THE LOST ART OF TELLING A STORY
Changing the world starts with beer, pizza, and story time. MIKAELA GRIFFITHS and RUTH MIRAMS, if you want a very narrow definition of their job, are consultants. They are also scientists, public servants, community members, philanthropists, and educators. Later this year they’ll add another title to their already prestigious CVs: speakers at TEDXCANBERRA 2013.
‘In all cultures, stories are the way we pass on lessons from the past; through generations and generations of narration, it’s the way we teach children,’ says Ruth. ‘It seems to be that we’ve lost the way to relate to each other through our stories and we’ve started to relate to each other through our jobs, or the amount of money we have, or whatever. We believe that stories are a different way to work with people.’
Together, Mikaela and Ruth have collected a lot of stories. Participating in this year’s World Indigenous Network conference in Darwin, the pair ran an event called Magic Canoe. ‘We worked to bring together a team from Canada, Brazil, and Australia, which included first nations people from all those different countries, to make a place for narrative and stories,’ says Ruth. Mikaela continues: ‘We were asked to do something completely different to what we ended up delivering, and that’s because we went out and spoke to [the] Indigenous communities and said “Guys, we’ve got an opportunity to do something, what would you like to do?”’
This narrative emphasis might come as a surprise. The duo are scientists – Mikaela is an environmental biologist, Ruth is a chemist – and they met while working at the Department of Innovation. Six months ago they left the Department to start Paramodic. ‘We really believe in government and in the role of government in society,’ says Ruth. Though both clearly saw something broken in the way the bureaucracy operates, their work is now focused on bringing the government and the community together, helping translate red tape into plain English, and making sure that the public is really getting what it needs out of the public service. The pair structured their business model so that they could divide their time between paid jobs and volunteer ones, donating their skills to help remote communities around Australia. For Ruth and Mikaela, it's about ‘what we can do using our knowledge of government, our knowledge of human-centred design, and just generally being human beings, to help work with communities to bridge the gap between them and the government’. They work on a variety of social and community issues, including things like access to education and health care. ‘What we’d like to do is go in there, get in with the community, with the education system, with policing, with the land council, with the national parks, with the health providers, and co-design a new future with the people.’
Listening to stories is an important step for Mikaela and Ruth to find out what people really need help with. ‘Sometimes it may be as simple as having beer and pizza; other times it’s putting on costumes and silly hats, and … letting people have fun with the work they do.’ Last year, Mikaela and Ruth created GovJam, a programme they took to a global level this year. GovJams are like policy boot camps: they're 48-hour brainstorming sessions geared at producing public sector gold. ‘We realised the power of working … in a fun way, that’s very intense,’ says Ruth. ‘You’re working towards impossible deadlines; it’s very outcome-focused. It’s not enough to just have an idea. You have to build something. We created GovJam so that that something would be a government policy or a government funding strategy or a government service – everything around GovJam is public sector-focused.’
‘The really key thing about GovJam,’ says Mikaela, ‘is that we engineer it so it’s not dominated by public servants. We try and make sure that we have, yes, public servants, people who have a voice to the government, but also community members, businesses, people from the social sector. We try to get a collision of all these different people.’ GovJams and their siblings, SustainabilityJam and ServiceJam, are held around the world, with participating groups from across Europe, the Americas, and Iran all ‘jamming’ on the same theme at the same time – and then sharing the results on the organisation’s website under a Creative Commons licence.
Mikaela and Ruth have a science-meets-art approach to problem solving. They apply it to everything from their consultancy work with the University of Canberra (‘a once-in-a-generation opportunity to re-imagine what a university education might look like’) to the structure of GovJam events. ‘Our scientific training … means we frame questions in a certain way. It’s all about asking why? And it’s the same way designers work,’ says Ruth. The creative element of the process, as Mikaela puts it, ‘allows you to go back to being seven years old’. There’s a lot of drawing, and there’s Lego; participants are invited to build something up and break it down, to ‘fail quickly and cheaply’. Ruth says that ‘this sort of way of working with prototyping is quite different to how a lot of government things are done and it’s really a bit of a revelation; you really have to work the problems out early’.
Mikaela concludes: ‘We ask people to revisit the creative side of who they are. [Try] to forget all your training and go back to when you were a child: when you were free to be creative, and draw, and make art, and build things, and break them. Everybody has an ability to be inquisitive and be creative.’
More information about Mikaela and Ruth’s work can be found at paramodic.com.au or at GovJam.org. TEDxCanberra is at The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, on Saturday September 7. Registrations are sold out, but a waiting list exists at tedxcanberra.org.