Systems Storytelling

The new urban culture of innovation is revealing to us again an old basic truth of cities: that cities are not the streets and buildings found within a set of legal boundaries, but the agglomeration of all the systems that make life in those cities possible, from food supply to financial markets, watersheds to warning systems to prevent pandemic disease outbreaks.

Because we’re so unused to thinking in systems, and because so many of those systems operate largely outside our view, few of us even know the shape of the systems upon which our lives depend, much less all the other more complicated, abstract systems that extend outward from our cities to cover the globe.

All of us depend on systems each of which are too large, intricate and complex for any one person to fully understand, much less manage: no one anywhere understands their interplay in its totality. We are forced, in order to think well about the world, to engage in collaborative thinking across disciplines, fields and places. We are forced to build models, construct working analogies, learn to debate systems functions and probable outcomes.

This need to grapple with complexity and interconnectedness as we remake our cities demands more and more facility with telling stories about systems. We require elegance in apprehending complex truths combined with skill in turning models into narratives.

This “systems storytelling” skill is absolutely critical in bright green cities in order to engage people to with their roles as citizens, creators and consumers in helping to evolve and support the kinds of systems that make possible more sustainably prosperous lives. Systems storytelling is an essential 21st century civic and journalistic skill.

But it’s not a skill we’re terribly good at yet. Systems storytelling is still in it infancy. I’d love to see a major, big-prize competition for the best, most insightful systems storytelling for a popular audience. Or even, for that matter, a good conference on the topic.