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Academic Lag, Advertising Jag & the Task of Socialising the Genome

LAG:

A period of time: a noticeable delay between action and reaction – Failing to keep up with another or others in movement or development

JAG:

A short period of overindulgence in an activity: a shopping jag: a crying jag. A stab; an intense and concentrated movement or action

I increasingly find myself at a very particular and exciting intersection.

I find myself there not by accident but by design: having helped build a methodology that reaps its greatest rewards at the point where applied science and commercial creativity collide.

(The creativity is commercial in that the point of collision is designed to generate pieces of communication to a specific end and utility – functional with tangible benefits – as opposed to a piece of pure art or some material assemblage generated to no end other than to create feeling and effect through its aesthetic – experiential with intangible benefits.)

Over the last year and a half I have been working on a project that seeks simple answers to some quite complex questions rooted in deep science:

  • How do we scale the ‘everyday’ conversation around genome science and DNA beyond the scientists, academics, clinicians and the rare interested civilian party?
  • How do we illuminate the scientific mysteries and wonder of our DNA in such a way that everyone can understand them, embrace them, engage with them, and reap the rewards that come from them?
  • And ultimately how do we help the greatest number of us to enhance the nature, quality and duration of our human tenure through informed choice and enlightened action in regards to our DNA?

This search for a more compelling narrative and conversation at the point where science and everyday humanity meet is not an isolated pursuit.

It is also true of the ‘Living the Dream’ project I am helping to steer. The project also seeks to scale the conversation around what constitutes a more enduring model of prosperity and sustainable consumption by finding a more ‘human’ narrative to replace the existing one, rooted as it is in the science, engineering and ‘reason’ of sustainability as opposed to the human emotion of it.

In both cases, we need to find a way of communicating complex concepts and constructs in the simplest way possible to the largest number of people without destroying the integrity of the scientific truths in the process.

In both cases, there are untold rewards for society and humankind both individually and collectively if we can scale these conversations.

So I find myself working at this intersection of multiple collisions: between scientific integrity and human sociability; between depth and structure and lightness and elasticity; between applied science and commercial creativity.

Making Conversation

To reap the untold rewards we simply need the communities of science and academia to meet the man and woman in the street and have a good ‘chat’.

In the case of genomics, simply put, if enough of us embrace the advantages that the advances in science offer in our everyday lives, using the revelations of DNA in an applied manner both individually and for the common good, we could eventually move ourselves from the old curative model of health care to a new and far more dynamic preventative model: one that will not only just change the way we live but also alter the duration of that living.

Making smarter and easily comprehensible lifestyle choices informed and underwritten by a deeper and more intimate understanding of what makes us who we are can help us to embrace a more positive approach to the lives we lead. Those choices made en masse will equally inform and illuminate how best the health service of the future can better sustain its ability to continue to serve our society both systemically and financially.

Now logic would predict that given the enormous impact and beneficial nature of those potential outcomes, everyone should already be ‘all over that conversation.’

Speaking in Tongues

The problem is – we’re not.

Why?

The greatest barrier seems to be one of simple comprehension and understanding.

The scientists and academics simply communicate in a different language to the everyday people they are trying to reach. Their particular languages have different vocabularies, inflections, idioms, energies and vernaculars – which is unsurprising given that they live in very different worlds.

In one world, we have the ‘splendid isolation’ of existence required to nurture intense, interrogative and highly rational scientific thought and action – and the codified, particular language and almost impenetrable texts, dissertations and white papers that accompany and support it.

In the other, we find the hyper-connected and hyper-socialised immersion of our emotionally charged everyday existence, fuelled and accelerated by smart devices and sprawling digital platforms of human interaction filled with billions of TXTS, tweets, emojis, memes, slang and banter.

One exists in a mode of hyper dislocation; the other in a mode of hyper socialisation.

And it seems that each speaks in riddles as far as the other is concerned.

A chasm exists between the world of academia and the sciences and that of the everyday person in the street. And as with all worlds of such different ‘atmospheres,’ there needs to be a process of acclimatisation when travelling between one and the other.

In the context of Socialising the Genome (and my Living the Dream project), it is the conversational ‘syntax’ – the framing, structure, language and phrasing of these arguments – that needs to ‘acclimatise’ to the atmosphere of everyday needs and desires and the language they speak.

The highly tuned language, intense qualification and proofs of the scientists and academics need to ‘decompress’ on the way up into the ‘real world’ – otherwise they will suffer a bout of the communication ‘bends,’ where they either overcompensate and try too hard – become too ‘matey’; or come across like a geek at a fancy dress party – awkward, uncomfortable and so wrong on so many counts.

Putting deep science and academic concepts and truths through a ‘decompression and acclimatisation’ process can of course be undertaken as a one-off – but realistically, if our ambition in this instance is to ‘socialise’ the conversation, we have to assume a fluid and escalating dialogue of increasing and expanding value and reach. For that to happen, we realised that we needed to keep the findings, revelations and insights of the academics and scientists constantly ‘in flow,’ moving seamlessly and effortlessly between one world and the other: elastic and evolving.

To achieve this they need to be ‘sensitive’ of, keep pace with and be true to the everyday shifts and nuances in the behaviours, attitudes and language of the people whose existence they seek to improve. To be resilient and meaningful, they must remain ‘relevant’ at all times.

(There is little point in deep-diving for a populist answer only to find that on surfacing with one two years later, the question has changed. Herein lurks the danger of the academic lag.)

So, in the process of designing the methodology that would facilitate this, we found ourselves with two acute questions to answer:

  • How do we create an offset strategy for the academic lag – one that allows the worlds of academia and the deep sciences to remain ‘present,’ to exist both in the accelerated and socialised ‘Now’ while still mining in splendid isolation?
  • How do we design a ‘decompression and acclimatisation’ process that enables a smarter, simpler flow of ideas and findings – a ‘conversation’ or dialogue between one world and the other?

Cue Advertising Jag

To reap the ultimate rewards that the advances in Genomic science offer us, the screening and storing of our DNA as would have to become an everyday part of our health profile - it would have to become second nature to every one of us, a commonplace behavior, something that we do without ‘thinking.’

But we’re a long way from a chirpy chat along the lines of:

‘Hey, Trish. Sorry. Can we say 7.30ish now? Running a bit late at the DNA screening clinic – mine’s a large glass of DWW! ; )’

Genomic science tends to only enter our conversation either because we are forced to engage with it or by an accident of revelation. The complexities of genomic science are simply not ‘everyday,’ not everyone’s ‘cup of tea’ - and are at best incomprehensible and at worst quickly controversial. But Advertising & Communication people spend their whole life not only trying to decipher what someone’s ‘cup of tea’ might be but also how they might get them to drink more of it.

The nature of the models and frameworks used by Marketing Communications specialists to mine and shape insights, propositions and narratives – the intensity, speed and use of both broad-stroke universal consumer insight and atomic data modelling – is driven by the voracious desire in corporates to ‘keep up’ with the fluid and ever-changing nature of consumer demand and desires. These models have grown ever more agile due to:

  • The impact of technology and social networks across the value chains and markets of big corporate consumer brands;
  • The age of data big bang: an ever-expanding viral surge of relentlessly dividing and multiplying data on every aspect and dimension of how we live, act, interact and transact.

It is in the intensity, approach and, most importantly, the creative storytelling aspect of this ‘jag’ of activity that we believe our offset strategy can be found.

Advertising Schmadvertising

One of the greatest tension points in the new methodology we have engineered in Socialising the Genome is the point at which advertising exclamation collides with academic exposition.

There are fundamental and quite combative points of difference between the worlds of the Sciences & Medicine and the Humanities & Arts – in nature, methodology and application; and in their concepts of what constitutes integrity and substance (especially when the latter are of the populist persuader type – the advertising and marketing agencies and their kind).

Many wholly reason-based intellectuals and practitioners harbour a quite fixed (and many would say hugely justifiable) sense of distrust in what they regard as a moral and intellectual vacuum in the Marketing Communications agencies, institutions and organisations that manipulate and leverage ‘emotion’ and lazy populism for commercial gain.

To allow the conversation around something as precious and fragile as genomic science to be driven by base desires pumped up on the wisdom of the crowds with no form of enlightened filter or curation, might well be perceived as not only risky but also irresponsible (fine if you’re just pushing another million or so 6-bladed, swivel-hipped disposable plastic razors, but matters of this level of human importance are quite a different thing entirely).

Alternately, on the other side of the conversational fence, we have the champions of ‘everyday’ people, the populist movers, shakers, creators and commentators who celebrate them, their language, their culture, their leisure and their past-times, and who shape, shade and distribute the myriad simple pleasures that they enjoy and engage with. For these people, unless science, like technology, is wrapped up in a Brian Cox-like ‘whoops, that’s my Collider’ approachability or celebrity, they are quite disdainful or disinterested in what they see as arcane and impenetrable conversations. They see no point in a dialogue that seems circular and closed in its nature and not of any use to anyone without a PhD.

Their attitude broadly runs along the lines of “don’t care – all a bit too serious for me – lighten up, get over yourself – short time living, long time dead – if you can’t take the banter, we’re not listening – and while you’re at it, a highly advertised pint of unexceptional lager please!”

Scientific JAG

But, in a balanced world and all things being even – somewhere between the two polarities lies an answer – midway between the extremities of emotional populism on the one side and high-minded rationalism on the other.

Neither can develop the conversation by itself in isolation. Each needs the other to create a full and robust conversation that is both substantial and sociable.

In our particular instance, we needed to go on a journey from the clinical utility of the genome conversation as it is now – alienating, isolating and impenetrable in large tracts – to one more rooted in concepts of positive identity and improved existence – inclusive, socialised and empowering.

We realised that to do that we needed to decipher how we could use the tension that exists between the worlds of science and society to most positive effect – to facilitate and accelerate that journey.

Mind the Gap

To be clear, the absence of accelerated improvement in our human existence through genomic science is not an issue of supply - there are a lot of brilliant minds moving the science forwards. This is an issue of demand.

While ‘everyday’ people continue to not understand the real and substantial benefits of that science, they will not demand its benefits as a standard and inextricable part of their everyday lives.

Communicating the inspirational, revelatory and highly beneficial impact of embracing our DNA to the greatest number of people in their terms in their world is central to all of this because it will fuel and fire ‘demand’ for better.

Twas Ever Thus

Demystifying and popularising rare knowledge of a scientific, political, economic or theological nature has always been a critical step in the march of human progress (whether the scientists, politicians, economists and the theologians like it or not).

‘Dumbing down,’ as some elevated minds like to think of it, is actually humanity’s way of smartening up. And inspiring and wild-firing everyday conversation is a vital lever in that smartening up.

So first things first: We needed to accept that the challenges to easy conversation are substantial – the impenetrable nature of the science; a very human, provincially minded fear of the unknown; a general fear of ‘science going too far & meddling with the cosmos, etc. We needed to accept that none of the ‘conversation’ generated so far has enabled us to move very far beyond our current audiences – and that we have so far failed to present a set of positives that outweigh the existing negatives.

Genomic science and the subject of DNA need to be lightly dealt with or presented in such a way as to find their way into pub banter framed and informed by a ‘Did you see? Did you know?’ ‘Intelligence Lite,’ fuelled by lifestyle magazines, Sunday supplements and the Discovery Channel. And given that film is the most shared currency in the socially networked world, film needs to be the base currency of our highly socialised cultural economy.

So our key objectives for success were:

  • to create a methodology that enabled us to look up through the emotionally driven human and the everyday insight – not down through the rationally driven science and the clinical language
  • to develop and distribute the seeds of a new and scaled conversation through the power of shareable film.

Creative Action Research

My work over the last year or so with Dr. Anna Middleton of the Sanger Institute focuses solely on how we reconcile the perspectives of our two worlds to shape and scale the conversation around DNA and genomic science to greater human benefit. And it is in the circular and iterative nature of the interaction between her world (that of the Academic Lag) and mine (that of the Advertising Jag) that we believe will deliver the language and framing for and therefore the scale of conversation that we need to transform the way people see DNA in their lives.

With Creative Action Research (CAR), we have constructed a methodology where, even when in the midst of the deep-dive nature of her qualitative, ethical research process, Anna is able to utilize my and my collaborator’s ability to reframe, rephrase and represent science or research fact in more populist, social storytelling terms and framings to play back into and inform the more academic process she is undertaking.

CAR – Testing The Edges of Conversation

CAR combines traditional qualitative research, rooted in group discussions and in-depth interviews and discourse interpretation, with quantitative research that introduces fresh, creatively framed seeds of Genome and DNA conversation into the social networks to provide a simple speedy test of whether those seeds have the ability to inspire and engage people in such a way that they might in turn share it amongst their own social network both real and virtual.

The method we have devised for creating the simple seeds of a new conversation revolves around taking an existing piece of knowledge or scientific fact and creating different types of ‘conversation’ or story telling around it.

We then use these seeds of conversation as foils and flash cards in both a quantitative, socialised environment and the more in-depth and metered, qualitative research groups.

To ensure that in the migration from science or clinical insight to creative idea we did and do not fall foul of confecting, manipulating, misrepresenting and ultimately distorting or twisting the knowledge or facts we are using, every creative idea has to be rooted in an insight ladder.InsightLadder

The Insight Ladder is a simple proprietary tool that I have developed for this project that aims to lock the more creatively framed seed of conversation to the scientific fact, truth or insight that inspired it: a sort of plumb line of integrity that runs through each ‘conversation.’

Qualitative Research

A number of traditional qualitative research group discussions and some in-depths will begin to explore some of the everyday language and insights around genome science and DNA.

A dry Discussion Guide takes each participant in the qualitative groups from a condition of lowest point of knowledge (do you know what DNA is?) through a natural arc of expanding conversation (knowledge of DNA), benefits or not to the individual (its role in improved healthcare), moral and ethical issues around the science (data privacy and security), and ultimately, the nature of improved DNA and genome science on a thriving UK PLC as a mark of global leadership in the advancement of improved human existence through scientific and social enlightenment and application.

Once the open and freeform discussion has come to a close, we will use some of the seed ideas that we have developed from existing insights to see how opening doors to the subject using more creative, everyday storytelling potentially changes or alters people’s disposition, perception and appreciation of the subject.

Quantitative Research

Once the qualitative groups have been transcribed we will then select the most potent insights and creative storytelling and framings so that they may be turned into simple animated pieces of film storytelling. We will use an online research tool to see which film inspires the most attention and why with a representative UK sample, as well as sharing them in social networks to the same purpose. Both actions will seek simple responses and opinions through both closed and open data capture.

Ultimately, we are seeking one or two ideas with the potential to develop into a greater scale of everyday conversation using socially dynamic communications and advocacy strategies to wildfire those conversations.

Bonfire of the Humanities

The creative jag in CAR endeavors to act like a repeated finger tap in the centre of the academic ‘chest’ – a way of bringing the science into the moment, connecting it in visceral emotional and social terms to the everyday Now – an intense injection of populist framing and storytelling for those somewhat consumed in the Academic Lag.

In that way, the Advertising Jag acts as a form of ‘Mindfulness’ for the scientist, academic and clinician deep-diving into the world of the genome – providing a ‘Look Up’ orientation strategy for them to use while potholing in the caves between what is known and unknown.

Therefore Creative Action Research aims to use a complementary fusion of:

Academic Lag – Reason – utility, interrogation & measure – resilience – the individual

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Advertising Jag – Emotion – identity, expression & impact – desire – the crowd to scale the conversation and socialise the Genome.

CAR accepts that there is no simple black & white answer here. It will take time and the attentions of both the Laggers and the Jaggers to get to the scale of conversation this deserves and needs.

In some ways, as with our DNA, it might just prove that the things that unite us are greater than those that divide us. In finding a way to socialise the Genome we might just find a way to both educate the populous and socialise academia. And perhaps that is not a bad thing at all.

In the meantime lets pop on our Bordieu T-Shirt – and be a great destroyer of Either/Or.

This post first appeared on the Thin Air Factory blog on July 14, 2015.

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