Enabling co-creation: From learning cycles to aligning values, rules and knowledge

By Lorrae van Kerkhoff

Lorrae van Kerkhoff (biography)

How do we improve? In the context of sustainable development, we continually confront the question of how we can develop meaningful and positive actions towards a ‘better’ world (social, ecological, economic outcomes) despite inherent uncertainties about what the future holds.

Co-creation is one concept among several that seek to reorientate us from simplistic, largely linear ideas of progress towards more nuanced, subtle ideas that highlight that there are many different aspects of ‘progress’, and these can be deeply contested and challenging to reconcile. Enabling co-creation, then – or operationalizing it – means finding practical ways to work together, to deal with our different experiences, aspirations and expectations as well as the uncertainties of the future.

Co-creation sits within a learning paradigm that suggests engagement, social and mutual learning, adaptation and flexibility are key to enabling action in the face of uncertainty. But how do we think about learning?

Bear with me on a short philosophical detour—the operationalizing part will make more sense because of it! While there are many variations on the theme of learning across sustainability and social-ecological systems practice, most concepts are based either explicitly or implicitly on the idea of an (adult) learning cycle. Proposed around 100 years ago by American pragmatist philosophers such as Charles S. Peirce and John Dewey, the learning cycle of “plan-do-reflect-revise-plan-do…”etc., has a firm grip on the way we think about learning and progress towards a particular (social, ecological) goal.

The idea of course is that by treating our interventions and actions as experiments, rather than proven cause-effect chains of events, we become open to learning and continual improvement, rather seeking one-off silver bullets towards an agreed target outcome, such as conserving a particular species or maintaining the ecological health of a landscape.

This makes a lot of sense. The fields of adaptive management and adaptive governance are good illustrations. The figure below shows a typical adaptive management cycle, clearly demonstrating the plan-do-reflect process.

Unfortunately, while the adult learning cycle has a very well-established place in education (where it was first developed), in the context of addressing complex social-ecological challenges, the jury is out.

Basically, evidence suggests it is much easier said than done. While the cycle is a big improvement on the one-shot silver bullet approach, there is little guidance on what to do when the ideal cycle comes unstuck, for example when the money for the monitoring program gets diverted to on-ground activities; when there are inadequate resources for evaluation; when incentives in the broader institution mean that admitting to (perceived) failures means personal or professional denigration… the list is long and somewhat depressing. Yes, we may be able to ‘reflect and learn’, but if we can’t do anything about the conditions which have blocked us, the learning cycle can start to look (or feel!) like wheel-spinning.

So what does this all mean for operationalizing co-creation? Colleagues and I (Wyborn et al., 2016, drawing on Gorddard et al., 2016) have proposed that we may be better equipped to deal with crafting our way skilfully towards our long-term, uncertain futures if we think about the learning process as less like a cycle, and more like a process of continual alignment between the values that guide what we want our futures to look like (or what aspects we what to persist or grow), the knowledge we have to tell us how best to pursue this, and the rules that shape what we can and cannot do to get there. As we wrote in the paper:

  • Values represent the personal, cultural and ethical factors that lead to the preferences that people express when confronted with certain knowledge and rules.
  • Rules, or institutions, represent legislation, regulations, constitutions, guidelines, and other formal factors; also societal and personal norms and behaviours.
  • Knowledge refers to the evidence, beliefs and judgments about how the social-ecological system works, an understanding of future changes and the consequences of different decisions.

This approach, known as “VRK” (Values, Rules, Knowledge), differs from the learning cycle, first because it is fundamentally not sequential (although sometimes there may be better places to start than others). Second, the normative, value-laden goal of the process is not external, in the sense that while the ‘target’ (species, landscape) is often a given part of the context for adaptive management, in the “VRK” approach such goals are assumed to represent broader values that are up for debate and discussion.

These broader categories may not sound easier to operationalize! They are less a framework than a heuristic to facilitate targeted conversation in a co-creation process.

But we can start by proposing a few strategies. Any co-creation process needs to begin by developing a thorough understanding of all the stakeholders’ and participants’ relevant knowledge, values and rules in relation to the topic and task at hand.

Knowledge may be the easiest place to start. In working in the area of climate adaptation, we have learned that we needed to examine the existing scientific models and scenarios before we could move on to discuss the more socially and politically charged topics of rules and values.

Visions of the desired future can be constructed collaboratively, to explore similarities and differences in values—what do we really want? Scenario tools may help. These may incorporate technical information or be more conceptual.

Identifying existing rules, and revisiting them to identify roadblocks and pathways towards that vision (or visions), can reveal what needs to change at an institutional level.

What are the disconnects between what we know, what we value and what we can or cannot do? Finding ways to address these disconnects or conflicts by adjusting the rules, seeking new or different kinds of knowledge (not necessarily scientific knowledge), and expressing values becomes the trajectory of this approach. The overall assumption in this process is that new spaces for action and change can open up when “VRK” come into closer alignment, and when any one ‘fails’ (for example, where “we can’t change that rule”) we can turn to the others to identify alternative pathways.

While there are no easy recipes for dealing with complex, uncertain challenges posed by social-ecological systems and the changes that are underway, having some guideposts along the way can help us navigate our co-creation endeavours. The “VRK” heuristic can help us think about what it is we do when we are ‘co-creating solutions’, without imposing rigid frameworks.

Have you used approaches that are similar to “VRK”? How have you found them to work?

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

Wyborn, C., van Kerkhoff, L., Dunlop, M., Dudley, N. and Guevara, O. (2016). Future oriented conservation: Knowledge governance, uncertainty and learning. Biodiversity and Conservation. 25, 7: 1401-1408. Online (DOI): 10.1007/s10531-016-1130-x

Biography: Lorrae van Kerkhoff (@ANUsustsci) is an Associate Professor in sustainability science at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University. Her research focuses on understanding the role of science in governance and decision-making for sustainability, with a special interest in cross-cultural settings. She teaches in areas related to the social and political dimensions of sustainable development, and practical approaches to tackling complex environmental problems. She is a member 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).

6 thoughts on “Enabling co-creation: From learning cycles to aligning values, rules and knowledge”

  1. Excellent post Lorrae. We have been using similar approaches to the VRK on projects to aid the management of water resources on the Yellowstone River, MT, USA and urban native/wild bee populations in St. Louis, MO, USA.

    We call the assessment of VRK a “cultural inventory” but this is merely language that our funding agencies appreciate. The work involves spending time with opinion leaders, affected stakeholders, and decision makers in one-on-one in-depth interviews (recorded, transcribed verbatim) in their homes on their schedules then assembling documents to make the VRKs, as spoken, meaningful to decision makers. On the Yellowstone, the decision makers have been technical experts. In the urban neighborhoods, the decision makers are residents (the managers of yards capable of serving as habitat).

    From my experience, the key to these VRK data being meaningful to move systems towards sustainability has been the interpersonal relationships with the decision makers. This requires long-term engagement and a special level of commitment to the project and the persons involved. How well you know one another enables researchers (us) to create better documents more germane to the decision constraints. Of course, this often pushes up against the time tables of most grants (the researchers’ constraints).

    The language of “experiment” is brilliant. No expert likes to be told they are going engage in “social learning” but “experimentation” is familiar and safer than “acting” so an experimental activity is worth engaging in. Yes, with learning as the result.

    I love this line of flight you guys are on at TARA, keep going! Cheers, Damon

    • Thanks Damon! I’d love to follow up with your work in the US. The idea of a cultural inventory is a good one, and relates to our efforts to bring culture in to the conversation in meaningful and practical ways. In related work on knowledge governance (you can check out my other blog post: https://i2insights.org/2016/09/01/knowledge-governance-and-co-creation/) we are trying to rethink the role of “culture” as central to understanding how decision-making works in any particular context, rather than as the exotic gloss that it is often characterised as.
      More work to come!
      Best, Lorrae

  2. I suppose the key point for me is that progress in innovative collaboration/co-creation is rarely linear/serial. Which means that sometimes following some form of logical cycle ends up being more of a straight jacket or pair of blinkers rather than a helpful tool. Exploring knowledge, values and rules (and tracking and appreciating the often unexpected changes and insights that occur as you do so, may be more likely to encourage meaningful and perhaps, eventually, even exponential progress.

    • Thanks Charles, yes, this ‘straight jacket’ is the kind of experience that led to us trying to rethink how we can have meaningful conversations and plan out feasible actions across often highly diverse groups of people facing uncertain and sometimes radical challenges. The (social) world is not as rational or logical, as we might like to think it is — or at least, the logics being delpoyed may not be ones we are familiar with, or would subscribe to. Adaptability and nimbleness in the face of rapid and deep change needs a different set of tools.
      All the best

  3. Hi Kirsten, thanks for your interest. Many well-established activites can be used to explore these domains, and there is no need to be prescriptive! As an heuristic, or way of thinking about decision-making on complex issues, the main thing is to identify activites that relate to each of the VRK areas, and allow to you explore the interactions between them. In our work on climate adaptation, for example, we have done literature reviews to establish the ‘state of knowledge’ on climate change, and then interviews and policy analysis to establish what kinds of rules shape how scientific knowledge is used in decision-making. We have run workshops where the first activity involves policy-makers and practitioners briging in photos that represent what they value about their work, and using that as a basis for discussing values, as distinct from formally-stated goals. We are often asking people to think about the long-term future, so activites such as ‘Three horizons’ have been useful. The main thing to consider is that, whatever activities best suit your context, that they enable you all to reflect of each of the three domains and where interventions might best be targetted to open up new possibilities for change.
    Good luck, and if you try it I would be really interested to hear how you go!.

  4. Great post! I’m interested in the types of activities that facilitate exploration of disconnection among values/knowledge/rules. Any suggestions for fruitful activities?


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