Digital Tools, Immersive Storytelling and Flood Engagements
Chris Skinner, Leader of The SeriousGeoGames Lab, discusses the use of digital tools to inform people of environmental issues, particularly flooding.
The global Covid-19 pandemic and consequent periods of lockdown have really highlighted to us the value of digital tools. As much as we all moan about the glitches and flaws in programmes like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, could you imagine how much more difficult interactions would have been without them? Digital tools have been a lifeline in these times and when we do come out the other end, and we will, they should be at the heart of the drive to create a new, and better, normal.
Digitals tools exist online and help us achieve tasks. They can take the form of software, like the aforementioned Zoom and Microsoft Teams, they could be websites, or they could be other resources, like videos or games. The Yorkshire Property Flood Resilience website you are reading this blog on is itself a digital tool and as you explore it you will find further digital tools within it. There is a growing appreciation for the role digital tools have in public engagement to build flood resilience, providing information, resources, and forums for discussion. By being online, they can achieve a greater reach than face-to-face engagements and communicate with new audiences - it is not about replacing face-to-face, it is about opening up new methods to make contact and increase accessibility.
My project, the SeriousGeoGames Lab, which is part of the Energy and Environment Institute, University of Hull, creates digital tools to try and inform and interest people in environmental issues, particularly issues around flooding. Five years ago we launched our flagship virtual reality activity, Flash Flood!, that has been exhibited across the country, including at the Royal Society and the Natural History Museum. It tells the story of a river valley that undergoes a major transformation due to a, you guessed it, flash flood. We built it using field survey data from a real river and is based on an event that occurred there in 2007. My own research has shown that using virtual reality in this way creates a positive experience for audiences and increases their desire to learn more about flood-related topics (Skinner, 2020).
Flash Flood! was converted into a 360 video and uploaded to YouTube. It is a form of immersive storytelling, a technique that uses videogame technology, virtual reality, and 360 video to help place viewers of a story closer to the narrative. When done right, this closeness can increase the emotional connection with the story. It can be extremely powerful and wide-reaching - the Inundation Street 360 video, made with BetaJester Ltd, shows people what it is like to find your house flooded and has been viewed over 1.5 million times by a global audience on YouTube.
When combined with real flood testimonies, digital tools can propel immersive storytelling to a different level. Recently, we worked with social scientists at Lancaster University (see their Expert View here) to bring the real-life story of a flood-affected child to life. Help Callum puts you in the shoes of a 12 year old boy who had to leave his home due to flooding. You are transported into the centre of his world and you hear him tell his story using his own words. Many have reported back to us about being moved to tears by the experience. Callum wanted his voice heard and for his experiences to make things better for flood-affected children.
Ultimately, anybody creating digital tools to engage people with flood-related issues is wanting to achieve one thing - to increase flood resilience. We build flood resilience, from individuals to society, by getting people to make changes, for example, individuals signing up for flood warnings, home owners installing property flood resilience measures, or city planners investing in blue-green infrastructure to manage water in the urban environment. To be effective it is important that digital tools are designed with these things in mind.
Research in behavioural psychology has identified and described a ‘value-action’ gap between individuals’ knowledge and concerns about environmental issues and their behaviour towards them (e.g., Kollmuss and Agyeman, 2002). The behavioural models the research produces help to explain why people might report they consider recycling important but then end up throwing things into the waste bin, for example. This value-action gap affects flood resilience too - a household survey in Hull by the Energy and Environment Institute found that 40% of respondents reported to be concerned about flooding however less than 20% had even signed up for flood warnings.
These behavioural models can be complex and detailed but we do not need degree in psychology to understand how to put it into action. When approaching my work with digital tools I choose to keep in mind three key elements from the Kollmuss and Agyeman (2002) model - knowledge, agency, and norms. To take flood resilience building action, a digital tool needs to provide an individual all three of these. However, even if your tool only hits one or two of these areas it can be beneficial, as long as doing so does not negatively impact the others - this is a trap many fall into.
Knowledge/Concern - if people only knew the risk of flooding then they would definitely act on it, right? Although this is partly correct, it simply does not work like this in reality. People need knowledge of the issues and they need that knowledge to make them concerned enough to give them the compulsion to act in the first place. However, knowledge and concern alone are not enough and assuming that they are is a big pitfall.
Agency - the second facet people need is agency. Agency is an individual’s own perception of their power to change their situation - sometimes called their ‘locus of control’. People need to know what actions are needed, how to make those actions happen, and believe that those actions will make a real difference. It is here that focussing on knowledge and concern alone can cause issues and be detrimental to what your digital tool is trying to achieve. An example would be telling the people of Hull that the city will be underwater in the future to try and get them concerned about flooding and climate change. Not only is the statement incorrect, it makes the issue seem too big to solve and strips them of any agency in the situation (Rapley et al, 2014). Using fear can be an effective way to raise concern but it does so by producing an ‘eco-anxiety’ that makes people less likely to take action (Ojala, 2018). This is not about shying away from the seriousness of flooding and climate change but using fear without solutions does more harm than good.
Positive Norms - the third facet is demonstrating positive norms and this can be quite subtle and you need to be aware of how your messaging does this. People like to do what they see others doing first and are unlikely to make a change if they think they will be acting alone or that it is not normal to do so. The way a message is presented gives cues to what the expected behaviour is. To use my own example above reporting the Hull household flood survey, a message saying that only 20% of households have signed up to flood warnings actually tells people that it is normal to not sign up for the warnings and makes them less likely to do so! Changing this to something like “Over 24,000 households in Hull are signed up for flood warnings, why not join them?” flips the message and highlights signing up as the normal behaviour.
It is crucial to keep in mind that even when people have all three of these elements in place there still might be significant barriers for them to overcome, for example the financial and/or time costs in taking positive actions. Mostly we will not be able to address these using digital tools alone, but we can help bring people to a place where they are more likely to engage with projects and agencies that seek to help people overcome these barriers. Digital tools should always exist to compliment and support deeper and more meaningful face-to-face engagements.
Kollmuss, A. and Agyeman, J., 2002. Mind the gap: why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behavior?. Environmental education research, 8(3), 239-260.
Ojala, M., 2018. Eco-anxiety. RSA Journal, 164, no. 4 (5576), 10-15. Available at: www.jstor.org/stable/26798430
Rapley, C. G., De Meyer, K., Carney, J., Clarke, R., Howarth, C., Smith, N., Stilgoe, J., Youngs, S., Brierley, C., Haugvaldstad, A., Lotto, B., Michie, S., Shipworth, M., Tuckett, D., 2014. Time for Change? Climate Science Reconsidered: Report of the UCL Policy Commission on Communicating Climate Science, 2014. UCL Policy Commission on Communicating Climate Science, University College London: London, UK. Available at: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1462114/
Skinner, C., 2020. Flash Flood!: a SeriousGeoGames activity combining science festivals, video games, and virtual reality with research data for communicating flood risk and geomorphology. Geoscience Communication, 3(1), 1-17.