Storytelling as Social Thinking: Professor Mike Wilson visits the James Hutton Institute

On 16th July 2019 I took the train north to Aberdeen to visit the James Hutton Institute ( , a globally recognized research institute which focuses on scientific research to drive the sustainable use of land and other natural resources. The visit came as a result of an invitation from Dr Leanne Townsend, a Senior Research Scientist in the Social, Economic and Geographical Sciences Research Group at JHI, to talk about the work we have been doing, in collaboration with colleagues from the environmental sciences, on using storytelling as a tool for public engagement and knowledge production within the context of a changing environment.

The lecture/seminar I delivered was entitled Storytelling as Social Thinking: How storytelling can be used to help us navigate through mess, complexity and exclusion and used examples of our project work in the UK and beyond, where we have employed storytelling as a tool of participation and inclusion in debates around environment. It explored the idea of how storytelling works as a knowledge system, how it allows us to collectively test ideas, produce knowledge and navigate our way through an uncertain world. It also asked how storytelling might work as a practice of thinking, through the introduction of previously unheard voices into the conversation on the major challenges facing us.

I first met Leanne about ten years ago through her work at dot.rural, the Rural Digital Economy Hub at the University of Aberdeen, funded through the RCUK Digital Economy Programme. I was a member of the hub’s advisory board for a number of years, as well as the Digital Economy Programme Advisory Board, and so I got to know quite well the fabulous work that they were doing there. As a result of that connection, Leanne and I then worked together on a small AHRC Connected Communities project, ‘The Rural Connective’, which looked at how the new ‘superfast’ broadband capacity, that was at the time being introduced to across the UK at the time, could be harnessed to support creative productivity in rural and remote areas. The last time I had seen Leanne was when we bumped into each other at a hotel in Pretoria in 2017, where we were both attending different GCRF networking events. It was great to catch up again with Leanne and, in addition, to giving my seminar, I spent a very productive half-day with Leanne and some of her colleagues at JHI discussing a new potential collaborative project around sustainable food cultures, which would build nicely on the experience I gained last year when I contributed to the AHRC GCRF-funded Sustainable Farming Practices workshop in Bangalore (

August 2019