By BinBin Pearce and Olivier Ejderyan
What is joint problem framing? What are the key issues that joint problem framing has to address? How can joint problem framing be improved?
What is joint problem framing?
A key aspect of tackling complex problems is effectively bringing together differing points of view. These points of view are what Craik (1943) refers to as “small-scale models” of the problem situation. These are mental models formed from each individual’s experiences, interests, knowledge and environment. These mental models then set the boundaries for what problem definitions and solutions are possible and relevant to consider.
Joint problem framing then, involves a process of eliciting, clarifying, reconfiguring and reconciling (though not necessarily agreeing upon) different mental models in order to formulate the problem clearly and to identify common goals and criteria. Joint problem framing is the key to harnessing diversity as a resource rather than a stumbling block.
What are the key issues in joint problem framing?
The question of how do you do joint problem framing, in practice, remains a topic that is underexplored. Little information is available about:
- how joint problem framing processes are launched and managed
- what adjustments and adaptations have to be made in order for the project partners to arrive at a jointly framed problem
- the effectiveness of different forms of joint problem framing such as early exploratory workshops involving all scientists and practitioners, the re-framing of a scientific problem formulated in a research proposal, or informal iterations between the researchers and stakeholders based on previous personal contacts
- tacit knowledge such as knowing who to invite to the table and when, how to set up a safe and open environment for discussion, how to listen, and how to confront and work around existing power dynamics.
As a consequence, each time researchers tackle a complex problem they must find their own approach to the challenging task of joint problem framing, according to their own set of circumstances and abilities.
How can joint problem framing be improved?
Here we offer a heuristic framework, shown in the table below, that allows researchers engaging in joint problem framing to reflect and build upon their own experiences and knowledge to arrive at answers relevant to the context in which they are working.
The heuristic framework takes the form of a series of questions that help researchers to reflect upon the key insights and lessons for conducting both ongoing and future joint problem framing processes. It is intended to help those just starting off in research on complex problems by providing a means to structure new experiences, as well as assisting more advanced researchers who are interested in assessing and systematising past experiences of joint problem framing.
The framework is built upon the identification of challenges to joint problem framing from the literature, as well as our own experiences.
Would you find this framework useful for capturing the nitty-gritty of joint problem framing? What further challenges would you include in the framework?
To find out more:
Pearce, B. J. and Ejderyan, O. (2020). Joint problem framing as reflexive practice: Honing a transdisciplinary skill. Sustainability Science, 15, 3: 683–698. (Online) (DOI): http://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-019-00744-2
Craik, K. (1943). The Nature of Explanation. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, United Kingdom.
Biography: BinBin Pearce PhD is a senior scientist and lecturer in the Transdisciplinarity Lab in the Department of Environmental Systems Science at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. Making use of a mental models approach, cognitive mapping, soft systems methodology, qualitative systems modelling and institutional analysis, her research interest is in developing and evaluating methods for collaborative decision making. Specifically, she focuses on how diverse stakeholders and experts can jointly identify, frame and act upon complex problems on diverse topics within the field of sustainable development. With a background in environmental engineering and design thinking, she has been involved in research and engineering projects on waste management, energy, and agriculture projects in Singapore, India, China, and the United States. She has developed an integrated systems and design thinking methodology which has been implemented by more than 800 students at all levels, community members and members of the Swiss federal government.
Biography: Olivier Ejderyan PhD is a researcher at the Swiss Competence Center for Energy Research – Supply of Electricity (SCCER -SoE) and at the Transdisciplinarity Lab at the Department of Environmental Systems Science at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. His research focuses on the effects of participatory methods when implementing environmental technology projects. He is particularly interested in how such methods can be used to reveal context-specific political or technical issues at play in the acceptance of environmental technologies. His current research applies this approach in the area of renewable and low carbon geo-energy technologies such as deep geothermal energy, heat storage, and carbon capture and storage.