Crossposted from Common Cause. This Common Cause Campaign Case Study is part of a series of stories that share the experience of organisations which grasp the importance of cultural values in third sector campaigning. We hope that these real-life examples of transformation inspire and empower you to push organisational boundaries and improve how we campaign together.
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“Stories and storytelling lie at the heart of human experience – since the beginning of humankind we have shared through stories the events, beliefs and values that make us who we are. In this complex and diverse world, storytelling provides something all people have in common; it is the very essence of how our mind works, the way in which we understand one another.” Andy Jasper, Eden Project
The Eden Project in Cornwall has become one of the most-visited attractions in the UK since it was built to mark the Millennium. Most famous for the enormous Rainforest Biome, Eden hosts a large number of campaigns and behaviour change programmes working on environment, climate change, education and regeneration.
Of course, Eden provides information on biodiversity. But, at least as importantly, it also tries to connect people emotionally and physically to global sustainability issues through a mixture of interpretative techniques. Visitors learn from their whole experience, not just one exhibit, plant or artefact. Eden creates this experience through spectacular horticulture, an unashamed assault on the senses, allowing visitors to take things personally – connecting them to the beauty of the natural world.
I met with Justine Quinn, Andy Jasper, Richard Good and many other staff members when I came to visit Eden over a weekend to explore how they create transformational experiences and share stories of meaning to promote concern about bigger-than-self challenges.
How does Eden use story?
The central story of Eden is one of regeneration and connection to nature. As visitors arrive they see large photos of the old china clay quarry that Eden used to be before walking into the now verdant site. The tone of the entire experience is hopeful; an expansion of what we think is possible. Eden’s narrative explores how humans can not only damage the environment, but make it more beautiful and healthy too.
Stories are everywhere on site. A team of five storytellers roams the Biomes bringing the plants to life in the imagination of children and adults alike. Richard explained how stories leave the audience with the freedom to interpret the information they hear. By inviting audiences to participate in creating meaning, the values and actions that visitors take away from Eden are their own. Views aren’t imposed on anyone; everything is co-created.
In addition to the storytellers, there are pollinators – teaching crafts, building dens, making music – who bring the place to life and contribute to a sense of community. They also collect stories from visitors that they then share with others later on, about how people used to grow their own food (from elderly visitors), or how things are done elsewhere in the world (from visitors coming from abroad). The stories act as a vessel for information that might otherwise be easily forgotten, and through conversation, each story becomes an experience in and of itself. Participation happens through these personal stories, because if a story is personally told, it will be personally listened to. The impersonal becomes personal through the art of narrative.
Storytelling, done well, creates a sense of trust and can shift individual consciousness. This direct engagement with stories is often an unusual experience for visitors – and many react as this one does –
“At first, it made me feel a little bit awkward, a little bit embarrassed…but in the end it felt very good. Yes, it was very good.” Visitor feedback
The Seed sculpture housed in the Core Education Centre at Eden is part of the meaning-making machine, full of the symbolism of rebirth that the Eden story embodies. Richard’s experience of visitors is that they often are looking for something profound, that they want their heart to be engaged. Through the rich stories shared at Eden, visitors are able to be part of something bigger than themselves in a two-way conversation.
Even the gift shop uses story – every product on sale needs to be recycled, locally produced, made from plant-materials, fairly traded or educational!
How does Eden engage intrinsic values?
The experience engages values of community and relationships to friends and family. Rather than explaining how families can spend time outside together to increase wellbeing, for example, Eden’s play equipment is a great set of ‘loose parts’ (trampoline poles, cardboard boxes) to get kinds to play around the playing field. The idea is that by experiencing the fun together as a family using only a cardboard box it can be recreated at home.
Self-directed learning and creativity values are abound in Eden. There are no high-tech screens anywhere on site, so everything is experiential in the truest sense of the word. One exhibit, working with the Oxfam GROW campaign, aims to inform people about global hunger and poverty through learning about food crops as they grow on site and different eating patterns around the world.
Through hosting weddings, music concerts, ice-skating and circus performances, Eden strengthens the emotional connection that people, especially those living locally, have to the place. It becomes a place of meaning – beyond the immediate attraction of the Biomes. The profile of local visitors is even broader than the general visitor profile because of these popular programmes. Intrinsic values are brought into these experiences through the unity with nature, and connection to family and friends while at Eden.
By making every ticket an annual season ticket, Eden encourages people to come back regularly – to build a deeper engagement with the place (for the same price as a one-off visit). There’s also a strong web and social media presence that continue the conversation with everything from gardening tips, green business training courses and updates from the site.
Conversation not campaigning
Perhaps the most enhanced examples of relying on visitor self-direction values is the way in which Eden engages with thorny topics like palm oil production. While walking through the Rainforest Biome, visitors encounter a small exhibit and a staff member who engages passersby on the topic, asking them about what products they use that contain palm oil. Rather than pushing one side of the debate, staff foster conversation to allow visitors to make up their own mind, and engage each other in sharing points of view.
Eden also hosts a number of events where ethical questions like palm oil use are debated, but the primary audience interaction is not through petitions but encouraging people to think for themselves.
These conversations are also fostered in the design of the space. The café, completely remodeled after a wrecking flood, now has an open kitchen in the center of the building, and communal tables at which visitors are primed for interaction.
How are they measuring impact?
Andy leads the research and evaluation team who measure and observe everything from visitor flow, attraction and holding power (how many and for how long do people engage with something) and visitor learning. One metric they use is to see how visitors remember certain facts and change their understanding of key concepts and overarching principles of sustainability before and after a visit to Eden. For example, kids are asked to draw a rainforest before and after their visit, and the differences in the way they describe the detail, extent of vocabulary, breadth and depth of conceptual understanding illustrates how much they learn. The change in variety and volume of the plants are marked. Post-visit pictures also start to include animals and humans – an indicator that they understand how humans can live sustainably as part of the natural world. Extended vocabulary of the natural world is another such indicator.
What does this mean for us as change makers?
Eden has successfully created a place where the public’s intrinsic values are engaged and strengthened without having come to Eden for that reason. Through self-directed learning, creativity and connection to the natural world, the physical renewal of Eden’s landscape is reflected in the affirmation of intrinsic values in the visiting public. It does all of this without lecturing or directing action – but through adventurous play, stories and conversation. Eden understands that everyone is capable of reconnecting to the natural world, and that we all have an intrinsic value set within us. Eden has found a way to unlock that better self inside all of us.
If the public engages with your organisation through specific places, how can you create experiences that call forth the public’s intrinsic sense of self? Can you create a space where people feel they belong – a place of meaning? And how can you start to skillfully use narrative as a way of weaving together members’ stories with your organisational story? Finally, what innovative metrics can you start to use to validate the learning experiences that you are giving the public?