2018 Planet Forward Summit Equipping a new generation of sustainability storytellers

Science and sustainability storytellers are needed now more than ever, and a new generation is stepping up to the plate.

At the 2018 Planet Forward Summit, students from across the world gathered with scientists, communicators, innovators, private sector leaders, and policymakers to share inspiring stories of our planet and learn techniques of effective communication over the course of two days.

Led by storytelling platform PlanetForward.org at The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, the Summit included major speakers and topics covering challenges and solutions related to food, water, energy, mobility, built environment, biodiversity, and more. We learned how truly engaging stories involve compelling characters who overcome obstacles to achieve worthy outcomes. Read on to discover the story of our Summit.

Main Sessions:

Expert Voices

Eyes On Earth: Inspiring a New Generation of Storytellers

We are in the midst of rapid planetary transformation, and the human relationship with it. How we interact with the planet now will affect the course of its future for generations. Through powerful photography and story, Dennis Dimick, National Geographic Editor Emeritus, and Jim Richardson, National Geographic photographer, revealed the Anthropocene: a new geological age where human activity is the dominant influence on the environment. We learned about Eyes On Earth, a platform created by Dennis and Jim to inspire a new generation of photojournalists.

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Find Your Voice, Raise Your Voice

We saw the future, and it's bright. Student storytellers from around the world shared how they found their voice with Planet Forward. From the depths of the Amazon rainforest to permafrost fields in Siberia; from discovering green urban systems in Singapore to exploring the intersections of religion and science in Jackson, Mississippi, these students found their foothold in environmental storytelling - and share how you can, too.

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What's Your Sustainability Story? High-Impact Leaders in Sustainability

In this pivotal moment on the planet, we need leaders who inspire us to positive action. The best part? Leaders come in many forms, across a spectrum of experiences and specialties. To grasp the range of diversity in leadership, we heard from a farmer, a media executive, a CEO, and a chemical engineer, who shared about influencing their respective fields for the planet - and the sustainability story behind all that they do.

Behind all their backgrounds and specialties, we found a common theme: the dire need for excellent storytelling. "Gathering information, figuring out what the angles are on the story, what you need to know - is step one," said Frank Sesno, in conjunction with Chris Mooney from The Washington Post. "Step two is figuring out how to make this engaging and interesting to people who don't already care about this subject." From Discovery Inc.'s Project CAT to Land O'Lakes' new green business initiatives, and from STEM advocacy to sustainable farming techniques, our leaders shared how storytelling has shaped their roles.

On stage, we gathered The Washington Post reporter Chris Mooney, Creative Director Beth Stewart from Discovery, Inc., Land O'Lakes, Inc. CEO Chris Policinski, Dr. Felecia Nave from Prairie View A&M University, and Roric Paulman of Paulman Farms.

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Climate FWD: How The New York Times is Transforming Environmental Reporting

Data isn't dull. The New York Times is known for its truthful and expert storytelling. When it comes to telling the story of climate change, data is key, but traditional use of statistics and measurements can be, well, disengaging. Hannah Fairfield, Climate FWD editor at The New York Times, is changing that. "The key is to look for what you can reveal with the data," Hannah said. "What can I take away from this?"

Merging hard numbers with breathtaking graphics and gripping storytelling, Hannah taught us how The New York Times approaches their climate and environmental reporting. What are some of the ways to visualize data and how can it engage wider audiences? Students learned how to take a creative approach to data-heavy stories, without compromising the integrity of the numbers, while captivating their audiences along the way.

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Reality Revolution: How AR/VR Can Create Empathy, Urgency and a New Sense of Place

Opportunity arises in the tension between new technology and tried-and-true storytelling. "Right now, in terms of technology in virtual spaces, it's a big battle between technology and storytelling," said Steve Johnson, co-founder of Boundless Media. He shared how virtual reality not only affects storytelling ability, but how it affects our audiences as well.

We learned that the goal of augmented reality, virtual reality, and 360-video is to get audiences to understand stories with a greater amount of context. Steve shared how new media helps storytellers create more empathy and impact for their audiences, and encouraged students to take risks in storytelling as they connect people with the planet in new ways.

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Beauty and the Bizarre

Sometimes the most amazing stories can come from the, well, most disgusting characters. When Anand Varma, National Geographic photographer, takes a picture of a parasitic wasp consuming a caterpillar from the inside, he doesn't want his audiences to be disgusted, but to be astonished.

When Anand first proposed a story on bugs and parasites to National Geographic, he quickly realized he would have to take a fresh approach to photography; he would have to do something interesting enough for his audience to learn about these unsavory creatures. "I recognized that there was a serious challenge ahead of me," Anand said, "because as fascinating as the science is here, I was going to have to get people to get over their visceral aversion to parasites and pay attention long enough to actually learn."

By breaking down the process of parasitic infection, Anand completely re-imagined macrophotography to fascinate audiences around the world. From parasites to bees to hummingbirds, we went on a journey with Anand to learn about his approach to storytelling, and to learn how we can inspire awe in our audiences - no matter how weird our subject might be.

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The Explorer's Story

How can we develop an extraordinary sense of fairness and balance with the planet? What is our relationship with human culture and history? An explorer at heart, Sven Lindblad, CEO of Lindblad Expeditions, seeks to discover new ways of experiencing existing places and, in the process, uncover the awe and wonder of our incredible natural world. As our keynote lunch speaker, Sven shared with us the importance of not just seeing, but experiencing the world through the lens of adventure-travel.

Lindblad Expeditions revolutionized what it means to be an explorer. When the company first started, Sven said, those who would be explorers "had to be nobles, had to have money, or had to know people who had money." Now, the goal of exploring is to produce more enlightened citizens - people from every walk of life. Sven's goal, and the goal of Lindblad Expeditions, is to provide access to unattainable places not for mere leisure, but to create a learning opportunity about these historically and environmentally rich destinations.

Breakout Sessions: Diving Deep into Storytelling and Sustainability

After lunch, attendees broke into smaller groups for targeted workshops. From storytelling software tips and tricks to diversity in sustainability movements, no topic was off the table. Here's what we covered:

Eyes On Earth Workshop

Dennis Dimick, who served for many years as National Geographic's environment editor, and National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson founded Eyes on Earth to ignite interest with visually compelling, scientifically based environmental photography. They shared lessons learned from their decades of experience creating powerful environmental storytelling - and challenged students to make a difference in our world with their photography.

The Power of Diversity in Moving the Planet Forward

We need to improve efforts and public policies around diversity and inclusion, especially in fields related to the hard sciences. How can we create systems, organizations and leadership opportunities that encourage more women and ethnic minorities to enter science-based fields, find their voice, or go into leadership positions? This panel featured three champions of diversity and inclusion: Dr. Felecia Nave, Prairie View A&M former provost and current director for faculty development & engagement and chemical engineering professor; Dr. Nora Savage, environmental engineer and program director for the National Science Foundation; Payton Head, public speaker, campus inclusion consultant, and alum of University of Missouri; and Dr. Jamie Hestekin, University of Arkansas's diversity and inclusion core team member, who moderated the panel.

Escaping Your Bubble Without Losing Your Bearings: Preparing to Talk about Climate Change

We now live in bubbles of our own choosing. As a result, we can be surprised, even stunned, when we try to talk about planetary issues like climate change with people outside our sphere. In this session, students learned about the arguments most frequently offered for dismissing climate change, and some common-sense, storytelling techniques for countering them. These techniques, taught by Michael Svoboda, assistant professor of writing at The George Washington University, helped students keep others - and themselves - from being persuaded by cynics.

Sharing Science with Anyone and Everyone

Being able to tell a good story is a must in successful communication, scientific or otherwise. However, before you even think about what story to tell, you need to understand who you're telling that story to. In this interactive presentation, students learned how to identify and connect with their audience, craft an effective message, and practice via role play with their peers. Shane Hanlon and Olivia Ambrogio from the Sharing Science team at American Geophysical Union led our students in this hands-on session.

Earth Stories: How to be a Compelling Storyteller

Fundamentally, a good story is a compelling character overcoming obstacles to achieve a worthy outcome. In environmental storytelling, there can be extra layers of complexity and data. How do we build stories to develop characters, embrace uncertainty, and appropriately include numbers and data? Students met three journalists to guide their approach in this space: Wyatt Andrews, professor of practice at University of Virginia and former CBS News national correspondent; Dr. Imani Cheers, assistant professor at the George Washington School of Media and Public Affairs; and Steve Johnson, founder of Boundless Media. The session was moderated by Frank Sesno, Planet Forward founder and director at The George Washington School of Media and Public Affairs.

Farming, Technology, and Environmental Stewardship

How does a water conservation-minded farmer keep nearly 10,000 acres of crops irrigated - and still be able to sleep at night? Students listened to Paulman Farms owner Roric Paulman talks about the technology the farm uses to efficiently manage the land and the natural resources available, while also preserving the Ogallala Aquifer.

What is Adobe Spark?

What kinds of new software can help us tell visual stories in new ways? Adobe Spark is a set of three separate tools that makes it easy to create social posts and graphics - including web stories combining text and graphics. Students discovered user-friendly ways to create animated videos that can be customized with themes, images, icons, and text. Stephen Hart from Adobe revealed how to tell stories without having to learn sophisticated tools.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - How Do We Tell the Story?

In 2015, 193 nations agreed to set goals and targets to address a broad range of issues related to global social and economic development. How can we tell the story of these 17 important goals in a way that ignites and maintains public interest and support? How can storytelling be a mechanism for implementing the 2030 agenda? In this breakout session, communications expert Claudia Koerbler discussed the challenge (and the opportunity) with UN-FAO's Vimlendra Sharan and International Finance Corporation's Unnatti Jain.

Town Hall: Do We Have the Energy to Lead?

From left to right: Denise Fairchild, President and CEO of Emerald Cities Collaborative; Nick Akins, Chairman, President and CEO of American Electric Power; Susan Eisenhower, CEO and Chairman of Eisenhower Group, Inc.; Ted Roosevelt IV, Managing Director of Barclays Capital Corporation.

This unique Planet Forward Town Hall explored whether America can still lead on climate change and renewable energy. Along with our audience, remarkable leaders in energy, environment, and conservation considered the story of America's energy future.

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"It's pretty clear right now that there may not be leadership on energy and the environment in a broad sense at the federal level," said Bob Perciasepe, CEO of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), who introduced the town hall. There is a massive movement at other levels since the U.S. announced its pullout from the Paris Climate Accords. More than 60% of Fortune 500 companies in the United States have committed to greenhouse gas reduction, and of the 160 largest manufacturers in the United States, more than 60% have set greenhouse gas reduction goals. "Instead of just saying, 'We're going to work on it,' we have real action happening at the state, local, and business-leadership level," Perciasepe continued.

Denise Fairchild

The panel discussed increasing access to sustainable utilities, especially for minority groups in the United States, and what local governments, businesses, and more are doing to help. Access is growing in perhaps the most unlikely places - those whose workforce are most dependent on fossil fuels. "How do we move them from the coal mine into clean energy?" asked Denise Fairchild, who works with communities transitioning to 100% clean energy across the United States. The public is wrestling with this question, Fairchild continued, but it's moving forward. "This is a movement that's happening in every corner of America and is driven by people concerned about public health."

Nick Akins

Does climate/energy leadership now devolve to traditional energy companies - who will be responsible first to their bottom lines and not to climate, the environment, or local communities? Nick Akins kicked off the discussion by talking about this new spotlight businesses now occupy as preservers and advocates for the environment. "There's clearly a change that's occurring because of technology, certainly because of crowd-sourcing, of policy-related initiatives," Akins said. "From our perspective, any company that's doing business today has to look and be responsive to the stakeholders of the company. And that's not just the federal government." That includes customers, Akins said. For businesses in the energy sector, customers are focused on making sure they transition to resources that are benign to the environment.

Susan Eisenhower

Where is the leadership when we think about the future of nuclear power? Susan Eisenhower spoke to the trajectory of this alternative energy source, especially given the legacy left by her grandfather, President Eisenhower. "Back in the Eisenhower Administration, (President Eisenhower) founded DARPA, which is designed to really put the pedal to the metal to bring about all kinds of innovative technologies," Eisenhower said. "Why we're not doing that in the nuclear area - given the climate change issue, which I think is central to our national security - is something I don't understand."

Ted Roosevelt IV

Ted Roosevelt IV spoke to investment banking and how it can lead the way to pave a more sustainable future. Roosevelt compared advances made in the U.K. and Canada as compared to those in the United States. In the U.K., a rollout of "green mortgages" incentivizes would-be homeowners to buy real estate that's energy efficient, sustainable, and built with sustainability at its core. In Canada, he said, governments are investing in advanced technology to develop utility-grade energy from commodities like salt. "This is new technology we should be leading the world on; unfortunately, we're not," Roosevelt said. The problem? Compared to the U.S., Canadian policies are more thoughtful and long-term in scope, whereas American policies are siloed. "We need to have more research and development," Roosevelt said.

Students interacted with panelists, and voiced their own concerns for the future of American energy. Then the audience brainstormed ways we can commit to ensuring a more sustainable future.

Who better to determine the future of American energy than America's future? The town hall opened to student attendees to ask questions, share thoughts, and commit to real ways they would help transition to a sustainable future. Students asked panelists everything from fossil fuel dependence to creating lasting change at a local governmental level - from ethically investing in green infrastructure to fair distribution of sustainable energy, and from preparing blue collar workforces for a major energy transition to social influences on future generations to make sustainability a reality. Students then identified and committed to ways they could take action to make their communities, governments and institutions, accountable for a sustainable future.

Storyfest grand prize winners gather on stage with Sven Lindbad, CEO of Lindblad Expeditions; Frank Sesno, Planet Forward Founder; and Dr. Imani Cheers, Planet Forward Faculty Explorer and GW professor.

The 2018 Planet Forward Storyfest Awards

We celebrated and awarded the best environmental storytelling told by college students by awarding the prestigious Planet Forward Storyfest Awards in front of a live audience. Storyfest 2018 grand prize winners traveled on a weeklong storytelling voyage with eco-tourism pioneers Lindblad Expeditions in June 2018.

From podcasts to videos, photo essays to blog posts, hundreds of submissions were entered by college students across the United States. To compete, up to three stories could be submitted per student on topics related to food, water, energy, mobility, the built environment, or biodiversity through any combination of media. Winners were selected based on quality of information and production, creativity in presentation, impact of storytelling, and scalability of the innovation shared. Work was judged by M.J. Altman, Editorial Director at World Food Program USA; Jeffrey Blount, former GW School of Media & Public Affairs Shapiro Fellow and Emmy Award-winning television director; Brian Dockstader, Director of Digital Innovation for the Sierra Club; Larry Evans, retired Managing Editor for Environmental News at Bloomberg BNA; Mark Fischetti, Senior Editor at Scientific American; and Sara Snyder, Senior Social Video Producer at Bon Appetit.

Winners were Shandra Furtado (George Washington University) for Most Compelling Character; a tie for Most Creativity between Navya Pothamsetty (UC Berkeley), and a team entry from Ashley Gallagher and Jordan Mullaney (George Washington University); Katherine Baker (Columbia University) for Best Use of Science or Data; Vanessa Moss (Sewanee: The University of the South) for Scalable Innovation; Emily Arnold (Georgetown University) for Most Ambitious Idea; and Alex Rubenstein (George Washington University) for the GW Prize.

Winners traveled to Alaska, courtesy of Alaska Airlines, for an 8-day voyage between Sitka and Juneau with Lindblad Expeditions aboard the National Geographic Sea Lion. They learned from Lindblad-National Geographic photo instructors, naturalists, and scientists while they explored Alaska's coastal wilderness, and examined the effects of climate change on its ecosystems. Winners published stories on discoveries made during the trip on PlanetForward.org.

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450+ attendees representing:

American University | Arizona State University* | Bridgewater College | Colorado State University* | Columbia University* | CUNY | Eckerd College* | Florida International University | Georgetown University | Georgia Institute of Technology | Herzing University | Hobart and William Smith Colleges | Howard University | Iowa State University | Jackson State University | Loyola University Chicago | Middlebury College* | Northwestern University* | Penn State | Prarie View A&M University | Purdue University | Sewanee: The University of the South* | SUNY Brockport | SUNY ESF* | SUNY Plattsburgh* | Syracuse University | The George Washington University* | University of Arizona* | UC Berkeley* | Union County College | University of Arkansas* | University of Maryland | University of Minnesota* | University of Mississippi* | University of the District of Columbia | University of Virginia | University of Wisconsin-Madison* | Washburn University | West Virginia University | Yale-NUS College

*Consortium school

40+ organizations represented

Adobe | American Geophysical Union | Alaska Airlines | ASTC | C2ES | Center for EcoTechnology | CDP | Chemetall | ecoAmerica | Climate for Health | Environmental Defense Fund | Electric Drive Transportation Association | EESI| Exploration Ventures | UN-FAO | Glover Park Group | Green News Update | GRI Consulting | Ground Media | IFC | Island Press | Inmagraf Ingenieria | Land O'Lakes, Inc. | Lindblad Expeditions | Make The Road New Jersey | Monsanto | National Geographic | National Geographic Society | Noblis | The New York Times | PYXERA Global | SecondMuse/180 Impact | The Daily Beast | The Daily Ripple | The Tergis Group | ThinkBox | U.S. Green Building Council | United States Postal Service | United Nations Foundation | Verizon | World Food Program - USA | World Resources Institute

Planet Forward thanks the sponsors of the 2018 Summit

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