Reframing Complex Water Challenges

Forward by Michal Russo and George Beane

"The spirit of dialogue is the ability to hold many points of view in suspension, along with a primary interest in the creation of a common meaning. Fixed and rigid frames dissolve in the creative free flow of dialogue as a new kind of micro culture emerges." (Bohm 1996: 246-47)


How water-practitioners think about water challenges—the lenses through which they interpret or frame a challenge—effects where they look for solutions. These frames, which categorize and sort our experiences and disciplines, bring into focus some ideas while simplifying or reducing others. They are as ubiquitous as they are invisible. Frames shape action as practitioners internalize and realize their conceptualization of the world around them.

Traditionally, water challenges have been tackled in disciplines that focus on either a physical or social interpretation of the problem. Today’s water challenges are enmeshed in coupled human-natural networks and emerge from interconnected dynamics and system feedbacks that cannot be broken down and then re-assembled. Most water resource related disciplines, including hydrology, civil engineering, ecology, architecture, public health, city planning, and political science, acknowledge that new interdisciplinary frames are necessary to cope with existing complex water challenges.

The landscape of water-practitioners is dotted with rapidly forming interdisciplinary water groups - innovating new approaches, generating new insights, and encountering significant hurdles. These groups are collaborating to support frameworks that are more innovative, inclusive, and reflective. Their work aims to reach a new shared understanding – a new basis from which to think and act (Isaacs 1999). However, the exposure of their frame is in itself valuable, as tacit values and assumptions are put on the table for exploration (Innes and Booher 2010).

On May 1st and 2nd the MIT Water Club, Water Diplomacy program, MIT Science Impact Collaborative, and Institute of the Environment at Tufts co-sponsored a workshop to learn about the successes and failures of current-day innovative and interdisciplinary water sector practices. We set out to engage with real world experiments that have “reframed” complex water challenges to better understand challenges and explore possibilities. We did not attempt to test predetermined hypotheses, or build prescriptions for improved practice. Instead, we aimed to expose, through reflective insights, the working frameworks of practitioners and researchers who are actively engaged in different ways of learning and innovating.

The workshop brought together practitioners and researchers from around the country with a diverse collection of approaches – from consensus building to active control systems, poverty alleviation to predictive modeling, and local river restorations to regulation of regional water flows. In presenting on their work, each was asked to reflect on a recent case that showcased their current reframing of a water challenges by collaborating across multiple disciplines or innovating multi-disciplinary methods.