Telling SDG Stories through a Design Thinking Approach

Through another successful partnership with the Department of Management at the Lang School for Business and Economics, SDG Cities helped students explore the art of storytelling through a design thinking approach. With the SDGs as inspiration and design thinking as a tool for creativity and exploration, these students connected with community partners to propose creative and innovative solutions for SDG storytelling.

Design thinking is an adaptable, non-linear process used to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and develop creative solutions to today’s problems. When faced with the complex problems described by the SDGs, design thinking can be a useful tool to develop creative and locally adapted solutions. 

Design Thinking and SDG Stories 

In search of a design thinking challenge for her students, Dr. Elizabeth Kurucz collaborated with SDG Cities to create a SDG Storytelling project that would allow students to connect with and learn from organizations in their community working for the SDGs. After an introduction to the SDGs, student groups were connected with a community group or business and tasked with supporting the development of their SDG Story. The storytelling project would provide local organizations with a fresh perspective and a chance to connect their work to the SDGs and give students a chance to explore the SDGs in action locally!

SDG stories act as an important tool, reminding businesses and individuals of their core purpose. Through storytelling, businesses can share the human side of their efforts, highlighting the impact on individuals and communities. 

Emily Rodden, MGMT 3500 Student

Design thinking has been used to develop solutions to the SDGs that are grounded and responsive to local needs. When it comes to storytelling, the design thinking process can be used to create a strategy for storytelling that is rooted in local needs as a compelling way to share impact. 

Empathize and Define the Narrative

To begin their projects, students connect with their community partner to learn more about their work and better understand their specific needs related to storytelling and impact communications. By conducting interviews, students understood more about each of the organizations, their current use and understanding of the SDGs, their storytelling successes and challenges and the key messages of impact they hoped to share. They also used tools like a Journey Map to better understand engagement with key stakeholders and an Impact Gap Canvas to help them better understand challenges from the perspective of the community partner and the communities they serve.

The next step was to create a storytelling tool of strategy that would effectively communicate connection to the SDG and the impact they are making in their communities. During this phase, students used the information they had gathered to develop a narrative “hook” that would draw audiences in and get them interested in the story. 

The students crafted a compelling “hook” to pull readers into the story and get them excited about the kind of impact these organizations are creating. Let’s take a closer look at the “hook” developed for each of the participating organizations: 

  • Canadian Arab Women’s Association (CAWA): Everyone deserves the chance to foster community in Canada. Too often Arab immigrants and refugees in Canada are forced into isolation, whether it be language barriers, xenophobia, trauma, or feeling lost in an unfamiliar place. The Canadian Arab Women’s Association seeks to provide support, uplift and address these barriers through targeted programming and services. 
  • Adventure 4 Change: Ever wondered how a community organization, through strategic storytelling, is transforming immigrant lives, reducing inequalities, and leaving a lasting legacy? Let’s dive into Adventure for Change’s inspiring journey.
  • Kinbridge and the Cambridge Neighbourhood Table: Research shows there are clear links between poverty, food insecurity and social isolation. Kinbridge and their Cambridge Neighbourhood Table program provide a way for individuals to break out of this cycle.
  • Shelldale Family Gateway: Imagine a world where every child, regardless of their background, has equal opportunities to thrive. Shelldale is making this a reality in Guelph’s poorest neighbourhood, but they need your help.
  • Sweet Cheeses: Sweet Cheeses doesn’t just sell cheese; it’s a delicious force for responsible consumption, local economies, and a hunger-free future. Let us show you how just one organization can make a big impact

Prototype and Test: Sharing and Pivoting their Solutions 

After working on their storytelling solutions for several weeks, students had the opportunity to present their work back to the SDG Cities team and community partners. The SDG Student Storytelling Summit was held in late November and would give students a chance to present their creative solutions and get feedback on how to “pivot” to better respond to the needs of their partners. In design thinking the “pivot” is a critical step that allows designers and problem solvers to test their solutions and further refine their ideas in response to community feedback. 

Through this feedback process, students were able to create storytelling solutions that could more deeply engage key audiences, authentically share impact and help build support for vital programs. Students working with Shelldale Family Gateway (SFG), proposed an approach to storytelling that would be more inclusive, actively seeking to incorporate diverse voices from the community including volunteers, staff, and local businesses collaborating with SFG. This strategy aimed to portray the community connected nature of SFG’s work. They also incorporated suggestions to focus donor communications connecting their contributions to impact by sharing stories of specific program or individual outcomes. A similar strategy was presented by students working alongside Kinbridge Community Association and the Cambridge Neighbourhood Table. This student group suggested creating space for participants to develop and share their own stories as a way of building stronger bonds and community relationships. This is an important goal of the program and would create an opportunity to highlight and share diverse voices from the community. They also suggested development of infographics that could share out the impact of the organization in easy to capture and understand ways. 

This was also an opportunity for students to think more deeply about the organization’s connection to the SDGs. Students working with Sweet Cheeses, a local cheese monger and vendor at the Guelph Farmers’ Market, pivoted their solutions to incorporate the connection to an additional SDG. They recognized the potential to connect the impact of localizing the cheese supply chain with SDG 13: Climate Action – connecting to a reduction in “food miles” and the climate smart approaches of local dairy producers Sweet Cheeses works with. They also identified the opportunity to leverage presence at the Guelph Farmers’ Market by creating engaging SDG storytelling materials that could draw audiences in and get them excited to learn more about the SDG impact of their favorite cheese monger.  

When presenting back to community partners, students explored a number of creative solutions for sharing compelling SDG stories. Students working with Adventure 4 Change (A4C) created a dynamic social media campaign that explored the human side of their programs with opportunities to highlight how the organization is making a difference in people’s lives day to day. As they pivoted, students also explored how A4C could turn a dynamic social media strategy into a comprehensive impact communication tool – aligning to annual donor engagement and fundraising events. Students working with the Canadian Arab Women’s Association (CAWA) also proposed a solution that explored the individual and unique experiences of Abab immigrants through nuance in identify, language and culture. As they pivoted they considered how sharing these experiences could help tell the story of the vital role CAWA plays in the community.  

A Successful Storytelling Collaboration!

This collaborative project was a success, providing value to the students, community partners and to SDG Cities as we work to share creative examples of SDG storytelling locally. SDG Cities would like to express deep gratitude for the participation of community organizations in student learning and to the students for demonstrating care and creativity in crafting their SDG stories. 

“The SDG Storytelling project slotted in like a Swiss pocketknife – with its well-crafted principles, it became so much easier to find a way to incorporate sustainable frameworks for organizations, directly connecting actions, alignments and impacts. Since then, I’ve used it even in countries continents away! I’ve found success in using it as the backbone for justifying, planning and realizing sustainable development.”

Riri Quadras, MGMT 3500 Student