Sunday, November 18, 2012

Multi-sensory Engagement for Sustainability and Climate Action

What is your most powerful sense? I remember about a year ago walking around downtown Chicago and all of a sudden thinking about the neighborhood where I lived in Tokyo years ago. At first I wondered what triggered the memory, but then I noticed the wafting smell of soup--much like the soup of the noodle shops that dotted my Japanese neighborhood of Ogikubo, famous for its ramen.

Many years ago, I met a graduate student in design who wanted to invent a camera that captured smells along with visuals. How would such a device help us strengthen connections between people and the natural environment? How can we deepen these connections through deeper sensory engagement, using devices that actually exist?

This has been my latest obsession in the climate action engagement realm: exploring creative ways to use multiple sensory experiences to help people relate to sustainability and climate change and to interest them in taking action. Here are some examples of the ways in which I've used multi-sensory engagement in our work. Next week I will write a post about the creative ways in which others are using it around the country and even in Europe.

At the Great Lakes Bioneers conference a few weeks ago, I led a workshop on this topic with my colleague Lexy Winter from The Field Museum.  

Lexy presented examples of multi-sensory engagement from our 

Here are a few of my favorites:

 Chef Tsadakeeyah of demonstrates vegan soul food cooking in the Bronzeville Garden. 
See the steam? Smell and taste are such powerful senses. 

When I was in the garden with Chef T one day, a man who was walking by stopped in and Chef T asked him, "Do you want some soup?" "Is it vegetarian?" the man asked. When Chef T told him it was, I asked if he was a vegetarian. He told us that he had become one a few years ago after he was shot because his body can't handle meat anymore. 
There's a climate action "co-benefit" if I ever heard one...
A woman from the Forest Glen neighborhood on Chicago's far northwest side shows our researchers examples of climate change in her community's forest preserve.

In the research I have led, and in the Toolkit, we always ask people to think about changes they have experienced in weather patterns, over the decades. Whenever possible, we take people out into the community to look for and point out these changes, as well as to identify concrete examples of climate action. See, for example, two tools: 

Activists from South Chicago pose for a photo in front of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, with an old photo of their relatives who immigrated to Chicago.

We have started to think about memory itself as a sixth sense. What can we learn from the past about creating a more sustainable future? My colleague Sarah told me about a great saying that she found on a thrift shop object: “My grandma used it, my mom gave it away, and then I bought it.” How can we make old sustainable practices new and hip again?

A participant in our South Chicago "Reminiscences" workshop shared a story about what it was like to live on the Southeast Side many years ago.

Based on our presentation, the participants in our Bioneers workshop brainstormed ideas for how to engage people in climate change education and action using multiple senses...

... and then came up with lots of creative suggestions.

Are you wondering what the cards on this cool "sticky wall" say? Well, wonder no more, here they are! We got all their ideas up on the wall and then organized them into four categories (organically, not pre-determined). See what you think...

And then please share:
What's your strongest sense?
How could that sense be employed to engage you more deeply in climate change action?
What idea would you add to this list?

COMING NEXT WEEK: Climate action sensory engagement examples from across the globe...


Question: How can we use multi-sensory engagement to help people relate more deeply to climate change and become more interested in climate action?

Opportunities to create place and personalize public space + habitat
Pop-up gardens
Community recycled play lot
Sensory emotive walk school to nature
Seductive sustainable smells
Voices/sounds in parkways, under viaduct, walkways
Smart building that raises energy consciousness
Human interaction in contrasting environments

Authentic Community Connection:
Focus on real people, real things
People to people encouraging action (rather than just people-nature)
Senior citizen story club
Symbols as indicators: patterns make sense (help make connections)
Interpretive education inviting biodynamics

Tactile dried plants exhibit (result of drought) (bring dried plants to the city to show people the results of the drought and let them touch them)
Create healthy human touch experiences (eg back massages)
Sensory garden
Find different textures in nature (eg Smooth, textured, dry)
“Water bucket dumping” fountain

Spontaneous food action or offerings
Promote potlucks in community  meetings (eg Bless Food, Honor farmers & other helpers, Acknowledgment of body nourishment, Energy to do good work)
Citric acid in water: let people taste acidification
Almanac climate zones + eat food (connect changes in plant hardiness zone with changes in what we'll have available to eat)


  1. This is a very interesting idea. All of our human senses are affected some way by climate change, I guess the next step is to make people aware how climate change affects their senses and thus their ways of life. Memory, in my opinion, is a very strong sense: comparing how things used to be versus how things have changed over time and finding causes for the change to either eliminate negative ones or replicate and improve upon positive ones

  2. This was such a fun workshop. I love the ideas everyone came up with.

    I came across a fascinating sensory anthropology project the other day: Dana Walrath, a medical anthropologist at UVM, studies what non-Western cultural models of health and healing can contribute to the field of medicine. She's also an artist, and she documented her experiences taking care of her mother with Alzheimer's in words and images in a series of beautiful and moving blog posts: Walrath has said she was able to use images to communicate with her mother when words failed. And, of course, this project involves the sixth sense of memory in a big way.

    Here's a little more background on her work:

  3. Wow, thanks for sharing this, Lexy. It is extraordinary and I look forward to exploring it more.

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