Transformative Climate Media for Urban Futures – Reflections on our international and interdisciplinary symposium (24-25 January 2023)
Tobias Gralke
#TransformativeClimateMedia #Symposium #Reflections

How can audiovisual media and digital spaces help cities and regions reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the new realities of climate change – in other words, make sustainable local futures imaginable, negotiable, and desirable?

This was our guiding question when we first came up with the idea of a symposium on climate media in the urban context. Given that cities are among the most important sites and actors in the context of climate change – with about 80 percent of global energy consumption and over 70 percent of CO2 emissions, but also highly vulnerable to climate impacts – an advanced discussion of how to develop and use climate media for urban futures was long overdue. We had some good as well as bad practice examples in mind – but more so the feeling that we were looking for something that might not yet exist. Also, we knew that we were dealing with a topic that requires approaches from all kinds of disciplines. So, we said: Let’s try to invite some of the most interesting practitioners and researchers we know or whom we want to get to know! Let’s have an exchange of experiences and ideas on how to unleash the power of audiovisual media to not only support decision- and policy-making, but to help urban citizens understand ‘the future’ as something they can make. After several months of conceptualising and planning, we finally gathered 16 contributors from a wide range of professional backgrounds and locations such as Australia, the United States, Peru, Colombia, the Netherlands, Greece, and Germany for two days of discussions at the Brandenburg Center for Media Studies (ZeM).

Imagination, Interaction, Impact

The programme spanned across three conceptual dimensions: imagination, interaction, impact. Imagination referred to the potential of audiovisual media to both express and shape how we see the world and what subjective or personal images we have of the future. It also referred to how the (collective) imagination of urban climate futures can be fostered by audiovisual arts and media, critical theory and innovative practices, or how it can get constrained by dominant imagery, perceptions, and discourses. Several contributions addressed this imaginative dimension: by showing how multisensorial experiences of nonhuman species can be integrated into scenario building for future cities (Melissa Ingaruca), how we can use speculative soundscapes to experience plausible future states of human and more-than-human life (Eleni-Ira Panourgia), or through situated media as forms of place-based storytelling about imagined urban climate futures (Sarah Barns).

Interaction referred to the power of audiovisual media and digital spaces to serve as more than a communicational one-way street. While climate communication research mostly focuses on unidirectional aspects (framing, audience targeting and corresponding media effects etc.), only a few studies and projects so far emphasise the potential of climate media to motivate interactions or to foster negotiation processes about societal futures. This, however, is crucial when we think about how urban climate media can not only act as top-down knowledge brokers to passive consumers, but more as tools of meaning-making, of co-creative knowledge production, and not least of democratisation. Many contributions touched upon this dimension, for instance by discussing narrative approaches to interactive media (Ilan Chabay) and the potentials of i-docs (interactive documentaries) for raising climate awareness (Tobias Conradi) – as well as by presenting insights from participatory theatre projects staging the climate crisis (Imanuel Schipper) and by using Augmented Reality-based storytelling to visually transform the city centre of Halle (Saale) (Maren Schuster). Other presentations looked beyond Europe, for instance at using co-creative methodologies for self-built neighbourhoods in Medellín (Catalina Ortiz) or at co-developing educational street plays in Bangkok and Berlin (Myriel Milicevic).

Impact, finally, referred to the question of what we can achieve by means of communication and how the achievements can be substantiated. While ‘impact’ often gets used in marketing slang, it can encompass a wide range of meanings: from affecting individuals emotionally, incentivising changes in personal behaviour and attitudes, influencing and mobilising smaller or larger groups for political action, and contributing to structural changes on the level of institutions, policies, practices, and processes. Particularly this structural layer, however, remains underexposed in most of the existing research. While the broad academic debate about different strategies of climate communication and its impact on specific target groups and individuals has been going on for a while, more systemic approaches and impact strategies as well as the operative use of different media forms in transformative processes have often been neglected. Some presentations at our symposium tried to fill this ‘structure gap’: by presenting insights from an interdisciplinary project on the use of science fiction for spatial planning (Steffen Krämer & Moritz Maikämper), using AR technology for training purposes in regional disaster management (Björn Stockleben), and developing tools for local and regional decarbonisation planning (Bernd Hezel & Tobias Gralke), as well as reflecting on how different imaginative logics influence the design and outcome of interactive and deliberative processes (Wytske Versteeg).

Where do we go from here?

The two days left us all with a plethora of new ideas and connections, and sparked questions such as: How can we be mindful of and address existing political, economic, and social power structures in the development and research of media which claims to be transformative? What are the levers for upscaling and consolidating future projects so that they can play more than a temporally and spatially limited role? And how can we foster an understanding of climate media products that moves beyond mere solutionism and instead embraces their open and processual character? Given the global urban challenges that lie ahead in the context of climate change, it will be more than necessary to continue to address these questions practically and interdisciplinarily – as well as to intensify the coordinated exchange between practitioners, researchers, and urban societies to shape local climate futures for and together with the communities and places affected by them. We are excited to play a part in this endeavour with projects like LOCALISED – and we sincerely thank all contributors and partner organisations for making the symposium a successful step to the next level of our joint efforts!

(Photo: Catharina Dörr, Climate Media Factory)

Create with us
Create with us!
Let’s develop ideas together on how to make your scientific findings and innovative concepts for sustainable futures impactful.