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Narrative

Another aspect of INSITE research, which is central to INSITE’S vision, concerns the role of narrative in general human acting, particularly in policy-making and in innovation policy organizations. As we already noted more than once, innovation processes generate inherently unpredictable novelty, especially with respect to the social and environmental consequences of innovation cascades. Yet systemic innovation policy requires taking action now, on the basis of sometimes very weak signals that something important may happen later. How do agents come to recognize the need to act and to generate coordinated action plans in such circumstances? One strategy, enacted even in prehistory by shamans reading bones or entrails, is to endow certain practices for deciphering the future with sufficient social legitimacy to act on the basis of their predictions.

All too often today, scientists have tried to claim this legitimacy, although, as the current policy debate around climate change indicates, they don’t necessarily attain it. We think that the aligned attributions and resulting coordinated action that are necessary prerequisites for systemic innovation policy result from causally convincing narratives that participants jointly construct, and the key to successful scientific intervention in the policy process is to help in this construction – as well as to provide sufficient monitoring and reinterpretation processes to determine when the narratives must be changed, with respect to which “characters” and “plot elements”. Human beings have a very long experience, filled with excellent models, in crafting action- guiding narratives. But our narratives suffer from one critical drawback, related to cognitive constraints on short-term working memory: narratives proceed according a logic of agency (character determines action and outcome), and we can only operate that logic on a very limited number of agents (the famous 7 ± 2).

ùWe have learned how to endow multi-individual organizations, like firms or states or even abstract entities like “markets”, with agency, but we cannot tell each other causally convincing stories whose plot depends on the dynamics of the interaction of many agents – there is a role here for models in helping to narrativize mass dynamics. INSITE research tries to tackle this problem from both theoretical and practical perspectives, by providing theory, methodology and tools that can assist participants in innovation processes construct causally convincing narratives that make explicit the actors and social values in play – and to generate actions that can help these participants guide the processes in what they regard as socially valuable directions.

The work of INSITE in narrative starts by developing an ontology for innovation cascades, that is, a minimal set of concepts and categories for constructing causally convincing narratives about historical and ongoing cascades. This ontology provides the vocabulary for describing the kinds of entities (agents, artifacts and attributions) that figure in cascades, the modalities through which these entities interact, the processes to which these interactions give rise, and the transformations that these processes effect. The ontology is built on the ISCOM theory of social organization (Lane et al., 2009, Ch. 1), with elaborations and refinement developed in dialogue with models and case studies. The theory itself can provide the basis of shared narratives within civil society that may play a very large role in assisting the process through which civil society organizes itself to assume a leadership role in reorganizing our society’s way of innovating in a socially positive direction.

A great part of our efforts are also dedicated to the development of a particularly important tool, the Storyboard, which will allow participants in the projects and the cascade of processes they induce to make sense of what is happening through the construction of coherent and convincing narratives, which they can use to generate coordinated action to drive the processes in the desired directions.