geography. For nearly 100 years, since 1920’s itinerant workers first flooded its streets, it has been the largest, most enduring homeless community in America; never officially designated, never planned, never provided for – yet searingly, undeniably, stubbornly manifest across the single square mile it occupies. In this exposed, juxtaposed world – around which skyscrapers and glossy apartments are emerging at speed, fuelled by the building boom that’s cannibalising remaining affordable housing – thousands of people have settled; many more since the credit crisis, which has seen a 23% spike in the county’s homelessness. The luckier ones have tents, makeshift shelters and trolleys. Many simply sleep in open air, enduring the relentless desert sun throughout the day.

To local officials, it’s a public health hazard and huge economic drain. Filthy needles litter the floor; gangs pitch tents and shift drugs; arson attacks on tents arise often from embittered neighbourhood feuds, damaging surrounding warehouses. The stench in the air is a reminder of the silent killers in the streets. With barely any accessible sanitation– around nine filthy cisterns to over 1,800 people – open-air defecation and urination regularly lead to deadly outbreaks of hepatitis, E. coli, meningitis, tuberculosis and much else besides.

The people of Skid Row are vulnerable, largely unemployed, often addicts, often suffering from poor mental health, sometimes ex-convicts. Yet to residents, Skid Row is also a community, with a strong sense of social injustice and agency – as evidenced by the thousands who last year voted to form their own council and unofficially elected their own mayor, known locally as General Jeff. Their problems, like the problems of all homeless people, are complex, interconnected and entrenched. There is no simple solve, and no clear political agenda to drive change through. And this pattern of soaring need, political obfuscation and frustrated efforts is replicated across western nations – at enormous economic, social and individual cost. So what is to be done?

Alex McDowell is not a politician, social worker or an urban planning expert. He has no expertise or experience with homelessness or poverty. He is more commonly known as the celebrated designer producer of films from Minority Report to Fight Club. Yet his work may be the answer to this mass social blight. By designing and realising complete, data-driven, alternative futures for the visionary projects he has shaped (Minority Report alone spawned multiple real-world patents), McDowell has forged the practice of world building: a blend of design and storytelling through which we are able to ‘prototype the future and provoke change’. Now, under the remit of narrative designer, McDowell heads up both the USC World Building Institute and Experimental design studio – a team governed by the belief that ‘[we] have the power to build the futures we want to inhabit. Not by following the trends set by our current constraints, but by leading each step forward through imagination and ingenuity’. At the heart of this discipline is the power of collaboration ‘to action the collective vision of our shared future.’

This may sound like lofty stuff, and it could be easy to dismiss in the face of such a grimy, glaring, immediate need. But for millennia, fiction has been the site of our most radical social revisioning. And today, technology-driven worlds mean we don’t have to stay on the page and in the individual mind to see a different world. At the Future of Storytelling, the softly-spoken McDowell urged us to see the deep power and pragmatism of this next-generation approach. The world’s problems, he said, are design flaws, not inevitability. They are a failure of collective vision. By listening carefully and learning from the wisdom of lived experience and diverse expertise – ‘coming to the table ignorant’ –  we can take our current trajectory and imagine a new, better path forward. We can design a complete world by breaking down its structures – broken, in McDowell’s framework (‘The Mandala’), into context, scales, domains and ecologies. And when we can collectively tell a new story about what could be possible – when we can experience it as a vividly, coherently designed world – we can extrapolate backwards to solve the problems of the present.

For storytellers everywhere, for anyone involved in change of any kind, the potency of this practice cannot be underestimated. We can shape the future, instead of being shaped by it. We can build the world we want, not the world that will be. But we have to believe in the future we imagine before we can take action. We have to share the vision. And this is where storytelling becomes empowerment in its rawest form. To tell the future story – to build belief – to make it happen – has always been the art of leaders everywhere. At The Storytellers, this is what we help our clients to enact across their organisations. But in our VUCA world, where so little can be promised or known absolutely, this is no easy task. World-building is future storying born in volatility and speed. It draws on the wisdom of crowds to build the spaces we don’t know and can’t individually imagine. It allows for rapid prototyping and iterative testing. It uses virtual spaces to tests outcomes, not just imagination. It draws on the power of fiction to reform reality in ways that entirely redefine human agency.

Through this practice, the Experimental team has helped a Bedouin tribe of Saudi Arabia envision a sustainable future community; native Alaskan tribes engage the next generation in the story of their future and develop new food practices; biologists collaborate at quantum scales by allowing them to enter the world of a cell.  Now, McDowell and his team are working with the Skid Row community to help them build their own better future as a self-sufficient, empowered community. Watch this space.

Bex Felton

Senior Strategist and Writer