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July 10, 2015
Photography by Alex Kharlamov
In 2014 I was awarded funding by the Institute of Advanced Teaching and Learning for an academic fellowship project. The Mediasmith Project was an experimental and particpatory series of workshops and events exploring transmedia and documentary making approaches to research. We borrowed from the expertise of filmmakers, producers, creative technologists and web developers to investigate how web-native and digital storytelling, digital media production, coding and other digital tools could inform the research process.
The final event, the Popathon x Mediasmith Project Storytelling Hack Jam took place in February 2015 but the learning has continued to inform new developments behind the scenes. Many of the methods we explored are about to be put to the test in a large-scale public research project about the public understanding of supply chains; MyChainReaction.
Professor Jan Godsell, Professor of Supply Chain Strategy at WMG, was a keen participant in the Mediasmith Project workshops. During the first workshop one of the models of transmedia practice that I proposed was the creation and presentation of a film or digital asset as a seed or provocation for discussion and the creation of new narratives. By the time the third workshop had taken place (May 2014) Jan had already put a small production team together. They produced a short film about supply chains with the intention of provoking a wider public debate about them but why stop there?
Supply chains and public participation
Jan is intrigued that there is no shared definition of supply chains within academia, despite the fact that they are recognised as a discreet disciplinary field. She also suspects that awareness and understanding of supply chains amongst the wider public is relatively poor. "The issue of supply chains is of national importance. Supply chains are key in supporting economic growth, contributing to increasing both GDP and employment levels. Supply chains touch almost every aspect of our daily lives but many of us don’t know or realise this and we want to know why.” These considerations proved fertile ground for the development of a research impact project that could not only test these assumptions, but do so by inviting the public around the world to participate.
The research team consisting of Jan, Antony Karatzas, a research fellow at WMG, Rob Batterbee, IT Manager for Student Careers and Skills, and I submitted a proposal to the ESRC Impact Accelerator fund. The core of the project combines crowdsourcing, social networking and storytelling in a website designed to both generate research data and increase public engagement and understanding as more and more people take part. The site features an engaging example of a local supply chain, bringing to life the story of Stroud based ice cream maker Kate Lowe. Kate lives in a village where she is well known for producing delicious honeycomb ice cream. Her mother makes the honeycomb at home in Norfolk and posts it to Kate who then makes the ice cream in batches using other locally sourced ingredients. Kate’s ice cream is infamous at dinner parties and family gatherings but her ambitions are to develop a brand and sell her ice cream more widely. Website visitors are encouraged to reflect on their own participation in a supply chain and share their stories which are simultaneously pinned on the MyChainReaction map. In doing so they also answer a couple of simple questions about their knowledge of supply chains which will generate quantitative data for further research.
The website is, however, just one part of an integrated transmedia approach. We have also reserved funding for an artistic commission in which artists will be invited to respond to the themes of the project and the stories that emerge. Their work will be presented at the Global Supply Chain Debate, to be hosted at the International Digital Lab at the University of Warwick in November 2015.
Appealing for public participation adds a whole layer of marketing and communications activity usually reserved for the dissemination of research rather than the research process itself. We have debated the ethics of allowing research participants to see others' stories (but not responses to the research questions) at length, initially worrying that this may bias their participation. However, audience participation is an inherently social activity - participation depends on the motivation that stems from seeing what others have posted and the willingness to share. This decision making process impacted on the intrinsic design of the website. Should we prime the audience with a working example whilst restricting access to the crowd sourced stories to those who had registered and completed the research questions first? Or, should we make this content accessible to everyone in the hope that this will motivate others to take part? Creating such a ‘walled garden’ felt counter-intuitive and, given that the only criteria our research respondents need to satisfy are a) the possession of a valid email address and b) a story to tell, the risk of skewing the user generated content seemed to be outweighed by the social imperative to join others and take part.
Supply chains are perhaps not the most accessible and people friendly subject so another challenge has been to find the right language by which to describe and pitch the project. Discussions of food security, provenance and sustainability have done much to highlight the importance of supply chains in relation to food and agriculture, hence our working example, but they remain less visible in other areas of public life. It’s also a question of semantics as we may well be referring to supply chains but in different terms or contexts which, we believe, have nothing to do with them e.g. the arts, education, medicine, etc. We also wanted to promote the cause and effect relationships that our interactions with supply chains produce so, after much head scratching, we arrived at the concept of a chain reaction. This gave us a unique hashtag and a call to action (with a little help from Diana Ross and RCA Records); ‘Get in the middle of a chain reaction.’ It has even inspired a spoof sing-a-along video, produced by students on the MA in Creative and Media Enterprises, designed to raise a smile and promote the project.
Ninety-five Not Out
We are acutely aware of the ambition and novelty of our approach. So far we have ninety-five stories and counting. If you are reading this why not add one more to the #MyChainReaction map?