Keys to transformation: Interactions of values, rules and knowledge

Community member post by Russell Gorddard, Matthew Colloff, Russell Wise and Michael Dunlop

Adapting to climate change can require profound alterations in environmental management and policy. However the social context of a decision process limits options and resists change, often dooming attempts to adapt to climate change even before they begin. How can decision makers in policy and management more effectively see the institutional and social water they swim in, in order to better drive change?

Values, rules and knowledge (vrk) provide a useful heuristic to help decision makers analyze how the social system shapes their decision context. Put simply, decisions require:

  • knowledge of options and their implications
  • values to assess the options
  • rules that enable implementation.
Figure adapted from original in Gordardd et al. (2016)

Viewing the decision context as an interconnected system of values, rules and knowledge can reveal limits to adaptation and suggest strategies for addressing them (Gorddard et al. 2016).

Values are the set of ethical precepts that determine the way people select actions and evaluate events.

Rules are both rules-in-use (norms, practices, habits, heuristics) and rules-in-form (regulations, laws, directives).

Knowledge is both evidence-based (scientific and technical) knowledge and experiential knowledge.

Decision context is the subset of interacting subsystems that are at play in a particular decision process. One core idea is that the decision context may exclude relevant values, knowledge or rules from being considered in decisions. Adaptation may therefore involve change in the decision context.

Russell Gorddard (biography)

Matthew Colloff (biography)

Russell Wise (biography)

Michael Dunlop (biography)

The vrk heuristic provides a useful reminder of the limits of knowledge alone to change decisions. For example, a study involving other colleagues and led by Suzanne Prober (2017) explored constraints on adaptation decisions in agricultural landscapes of high conservation value. We found that values were the major limiting factor and that knowledge was the least constraining.

Shared recognition of the importance of values and rules, as well as knowledge, can provide a valuable starting point for effective adaptation action. However, the institutions and social systems that define decision processes can be hard to influence. By digging into the interactions among values, rules and knowledge we can describe the societal dynamics that shape decision contexts in a way that helps identify leverage points and develop long term adaptation strategies. If, for instance, we identify that particular values and voices are being ignored or marginalised in the decision making process, then we can ask what aspects of the rule or knowledge system are preventing their inclusion.

Vrk interactions in biodiversity conservation

Biodiversity conservation in Australia provides an example (Dunlop et al. 2013). A narrow focus on threatened species conservation becomes problematic under climate change. When climates are stable, preserving threatened species provides a good umbrella for protecting other important aspects of an ecosystem. If threatened species legislation prevents clearing and development of an urban bushland to protect a rare orchid, the recreation and aesthetic values of this bushland are also maintained. However, under climate change life gets more complicated. The goal of conserving species that are innately vulnerable to climate change may be in conflict with other, more attainable conservation objectives. If the threatened species umbrella fails, then maintaining a healthy ecosystem or the amenity of landscapes may need to be goals that are explicitly pursued in their own right.

How does an analysis focusing on vrk interactions enable transformative adaptation in this case? Let us start with one clear interaction between knowledge and values relating to threatened species. Considerable knowledge from modelling the distributions of threatened species, and the processes that threaten them, has been used to support and reinforce the ethical precept, or value, that threatened species can and should be protected. As a result, much conservation effort has gone into determining how best to optimise the survival of threatened species and alleviate threats. Interactions of values and rules are also evident. The values we assign to threatened species are embedded in federal conservation legislation and policy. For example, the role of the Australian government’s Threatened Species Commissioner is described in values terms: partnering in “the fight against extinction.”

From this baseline, we can start to form questions about the dynamics of the vrk system for conservation. That is, how the decision context came into being, and what social processes maintain support for it and reproduce its key features.

  • Has the legislation and research focus on threatened species affected the way people think about and express their value for ecosystems and biodiversity? And does the focus on expressing value for nature through threats to rare, iconic species in turn reinforce support for threatened species legislation and research?
  • Does the policy and legislation encourage a research focus on threatened species to the exclusion of other important areas such as ecosystem health and functions? And does the focus on threatened species research help shape and reinforce the legislation?
  • Do community, advocates and passionate researchers prize threatened species in part because their presence activates threatened species legislation which then effectively protects places and the full suite of values associated with them such as a healthy native ecosystem and landscape amenity?

While simple, this example illustrates how we can move from diagnosis of the constraints imposed by the decision context towards analyses of the social and political interactions and dynamics that create this context. This systemic perspective allows us to search for stabilising feedbacks and potential leverage points.

  • Is a focus on endangered species locked into conservation practice and, if so, how does it limit future options?
  • What are the opportunities to break down limiting co-dependencies between particular forms of knowledge and particular sets of rules?
  • Does a focus on endangered species provide common ground and mutual support for linking conservation research and policy?
  • Is it possible to use this common ground to start growing research and legislative frameworks that incorporate a broader set of conservation objectives?

Focusing on vrk interactions reveals where and how power is wielded. In the example above we see that power is exercised through the ‘threatened species’ concept. Focusing on the vrk interactions reveals how the concept legitimises certain options and knowledge, and excludes other value and knowledge systems. Having the threatened species concept embedded in legislation makes species-based knowledge more powerful. Looking at power through the vrk lens therefore provides pointers to where power exists that may resist change, and where resources may be directed in order to harness and align existing power to enable change.


The vrk model is not an attempt at an inclusive theory, rather it is intended as an everyday gardening tool—a trowel or a spade—useful for digging into our social systems in situations where we recognise they need to change. As discussed in Lorrae van Kerkhoff’s blog post, Enabling co-creation: From learning cycles to aligning values, rules and knowledge, we are exploring how the vrk model can be used as a tool to help us learn about the societal structures that determine our paths and options in a changing world, and how we can create and choose new pathways. Does this resonate with your experience?

Dunlop, M., Parris, H., Ryan, P. and Kroon, F. (2013). Climate-ready Conservation Objectives: A Scoping Study. National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility: Southport, Queensland. Online:

Gorddard, R., Colloff, M. J., Wise, R.M., Ware, D. and Dunlop, M. (2016). Values, rules and knowledge: Adaptation as change in the decision context. Environmental Science and Policy, 57: 60–69. Online (DOI): 10.1016/j.envsci.2015.12.004

Prober, S. M., Colloff, M. J., Abel, N., Crimp, S., Doherty, M. D., Dunlop, M., Eldridge, D. J., Gorddard, R., Lavorel, S., Metcalfe, D. J., Murphy, H. T., Ryan, P. and Williams, K. J. (2017). Informing climate adaptation pathways in multi-use woodland landscapes using the values-rules-knowledge framework. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, 241: 39–53. Online (DOI): 10.1016/j.agee.2017.02.021

Biography: Russell Gorddard PhD is an agricultural and natural resource economist by training with research interests in sustainability, adaptation to global change and the relationship between knowledge, values and rules in framing the decision context for adaptation planning and action. He is based at CSIRO Land and Water in Canberra, Australia.

Biography: Matt Colloff PhD is an ecologist and taxonomist by training, a founder member of the Transformative Adaptation Research Alliance and Visiting Fellow at the Fenner School for Environment and Society, The Australian National University in Canberra. His current research is in integrative science to underpin natural resource management and adaptation to global change. Matt is passionate about exploring the influence that people have on landscapes and place and how, in turn, place influences people.

Biography: Russell Wise PhD is a Senior Sustainability Economist in the Climate Risks and Resilience Group, CSIRO Land and Water in Canberra, Australia. He has built and led interdisciplinary teams and research programs to help stakeholders understand and respond to unprecedented global changes in climate, ecosystems and economies. He is one of Australia’s leading authorities in adaptation, particularly in relation to overcoming barriers to long-term decision-making in the face of uncertainty to enable just and efficient outcomes. Key to this has been the development of original effective approaches to collaboratively designing and using original concepts and decision-support tools and processes such as adaptation pathways to support policy, planning and investment decision making with government, non-government, and private agencies in Australia, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.

Biography: Michael Dunlop PhD is a Senior Research Scientist at CSIRO Land and Water in Canberra, Australia. He works on the intersection between the social, institutional and biophysical dimensions of managing the impacts of transformational climate change. He focuses on helping policymakers and managers understand how climate change affects the challenge of conserving biodiversity and sustaining ecosystem-based livelihoods over the coming century. He works with national, state and local governments, natural resource management bodies and non-government organisations in Australia and globally, developing concepts and processes to help them adapt their management and strategies. His research interest are focused on how people value biodiversity, the factors that constrain and enable the ways that managers and decision makers respond to future climate change, understanding how values, rules and knowledge change and interact to shape available decision options, and adaptation to transformational climate change.

Improving mutual consultation among key stakeholders to optimize the use of research evidence

Community member post by Allison Metz

Alison Metz
Allison Metz (biography)

Processes to support the uptake of research evidence call for each of the key stakeholders to consider the challenges faced by other key stakeholders in making good use of research evidence. When stakeholders have the opportunity to consider perspectives other than their own, they will generally have a broader understanding of the problem space, and, in turn a greater commitment to co-creating prototypes for improving research translation.

Let’s consider a real world example in New York City’s public child welfare system. New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services operates what is believed to be the world’s largest and most diverse array of evidence-based and evidence-informed preventive programs in any municipal child welfare jurisdiction. This required – and continues to require – major changes in policies, services, program standards, staff training, business processes, and data systems. To this end, the Administration for Children’s Services, private service providers, researchers, and families must come together to co-create processes that allow for productive adaptations of evidence-based services to ensure sustainability and impact.

(Source: Metz and Bartley, 2017)

There were four key challenges to improving mutual consultation between some of the key stakeholders, specifically service providers, researchers, and policy makers:

  • Time and space to interact
  • Proactively addressing adaptive issues, rather than simply troubleshooting crises or emerging challenges
  • Ensuring everyone had a say and no person or group dominated
  • Effectively supporting the use of research evidence.

These challenges were addressed, respectively, by:

  • Increasing meeting frequency from monthly (or in some cases only as needed) to bi-weekly
  • Developing standard meeting agendas
  • Using structured facilitation techniques such as nominal group process
  • Co-developing products and processes, including desk guides, logic models and conceptual models.

A research study to assess the effectiveness of these processes found that levels of mutual consultation increased for all interactions. Specifically the study found increases in:

  • the intensity of interactions
  • formalized structures to support stakeholder communication
  • co-development of products or processes to translate research evidence.

These findings align with systematic reviews of evidence on the factors that support effective co-creation (Voorberg, Bekkers and Tummers, 2015), including a formal infrastructure for communication and the willingness of stakeholders to actively participate in communication. Feedback loops also promote iterative and cyclical improvements and modifications to evidence use, a hallmark of co-creation and co-design models.

What processes have you found to be useful?

Voorberg, W. H., Bekkers, V. J. J. M. and Tummers, L. G. (2015). A systematic review of co-creation and co-production: Embarking on the social innovation journey. Public Management Review, 17, 9: 1333-1357.

For more information, see:
Metz, A. and Bartley, L. (2017). Co-creating the conditions to sustain the use of research evidence in public child welfare. Child Welfare, 94, 2: 115-139.

Biography: Allison Metz, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist, Director of the National Implementation Research Network (NIRN), and Senior Scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Allison specializes in the implementation, mainstreaming, and scaling of evidence to achieve social impact for children and families in a range of human service and education areas, with an emphasis on child welfare and early childhood service contexts. Among many projects, Allison is studying how to effectively co-create the conditions to sustain the use of research evidence in public child welfare through a project funded by the William T. Grant Foundation. Allison serves on the Board of Directors for the Global Implementation Initiative. She is a principal investigator of the Co-Creative Capacity pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

This blog post is one of a series developed in preparation for the second meeting in January 2017 of the Co-Creative Capacity Pursuit. This pursuit is part of the theme Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

What’s in a name? The role of storytelling in participatory modeling

Community member post by Alison Singer

Alison Singer (biography)

That which we call a rose,
by any other name would smell as sweet.

That Shakespeare guy really knew what he was talking about. A rose is what it is, no matter what we call it. A word is simply a cultural agreement about what we call something. And because language is a common thread that binds cultures together, participatory modeling – as a pursuit that strives to incorporate knowledge and perspectives from diverse stakeholders – is prime for integrating stories into its practice.

To an extent, that’s what every modeling activity does, whether it’s through translating an individual’s story into a fuzzy cognitive map, or into an agent-based model. But I would argue that the drive to quantify everything can sometimes make us lose the richness that a story can provide. Continue reading

Learning from Google about inter- and transdisciplinary leadership

Community member post by Janet G. Hering

Janet G. Hering (biography)

Like most engineers, the Google leadership had assumed that the leader of an engineering team must be at least as competent technically as the members of the team. As Laszlo Bock described in his 2015 book Work Rules!, however, a data-driven assessment disproved this assumption. The counter-intuitive result of “Project Oxygen” was that having “important technical skills that help advise the team” only ranked number eight in the list of key attributes differentiating the most from the least effective managers.

This is very good news for leaders of inter- and transdisciplinary synthesis projects since it’s highly unlikely that these leaders could have all the subject expertise relevant to their projects. If subject expertise is not the most important characteristic of leadership, then what kind of expertise should leaders have and what kind of roles do they play? How important are leaders and leadership in such synthesis projects? Continue reading

Sharing integrated modelling practices – Part 2: How to use “patterns”?

Community member post by Sondoss Elsawah and Joseph Guillaume

Sondoss Elsawah (biography)

In part 1 of our blog posts on why use patterns, we argued for making unstated, tacit knowledge about integrated modelling practices explicit by identifying patterns, which link solutions to specific problems and their context. We emphasised the importance of differentiating the underlying concept of a pattern and a pattern artefact – the specific form in which the pattern is explicitly described. Continue reading

Sharing integrated modelling practices – Part 1: Why use “patterns”?

Community member post by Sondoss Elsawah and Joseph Guillaume

Sondoss Elsawah (biography)

How can modellers share the tacit knowledge that accumulates over years of practice?

In this blog post we introduce the concept of patterns and make the case for why patterns are a good candidate for transmitting the ‘know-how’ knowledge about modelling practices. We address the question of how to use patterns in a second blog post. Continue reading