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The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) brings together the science of the natural world with the science of human behavior and decision-making to find solutions to complex environmental problems. We convene science teams to work on broad issues of national and international relevance, such as water resources management, land management, agriculture, species protection, among other areas of study. By supporting interdisciplinary science teams and researchers with diverse skills, data, and perspectives, SESYNC seeks to lead in-depth research and scholarship that will inform decisions and accelerate scientific discovery. SESYNC is funded by an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation. Learn more about SESYNC.

Problem Framing and Co-creation

November 28, 2016

Graeme Nicholas, guest contributor and member of SESYNC's Co-creative Capacity synthesis team.

A Co-creation Challenge: Aligning Research and Policy Processes

By Graeme Nicholas

This blog post originally appeared in the Integration and Implementation Insights blog (http://I2Insights.org) as “Problem framing and co-creation," and is reposted with the author’s permission.


How can people with quite different ways of ‘seeing’ and thinking about a problem discover and negotiate these differences?

A key element of co-creation is joint problem definition. However, problem definition is likely to be a matter of perspective, or a matter of how each person involved ‘frames’ the problem. Differing frames are inevitable when participants bring their differing expertise and experience to a problem. Methods and processes to support co-creation, then, need to manage the coming together of people with differing ways of framing the problem, so participants can contribute to joint problem definition.

I was first alerted to the role of framing by the work of Donald Schön. In Educating the Reflective Practitioner (1987), Schön states,

In the terrain of professional practice, applied science and research-based technique occupy a critically important though limited territory, bounded on several sides by artistry. There are an art of problem framing, an art of implementation, and an art of improvisation – all necessary to mediate the use in practice of applied science and technique.

This ‘art of problem framing’ is part of what makes the field of practice more than a simple application of knowledge or technique. Framing is an active process involving fateful judgement (artistry) that, in part, determines the outcome.

Framing for co-creation will involve collaborative processes. In my experience, working on projects such as inter-agency collaboration to manage public health risks, collaborative framing depends on bringing together diverse perspectives in ways that avoid collapsing the diversity while engaging together around some ‘good enough’ representation of the situation. Processes that encourage convergence of thinking are likely to lack attention to framing.

What I find useful is to form a provisional judgement about who are actors in a problem situation, and then invite to a workshop people representing as many likely perspectives on the situation as is practical. Workshops are designed and facilitated in ways that respect and manage diversity of perspective, expertise and experience, as well as diversity of positional and personal power.

Key to such workshop design and facilitation are two elements: how group-work is structured and the use of ‘boundary objects’. I use boundary objects in workshops as a focus for surfacing diverse understanding, interpretation and assumptions; in other words, I use boundary objects in the service of collaborative framing.

Boundary objects have been defined by Star and Griesemer (1989) as conceptual or tangible items that live “in multiple social worlds and … [have] different identities in each”. A boundary object to support co-creation of outcomes can take many forms. I have used the following as useful boundary objects:

  • conceptual models
  • ‘rich pictures’ produced by the group itself
  • theoretical frameworks
  • narrative material
  • archetypes.

The key attribute that allows something to function as a boundary object is that its meaning and significance can be interpreted and discussed from each of the viewpoints present in the group.

Conceptual models can be derived from key informant interviews, the literature or a scoping phase of a project. The model or models produced are deliberately provisional, and attempt to represent a chosen system at a glance. As such, a model makes discussible judgements about what is in and what is out of consideration, what interactions are important in understanding how the system works, and whose perspectives are important in understanding and changing the system.

Rich pictures are a way to get participants to illustrate the complexity of actors and interactions that make up a given situation. The key is to get the complexity into a form that can be seen at a glance, and discussed from various points of view. No consensus is needed in collaborating to produce a rich picture. Both the process of producing the composite picture and the picture itself serve as boundary objects.

Theoretical frameworks that have served as boundary objects in my work have been:

  • Checkland’s Soft Systems Methodology framework, CATWOE
  • Ulrich’s Critical System Heuristics
  • Beer’s Viable System Model.

In each case inviting a diverse group to collaborate in populating the frameworks has resulted in surfacing and negotiating implicit frames.

Narrative material provides participants with anonymised quotes that provide windows on a situation and invite collaborative sense-making as to what a given anecdote or extract might signify. Again, the critical feature is that the process focuses on an object that is open to interpretation and contestation.

Archetypes can be used to characterise a situation or aspects of a situation. By their nature archetypes are open to interpretation and the choice of archetypes and their significance prove useful in discovering and negotiating the ways a situation can be framed.

There will be many other examples of using boundary objects to support problem framing. What boundary objects have you used to assist in problem framing? How have you worked with the range of ways a given situation is framed by participants to maintain diversity?


Schön, D. A. (1987). Educating the Reflective Practitioner. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, United States of America.

Star, S. L. and Griesemer, J. R. (1989). Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39. Social Studies of Science, 19, 3: 387-420.

Further Reading:

Soft Systems Methodology, CATWOE, and Rich Pictures:

Checkland, P. and  Poulter, J. (2006). Learning for Action: A Short Definitive Account of Soft Systems Methodology and its use for Practitioners, Teachers and Students. John Wiley and Sons: Chichester, United Kingdom.

Critical System Heuristics:

Ulrich, W. and Reynolds, M. (2010). Critical systems heuristics. In, M. Reynolds and S. Holwell (Eds.), Systems Approaches to Managing Change: A Practical Guide. Springer: London, United Kingdom, 243–292.

Viable System Model:

Beer, S. (1985). Diagnosing the System for Organizations. John Wiley and Sons: London, United Kingdom.

Narrative approach and use of archetypes:

Snowden, D. (2001). Narrative Patterns: the perils and possibilities of using story in organisations. Knowledge Management, 4, 10: 16-20.

Biography: Graeme Nicholas is a senior scientist in the social systems team at the New Zealand Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR). His speciality is applying complexity science to the understanding and improvement of complex social systems. He has led client focused research projects on service innovation in health, social services, policing and fire prevention. His qualifications, training and experience include microbiology, theology, systems oriented consulting, psychotherapeutic theory, dialogue design and facilitation, organisation consultancy, and professional training services. He is a member of the Co-Creative Capacity Pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

Associated Project: 

SESYNC Welcomes New Advisory Board


SESYNC Welcomes New Advisory Board

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) recently welcomed a prominent group of academic, nongovernmental, and corporate leaders to its external advisory board. As leaders in social and natural sciences and in their respective disciplines, SESYNC's advisory board provides guidance and support to the Center and its mission.

The External Advisory Board members include:

High Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Levels Threaten Coral Reefs and People

High Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Levels Threaten Coral Reefs and People

As atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels rise, very few coral reef ecosystems will be spared the impacts of ocean acidification or sea surface temperature rise, according to a new analysis. The damage will cause the most immediate and serious threats where human dependence on reefs is highest.

A Co-creation Challenge: Aligning Research and Policy Processes

November 3, 2016

Katrin Prager, guest contributor and member of SESYNC's Co-creative Capacity synthesis team.

A Co-creation Challenge: Aligning Research and Policy Processes

By Katrin Prager

This blog post originally appeared in the Integration and Implementation Insights blog (http://I2Insights.org) as “A co-creation challenge: Aligning research and policy processes," and is reposted with the author’s permission.


How does the mismatch between policy and research processes and timelines stymie co-creation? I describe an example from a project in Sachsen-Anhalt state in Germany, along with lessons learnt.

The project, initiated by researchers, aimed to use a more participatory approach to developing agri-environmental schemes, in order to improve their effectiveness. Officers from the Agricultural Payments department of the Sachsen-Anhalt Ministry for Agriculture were invited to participate in an action research project that was originally conceived to also involve officers from the Conservation department of the same ministry, farmer representatives and conservation groups.

An initial meeting with the Agricultural Payments officers, to determine the focus of the participatory study, identified a problem with payments for grazing special conservation areas as their key concern. They needed to find a way to maintain payments to shepherds to graze special conservation areas. Shepherds relied on these agri-environmental payments to earn a living from grazing management, but recent changes in regulations no longer allowed payments for grazing in protected areas – where paradoxically the benefit of grazing for conservation outcomes was highest.

However, the research team had no expertise with legal issues and scheme design. What we could offer was a tool to optimise the allocation of budgets. Even though this could not help the government officials with maintaining payments to shepherds, the officials recognised potential benefits of the tool for a different problem, namely in anticipated negotiations with farmers’ associations to redistribute and reduce agri-environmental scheme budgets in the next planning period. This seemed to be their key motivator to cooperate with the researchers and to make internal budget figures available.

The researchers had to compromise by allowing the workshop participants and timeline to be determined by the ministry. The Agricultural Payments department needed the negotiation process with farmer representatives to be undertaken shortly after the project started in order to meet the timelines for scheme revisions set by the European Commission, the federal ministry and the state ministry.

This impacted the research process which aimed to combine facilitated communication with a highly structured mathematical model in a series of workshop meetings. The facilitated communication was intended to support fairness and transparency in the process, and to resolve any potential conflicts. The purpose of the mathematical tool was to structure and visualise the issue (budget allocation), scrutinise different scenarios, and therefore increase the transparency and efficiency of the process.

There was simply no time for the initially planned analysis of the ex ante situation and relevant stakeholders, nor for running more than two joint workshops. This meant that many decisions had already been taken before the first workshop, such as selecting the individual measures to consider in the model and setting some restrictions (eg., upper and lower budget limits per measure). However, scheme objectives and further model restrictions were jointly discussed and agreed at the first workshop, and weightings for the model were developed through a Delphi-style exercise.

Instead of genuine co-creation, the process was shaped by the particularities inherent in bureaucratic organisations especially at the state level. As well as the restrictions already described, the flow and distribution of information from the ministry was poor and impacted on what could be entered into the model; power issues played out in terms of what information ministry staff shared at the workshops and with whom; and the hierarchical, sector-oriented focus of the bureaucracy meant that some relevant stakeholders (especially the Conservation department and conservation groups) were not invited to participate.

Nevertheless, initially the participants were satisfied with the process and this can be attributed to the facilitation generating a level playing field during workshops and the transparency afforded by the mathematical model. However, beyond the workshops, disappointment set in for the non-governmental stakeholders as the usual power structures came into play with ministry officials choosing to disregard the recommendations produced at the workshops.

We concluded that research is not set up to accommodate the requirements of policy making, in at least three ways:

  1. First, there may be an inherent difficulty in matching the actual needs of policy makers (in this case the payments to shepherds) with the interests and expertise of researchers,
  2. Second, researchers usually cannot deliver evidence in short time frames, often days, and
  3. Third, introducing the ‘ideal’ inclusive communication process may clash with timelines and an unwillingness to cross departmental boundaries.

We learnt that co-creation between researchers and bureaucratic organisations needs supportive gatekeepers and the opportunity for longer term involvement so that trust can be built and opportunities for mutually beneficial co-creation can be seized.

It is extremely useful if researchers are able to recognise power structures and their impact on co-creation, although there will be cases where there is little researchers can do to mitigate this impact. For example, the relevant stakeholders are unlikely to be motivated to contribute to a co-creation process for which the initiators have already decided the result.

Have you found ways to align research and policy processes, and to create the necessary flexibility in research project funding? I’d love to hear about them.

For more information:

Prager, K. and Nagel, U. J. (2008). Participatory decision making on agri-environmental programmes: A case study from Sachsen-Anhalt (Germany). Land Use Policy, 25, 1: 106-115.

Biography: Katrin Prager is a senior social scientist at the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland. She is involved in inter- and transdisciplinary research on agri-environmental policy making and implementation, collaborative landscape management, community engagement and farmer adoption of conservation practices. Katrin investigates these topics through the lens of institutional analysis, knowledge management, adaptive capacity and organisational behaviour. She is a member of the Co-Creative Capacity Pursuit funded by the US National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

Associated Project: 


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