Throbjørn Mann

The Framing Problem in the Planning Discourse  

In an ongoing process of designing the outline if a (potentially) global Public Planning Discourse Support Platform, a recurring issue is delaying the very attempt to open up a ‘pilot’ version on social media to discuss the concept and its development: the question of ‘framing’ the discourse.

The concept of ‘framing’ refers to the fact that there are always several different ‘ways of talking’  (also called ‘perspectives’ or ‘paradigms’)  about a problem or emergency or vision that some feel should become a community planning project. Further, is was seen that the first such ‘way of talking’  introduced into the discussion — even the way the project is ‘raised’ for discussion, often tends to dominate the ensuing discourse. And to the extent the concern for the project is ‘controversial’ or involves a conflict of interests, it thereby can become part of a ‘power’ tool in the search for solutions: it will favor a particular, — partisan — set of potential solutions. And this may result in solutions that are inequtable, unjust, oppressive to other parts of the affected constituencies.  

The implication for the design of a ‘democratic’ planning platform therefore becomes a  requirement to keep the platform design itself as ‘perspective-neutral’ as possible, lest it be perceived as a power tool of the part of the community that will benefit from solutions gained from the particular perspective, and therefore not trusted by other segments  of the community. 

Though the pursuit of perspecitve neutrality must be taken seriously, It is probably impossible to design a totally ‘perspectve-neutral’ platform.  But even if this could be done: would not then the very first effort by any party to start a discussion about a planning problem or project be the ‘framing’ entry the principle says we should avoid? 

So it looks like framing will be inevitable. The progress of designing an outline for even a pilot version of a planning platform has become stuck in this dilemma, to the point of not even being able to reach agreement on the basic articulation of purpose, focus, and aim of the project, for fear of committing the sin of framing.  

Now, would it not be more useful to look for platform provisions that would neutralize the effects of such first framing incidents, rather than to insist on avoiding them? Are there ways of acknowledging this, and including provisions in the platform design, for defusing any potentially controversial or destructive effects?

A first option would be to simply always point out the framing essence of discourse contributions — with ubiquitous reminders like Rittel’s suggestion to end each entry in an ‘IBIS’ (Issue Based Information System’) with a «Wrong question?» or «Wrong Problem?» line. It may have to be more specific, like «Wrong Way of Talking?» 

Another, more detailed possibility, following C. West Churchman’s recommendation of ‘testing’ a systems narrative with a ‘counterplanning’ effort, would be to adopt a rule of requiring that any entry of a substantial effort or proposal in the discourse must be accompanied by an equally plausible but substantially different ‘counterframing’ comment to be accepted as a topic for more in-depth and systematic discussion? 

The ‘democratic’ principles of planning and policy-making, that ‘decisions should be based on ‘due consideration of all concerns of all segments of a community; on ‘careful weighing of all pros and cons’ would seem to require that all ‘perspectives’ held by all parties in a community should be expressed, articulated and discussed. What provisions for the planing discourse wold be needed to ensure this? 

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