POSTED: March 1, 2018
Arts | Society

Writing A Better Future

Most of us feel it: the future doesn’t look too bright. Dark future visions such as the Black Mirror series, as striking as they are, feed into our anxieties; the global news and climate change discourse create further avoidance—in citizens and politicians alike. What we need in order to tackle the heavy issues, Denise Baden argues in this guest blog, are positive visions that allow transformative solutions to be showcased and played out—a kind of product placement for sustainability. Her Writing A Better Future project is trying to do exactly that: through a series of writing competitions engaging the public in creating visions of what a sustainable society might look like.

Flat Lay Adler Typewriter (CC.0) Florian Klauer /

My research over the years has looked at how framing ethical and sustainable behaviour using positive role models [1][3], can be much more effective in creating pro-social attitudes and intentions than cautionary tales. In the field of constructive journalism, I also found that news stories that were positively framed gave rise to more pro-social attitudes and intentions than those that were negatively framed [2][4] and that positive mood was strongly linked to positive motivation to take action.

Black Mirror, an internationally acclaimed TV series, examines modern society with regard to unanticipated consequences of new technologies and reflects anxieties about our future; climate change discourse further creates fear and avoidance. Yet, what we really need are some positive visions that allow potentially transformative solutions to be showcased and played out. The benefits of presenting a rosier picture is not just that it reduces anxiety, but by presenting more positive visions you can actually make them happen. Stories are incredibly powerful – by showing how people could behave, you also affect how they do behave. Characters in stories act effectively as role models for our own behaviour, and having positive role models that are still realistic can be incredibly empowering and inspiring.

Why a writing competition?

There is increasing appreciation of the important role that arts and culture play in the process of transition, and human stories can be a more effective way to engage people in sustainability issues than dry facts [7]. The necessary societal transformations to sustainable societies require profound systemic changes across social, cultural, economic, environmental, economic, political and technological domains. However, relevant information is generally gathered in silos and is inaccessible to all but a few academics specialised in complex systems. To conceptualise how all aspects can come together within one society is more the domain of creative fiction than science, however interdisciplinary. Therefore this project harnesses the creative visions of writers to imagine sustainable societies via a series of writing competitions. Existing research on the dynamics of narrative transportation lead us to predict that implicit examples of sustainable policies, practices, technologies and values in the background of a story may be particularly effective way to normalise and promote sustainable practice for those who are not already eco-minded.

The first is a short story competition (<3500 words) with a deadline of 19/4/2018. It can be any kind of story as long as it showcases potential sustainable solutions as suggested on our website ( A rom-com, for example, could be set in a society that replaces ownership with borrowing and the heroine goes to a clothes library to pick up a dress and borrow jewellery for her date; or the hero in a crime drama could use a carbon credit card and hear the news in the background reporting on the wellbeing index instead of GDP; or the characters in a legal drama could live in a city where everyone has gardens on their roofs, uses the latest green technologies, eats insect burgers and generates energy from their own waste, and so on.

In a recent blog on this website, Rebecca Willis notes that the public are not asking their politicians about climate change. This leaves politicians in a dilemma. While environmental issues may be on every party’s wish list, green policies are not perceived as vote winners. In part this is because environmental discourse is usually associated with catastrophic scenarios, which can trigger fear and avoidance [5][6]. Another issue is that sustainability policies are often perceived as ‘doing without’ which again is not perceived to be a vote winner. By increasing awareness of sustainable policies and practices through the website, and illustrating how these may work in practice via the creative outputs, we expect to make it easier for governments to successfully put through greener policies that lead to more sustainable outcomes.

Currently it can be difficult for political parties to properly explain what might be quite a complex concept in a media landscape that is dominated by soundbites and adversarial discourse. Thus, ideas that have had a lot of research behind them and could have a transformative effect are considered too complicated to engage public support. An example would be the detailed proposals developed in 2006 by DEFRA and the Centre for Sustainable Energy for individual carbon allowances delivered via a kind of carbon credit card. To properly explain how such a scheme would work in practice requires more than the usual couple of minutes allowed to politicians, yet having such as idea integrated into a storyline allows the idea to be floated with less political risk, and the contextual elements to become clear with little effort. This could create a bottom-up desire for the kind of genuinely transformative and system-level policies that most sustainability experts agree are necessary to meet our environmental challenges.

Denise and her colleagues would love to get sponsorship from organisations that share these values to sponsor a prize so we can run larger scale competition looking also for screenplays, films, plays. If you’d like to learn more or have suggestions, please contact her at

[1] Baden, D. (2014) Look on the bright side: A comparison of positive and negative role models in business ethics education. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 13, 154-170.

[2] Baden, D. (2015) Ethical implications of the balance between positive and negative news. Irish Academy of Management Conference Galway, Ireland.

[3] Baden, D. (2017) The differential effects of exposure to positive and negative role models and news stories on behaviour. Making people feel bad: What is the role of negative appeals in marketing? Queen Mary University of London.

[4] Baden, D., Mcintyre, K. E. & Homberg, F. (under review) A comparison of the impact of positive and negative news on affective and behavioural responses. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.

[5] Blackmore, E., Underhill, R., Mcquilkin, J., Leach, R. & Holmes, T. (2013) Common cause for nature: Values and frames in conservation. UK, Public interest Research Centre.

[6] Carter, D. M. (2011) Recognizing the role of positive emotions in fostering environmentally responsible behaviors. Ecopsychology, 3, 65-69.

[7] Corner, A. & Van Eck, C. (2014) Science and stories: Bringing the ipcc to life. Climate Outreach & Information Network.


  • Find out more about the Sustainable Societies project on
  • Coming Soon: The role that fiction and utopian thinking can play in societal transformation is part of the CUSP work programme. Co-Investigator Will Davies has edited the collection “Economic Science Fictions“, available in book stores March 2018.
  • Where there’s no vision, the people perish. A recent essay by Ruth Levitas as part of our investigation into the Morality of Sustainable Prosperity can be accessed here.

Dr Denise Baden is an Associate Professor within Southampton Business School at the University of Southampton. Her research over the years has looked at how framing ethical and sustainable behaviour using positive role models can be much more effective in creating pro-social attitudes and intentions than cautionary tales. Amongst many other projects, Denise is leading the crowd-sourced musical project 'Fidel', aimed at 'puncturing the polarised debate about Castro'.

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