Invisible Cities: Evolutionary foundations of narrative and fiction, and their applications to social change, innovation, and the creative economy

A teaching experiment for Harvard University (2016).
Here’s the syllabus of the course “Italian 184: Storytelling and Innovation: The Narrative Foundations of the Creative Economy“.
The aim of this course is to explore recent literature that examines the origins of narrative and fiction from a bio-cultural point of view, taking into account recent findings in human evolution studies and evolutionary game theory. Starting from this literature, the course highlights the role of narrative and fiction in the social innovation and change phenomena, in the context of the emerging creative economy, with particular emphasis on the phenomenon of the creative city. In particular, issues and case studies of culture-driven crossovers with other social and economic realms such as culture and health, and culture and socio-technical innovation, are explored, to highlight the potential of narrative and fiction (and more generally of culture) as a driver for economic competitiveness and smart specialization.
(…)
The course is mainly addressing graduate students in the humanities but may also be of interest for graduate students in economics, business, science, and urban studies.
(…)

STEPS

General Plots
Students are asked to divide into groups and to collectively choose within the group one specific set of cities from Calvino’s taxonomy and to analyze the respective texts in terms of: cooperation vs. competition patterns; individualism vs. collectivism; instrumentality vs. expression; inclusion vs. exclusion, and to reconstruct the implicit narrative schemes through which the text positions itself along these dyads. Each group motivates its choice within the taxonomy, presents their own analysis, which is then collectively discussed. Finally, all participants work together on a collective resume that crops all the analysis from each group into a common scheme.
(…)

dorothea
Identities
Students are asked to divide into groups and to collectively choose within the group one specific set of cities from Calvino’s taxonomy and to analyze the respective texts in terms of anti-narratives of the creative city, showing in which sense a city may be dysfunctional in creative terms, may lose its sense of identity, or its own meaning as a coherent spatial entity, taking Hubbard’s text as a dialectical counterpoint. Each group motivates its choice within the taxonomy, presents their own analysis, and shows in what sense such analysis can be useful in understanding the pitfalls of instrumental approaches to creative city development such as Florida’s one. Each group presentation is collectively discussed, and subsequently all participants work together on a collective resume that crops all the analysis from each group into a common scheme.
(…)

isaura
Insights Plots
Students are asked to divide into groups and to collectively choose within the group three specific episodes of Marco Polo’s narration and to analyze the respective texts in terms of: cooperation vs. competition patterns; individualism vs. collectivism; instrumentality vs. expression; inclusion vs. exclusion, and to reconstruct the implicit narrative schemes through which the text positions itself along these dyads. Each group motivates its choice within the taxonomy, presents their own analysis, which is then collectively discussed. Finally, all participants work together on a collective resume that crops all the analysis from each group into a common scheme.
(…)

raissa
Crossovers
Students are asked to divide into groups and to collectively choose within the group four of Calvino’s Invisible Cities and to link each of them to a specific episode of Marco Polo’s narration which in their opinion reflects, by analogy or contrast, an important aspect of: cooperation vs. competition patterns; individualism vs. collectivism; instrumentality vs. expression; inclusion vs. exclusion, respectively and to make this connection explicit through a suitable logical framework which also highlights the nature of the socio-cultural differences of the biocultural background of the two texts. Each group presents their own analysis, which is then collectively discussed. Finally, all participants work together on a collective resume that crops all the analysis from each group into a common scheme.
(…)

sophronia
Happiness
Students are divided into groups and each single student selects Calvino’s city that best mirrors their idea of a ‘happy city’ and of an ‘unhappy city’, respectively, taking Tonkiss’ text as a dialectical counterpoint. Then students belonging to the same group present and motivate their choices. They subsequently discuss together which elements from each example best capture the idea of a happy vs. unhappy city, and in particular how these elements connect with the ideas of design, authenticity, self-expression, and diversity, leading to the final choice of a collectively negotiated shared example of a happy and unhappy city, respectively. The same exercise is then repeated with the whole class, where each group brings and presents their two examples and the respective motivations, and again a collective negotiation is reached upon two examples; for the chosen examples, connections are discussed in terms of both the four dimensions examined in the group discussions, plus the additional ones of cultural and creative practices, identity, and memory.
(…)

thekla

Pitch
In the final debate, students are asked to elaborate a vision of their own as to how we may use fictional narratives as a way to describe, analyze, and interpret the dynamics of culture-driven transformation of cities, and of its implications for the local community. Students are encouraged to elaborate their views on the basis of urban examples and experiences drawn from their own experience, as revisited by means of the concepts and analytical techniques acquired during the course, taking one of Calvino’s Invisible cities as a dialectical reference. Each single intervention by students will have to last at most 3 minutes, and all students should have at least one chance to speak during the debate. At the end of the debate, the whole class is asked to negotiate a position as to the actual usefulness and impact of a bio-cultural narrative approach to city analysis as a tool for urban policy making, and to evaluate the approach’s relative strengths and weaknesses in this respect.

IMAGE CREDITS: All the wonderful images in this post are Calvino’s Invisible Cities in artist’s depiction, from the project “Seeing Calvino“, by Leighton Connor, Joe Kuth, Matt Kish

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