Dancing with Economic Development – The Power of Narrative

Posted in Reflections
04/04/2017 Robby

Dancing with Economic Development – The Power of Narrative

In case you didn’t know, Catherine at Southpaw has another role as well, Innovation Director for Business Durham – here’s her reflections on how the two roles help each other.


I recently wrote a blog about why I’ve started helping Southpaw Dance Company with their growth plans: since then, it has really started to dawn on me how much my two worlds, dance and innovation, have in common. 

When I first offered my assistance to Southpaw, it was simply to help, nothing to do, I thought, with my role at Business Durham.  But working with Southpaw has significantly accelerated my thinking about why we’ve developed a challenge-led approach to innovation at Business Durham and, more importantly, why it matters.

The word I keep coming back to is ‘narrative’: that very human need for stories that engage us, inspire us, make us think, catalyse us to want to change the world, and empower us to contribute.

Southpaw creates inspiring, emotionally engaging narratives around big themes: global protest, the power of words, the moral struggle of Faust. There is joy and generosity of spirit in their work and performances: “Mesmerised”; “Spell-binding”; “Reminds you why life is worth living”; just some of the comments from audiences and participants.

And much of my role at Business Durham centres on developing “narratives”: we often refer to the “five stories” of Business Durham (innovation, inward investment, business engagement, enterprise and property).

We are also creating new narratives: Durham as a place to tackle the healthcare causes of social isolation, and the North East as the place to use satellite data to create a safer world. It’s a different approach to economic development: we are not saying we are world-class in a particular sector, we are saying we want to be world-class in solving problems that profoundly affect all of us.

This “Durham Smart County” approach is a practical conversation with a broad range of people and organisations across government, business, academia and citizen engagement: “This is the problem we want to solve, how can you help us do that, and by doing so, help develop new products and services, win new contracts, create new jobs, open up economic opportunities for people, and improve our quality of life?”

But the differences between my two worlds were brought home to me very recently.

Southpaw had sent a tweet about Wordplay, an outdoor spectacular (on a freezing cold night, I might add) that had a cast of professional dancers and community participants. The tweet was paraphrasing Byron: “A drop of ink can make a million think”. Quick as a flash, one of the participants tweeted back “And a cast of community dancers can transform communities”. 

But from my perspective, satellite data (as an example) also transforms people’s lives. Secure satcomms reduce waiting times for health screening results from days to hours. GPS helps you drive safely to your destination. RealSafe Technologies, here in the North East, uses satellite data to save the lives of bikers involved in crashes. Yet people aren’t inspired to tweet us saying “woah, that satellite data really rocks, man.”

I’ve been in economic development for over 15 years, mainly high tech innovation – if I look back, what things stand out? The day the astronauts came to NETPark. Talking to schoolchildren about how the products developed on their doorstep affect lives all over the world. Science, technology and innovation change the world, for sure, but it’s the stories that inspire us.

NASA does this very well: with the “golden record”, NASA turned Voyager – a scientific, technical mission created in the pursuit of knowledge – into an inclusive, engaging conversation about what it meant to be human; our arts, culture, heritage, history, language, philosophy…

The contribution of the arts to science/business/innovation/economic development (and vice versa) has long been recognised but can we work together more effectively to inspire and engage, to encourage and enable innovation? Having a foot in both camps is a privilege, and perhaps many exciting collaborations could be brought to life. But even saying “a foot in both camps” feels wrong. I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s actually just one big camp of creativity and innovation.