What if newcomers could use tech to take control of hostile discourse?
Though renewable energy is increasingly widespread and the consumer culture of earlier decades reined in, the centuries-old carbon-based economy has left its legacy. Relatively small average global temperature increases conceal the fact that in some places temperatures have risen considerably, affecting food and water supplies in the parts of the world least able to cope.
Lethabo, like many in Sub-Saharan Africa, found life increasingly untenable. Food prices were soaring as land became less productive, and towns and cities were crowded with people who’d left barren farms in search of work. Like many young and educated people from the region, Lethabo saw little future there. He sought environmental asylum in Europe, hoping to work from a distance on technologies which would improve life for his friends and neighbours in the place he grew up.
Environmental asylum was a path taken by people from many countries across the world. In Europe, there was a good support network for environmental refugees which had been put in place proactively earlier in the decade, as climate models predicted large increases in new arrivals. Arriving on the continent, a citizen-led welcome committee found a home for Lethabo at the local housing community, advised him on paperwork for his asylum claim, and connected him to local services.
However, not everyone was so welcoming. Most people thought the vitriolic and xenophobic reaction to asylum seekers had been quelled in the early 2020s following concerted efforts by government and civil society, but a hostile narrative had returned in the past two years. Lethabo, other newcomers and local groups were all horrified to see inaccurate stories in the press, which continued to deny any climate crisis and alleged asylum seekers were merely motivated by greed, seeking high wages and social protections in Europe.
Lethabo’s was determined to change the discourse. He wanted people to see what it was that people were fleeing, why so many of them felt they had no choice, and also how they hoped to contribute to their new communities. He realised Virtual Reality (VR) could be used to tell better stories and help people from host communities understand why they had these new neighbours. Reading about a hackathon on the housing community’s social network, which was funded by the national government’s Community and Cross-Cultural Projects Fund, Lethabo and a few friends signed up to develop the idea.
Lethabo and his friends reached out to local volunteers, other newcomers and a group of students, and cobbled together the skills they needed to tell the refugees’ stories through VR.
Lethabo reached out to his friends back home too, who worked with his team to produce a series of short VR experiences illustrating the challenges of their old lives, what they had left behind, and what their new lives were like. They made the experiences available online, but also offered them as three minute experiences in public places, making records of reactions and comments on Qarar, the national citizens’ jury platform.
Some people were hostile, but the vast majority expressed a genuine desire to learn more. With indisputable evidence of public support, Lethabo’s team accessed follow-on grant funding from the government, which allowed the team to pursue their second goal, to empower newcomers and support skills development. Ultimately, the aim was that newcomers would be able to build skills and access European job markets in areas like business development, software development, communications and production.
This enabled Lethabo and his team to develop a VR storytelling kit not just for them, but for everyone. The software, which he called Abhasi, was particularly successful in schools, where schoolchildren from different backgrounds used the software to tell their stories, understand the human consequences of climate change and build empathy.
Following another campaign on Qarar, the tool was eventually integrated into the welcome process for newcomers, who are now by default given the option to talk about their stories and experiences. It’s also always open to people who have been in host countries for some time but still want to talk about their experiences, contributions and challenges.
Complete eradication of hostility, prejudice and misinformation is sadly impossible. However, Lethabo feels proud of his role developing accessible software which has done much to tackle these challenges and make the situation better for newcomers and communities.