Like sustainability, ‘environment’ is a concept with multiple meanings across people, communities and cultures, and is often loaded with emotion. Different ideologies define the value of the environment on a spectrum from ecocentric to anthropocentric, greatly impacting people’s treatment of it.
While the ecocentric view holds that environment has intrinsic value, the anthropocentric view values environment only to the extent that it benefits human endeavours.
This makes environment a contested concept: reflected in contested spaces, contested ownership and contested usage. When bringing multiple stakeholders to the table over issues of environment, this is a significant barrier to finding affinity and agreement. Any decision about environmental management or change is often informed by the personal beliefs, attitudes and interests of people. In most cases, these are aggregate in a corporate, government, lobbyist or advocate/action group positions, that are part of a larger system.
The role of frames.
“Frames are interpretive storylines that set a specific train of thought in motion, communicating why an issue might be a problem, who or what might be responsible for it, and what should be done about it.”
– Matthew C. Nisbet, ‘Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter for Public Engagement’
Often hidden, normalised, or taken-for-granted, cognitive frames shape the way we understand and approach a problem. They are created by language, images and concepts, while activating values and engaging identity. There is no such thing as unframed information – people rely on frames to make sense of the world, discuss issues, engage, persuade, and reach decisions. They allow us to negotiate meaning through the lens of our cultural beliefs and worldviews. Frames define the field of vision.
When bringing different people together to discuss environmental problems, and build solutions, an important first step is to analyse the different frames being brought to the table – identifying what work they do, what might be excluded or overlooked, and where different frames might conflict. This enables a shared understanding to be established where different frames converge; a foundation on which solutions can be built collaboratively.
Framing the problem.
There are four key strategies for identifying and analysing frames:
- Language – Observing modes and tones of communication, looking for cues in how people talk about the topic.
- Causal mapping – Building diagrams of cause and effect to understand interpretations, for instance through affinity mapping, systems mapping and influence maps.
- Structures – Creating structures for analysing characterisations of problems and solutions, such as through models and diagrams.
- Comparing with existing frames – with an understanding of one frame, it can be easier to understand contrasting frames within a similar context.
Framing the solution.
Once pre-existing frames have been identified and analysed, new frames can be negotiated based on common ground. But if new frames are imposed rather than negotiated, this will lead to misunderstanding at best and antagonism at worst. Take the climate debate, for instance.
An essential part of building collaborative solutions is establishing what information is most important or relevant for the purposes of the initiative, together with stakeholders. This then creates a common frame that shapes the most useful methods and actions needed to work towards a shared outcome, establishing buy-in in the process.
Using this approach, we have consistently found that corporations, NFPs and government agree on the outcomes, even if priorities might have been different before the design of the initiative. When partnering for shared value across sectors, the complexity of ‘environment’ demands collective starting points for new discussions that lead to mutually agreeable outcomes. Identifying, analysing and negotiating frames is a pivotal path to get us there.