Guidelines for science-based storytelling

1. Commitment to convey scientific insight
The role of the artist is slightly different from the traditional approach (i.e. Tolstoy: the role of the artist is to convince the audience of his own ideas). The challenge is to stay committed to scientific findings while employing a language that humans are naturally equipped to understand: stories.

2. Exploration of ethical dilemmas
The role of the artist is to embed scientific knowledge and insights into personal stories and highlight the ethical dilemmas that arise from those insights.

3. Dedication to embracing complexity
Many new findings in sustainability science would provide excellent material for tragedies, or dystopian science fiction novels. Or it might be tempting to create works with happy endings so that we all feel better about our collective fate. Neither is likely to help us move toward a sustainable future. A constructive approach that embraces the complexity of our situation entails a realistic assessment of where we are, a recognition of the need for grieving, and a positive vision of the path forward that can propel us into action.

4. Orientation toward Action
The work does not explicitly tell audiences what to do but is designed to prompt
questions: ‘Now that I can see the impact that scientific insights will have on my life and on our world, what can I do’?

Featured Stories

Piece of Cake


Piece of Cake takes the PNAS paper ‘Impact of population growth and population ethics on climate change mitigation policy’ as a starting point and grapples with what findings about resource depletion, climate change and demographic development mean for society. The play was written by the Chinese-American playwright Lanxing Fu, co-director of the New York-based eco-theater company Superhero Clubhouse, in collaboration with one of the paper’s authors, Fabian Wagner, senior researcher at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Strategy behind the story

Past, present, and future exist in one space as four generations of a family, spanning 1950 to 2050, gather around a table to share an absurd, abundant, limitless feast. The play traverses a century of humans’ changing relationship to resources and shifting ideas of what it means to have children.

Genre: Theater Play
Format: One Act
Intended audience: General Public


Good Neighbour


Good Neighbour, by Canadian playwright and artistic director of The Arctic Circle, Chantal Bilodeau, is based on Chapter 3 of the WWF Living Planet Report 2018, authored by David Leclere and Pierro Visconti, research scholars at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. It focuses on the challenges posed by biodiversity loss, its various causes, and possible ways to address it.

Strategy behind the story:

The protagonist takes measures to reverse biodiversity loss.

Genre: Theater Play
Format: One-act
Intended audience: General Public




UnEarthing is an interactive performance by artists and scientists that investigates the relationship between humans and nature, and aims to reveal robust measures for a sustainable existence.

Resource depletion, climate change, biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse – a rapidly accumulating list of crises may evoke fear of a pending apocalypse. But the original meaning of this ancient greek word is ‘when things reveal themselves’.

“We are living in an interesting time where a revelation has occurred and we must change course.”
“Given the combination of dazzling possibilities and existential threats, it is becoming clear that our generation, along with the next, is engaged in redefining what it means to be human. Humanity’s dominance on Earth means that we must take responsibility for managing the planet, at least for the foreseeable future.”

Like these two perceptions of the present moment, there are two schools of thought in the scientific world. One advocates for staying within the Earth’s boundaries to overcome the planetary crisis and avoid system collapse. The other trusts technology, the fruit of human ingenuity, to save us. In this interactive performance, the audience is taken on a journey through human history to discover what values and resulting worldviews have brought us to the present, has the opportunity to affect the course of the unfolding events and is challenged to develop a viable and responsible path forward.
Further information

Strategy behind the story

Narrator 1 tells the story of human evolution from the agricultural revolution to the present from the perspective of a person who sees the role of (hu)man as taking care of the planet. Narrator 2 sees (hu)man as the unique species who can bring progress through technological innovation. The dancers enact the story the narrators tell. The narrators alternate in telling the story sometimes disagreeing and asking to go back a bit in time, to retell the story from a different perspective until they arrive in the present where the audience is presented with the two types of solutions either requiring a change in behavior or technological progress. The audience is asked to negotiate a new binding agreement (‘Paris II’), thus becomes part of the story. In the last scene, inspired by the audiences’ attempts to compromise, the narrators attempt to tell the story for the future together.

Genre: Interactive Dance Theater Play
Format: One Act
Intended audience: Policy makers (can be adapted for the general public)


Urban Futures


Can we use literary fiction to predict urban futures?

How can we predict the futures of cities? We could study population statistics that record the number of births and deaths, and rate of migration, so as to anticipate the prospective sizes of cities. Or we could analyze technological trajectories and business trends to forecast economic possibilities.
Here is yet another way: the “Literary Method of Urban Design”, which employs works of fiction to predict likely scenarios. Literature usually does far more than entertain; it narrates upon the complicated challenges of life – often from the point of view of individual characters as they engage with the wider social world. The future is not opened up by just examining population trends or with advancing technology. It also involves an array of human responses to the changing patterns of society. Works of fiction are well placed to explore just how complicated and varied and unpredictable these responses can be – as they unfold their plots with peculiar characters and particular conflicts. Thus, anyone who contemplates the future of cities in any way could benefit from the Literary Method of Urban Design since it may very well prompt a broader outlook on the dangers and opportunities that lie ahead.

Strategy behind the story

At its simplest, this method comprises three steps:
1) select a work of literature
2) select a city
3) use the themes of the selected work of literature to design the future of the selected city.

Read 100 stories about the future of 100 cities HERE

Genre: Design
Format: Short Stories
Intended audience: Students of formal education