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5. Appendix B - Sustainability Proposal

Proposal by Stefan Ouboter to NICOLE in the summer of 2003

NICOLE is a leading forum on contaminated land management in Europe, promoting co-operation between industry, academia and service providers on the development and application of sustainable technologies.

Stepfan's proposal, reproduced below, was to make the fuzzy concept of 'sustainable land management' more concrete using Symbolic Modelling to clarify the network of mental frames held by experienced land management practitioners and strategists.

Towards a new mental model for sustainability

From risk based land management towards sustainable land management

In the Barcelona meeting, March 2003, the NICOLE network had the aim to make a new strategy for the next years, based on the concept of ‘sustainable land management’. There was a general agreement on at least two major issues.

First, the concept of ‘risk based land management’ is too much focussed on the negative impacts of contaminated soils. Risk based land management is an adequate but not complete strategy and should be incorporated in a wider perspective that has a driving force towards a goal instead of away from a risk. ‘Sustainibility’ is an appropriate term for the ultimate goal, but has the disadvantage that it is a ‘fuzzy’ word or a ‘container expression’. During the meeting many ideas were put forward to specify the concept of sustainability in the daily practice of land management and soil quality control.

The second conclusion was that the three P’s (Planet, People, Profit) should be the basis for any definition of sustainable land management and that therefore NICOLE should widen its perspective. Many people thought that it is essential for NICOLE-members – most of them originating from a technical scientific expertise and still considering themselves as technical experts – to have comprehensive discussions with other groups such as spatial planners, financial experts and people with a social and economic scientific background.

Though the agreement on this direction of NICOLE is a great step forward, the question still is how sustainable land management can be put into practice. Or in other words, ‘how to develop sound management options which are technically and financially viable, and which take country specific conditions into account’ – as the NICOLE discussion paper on sustainable land management puts it.

How to bring the abstract concept of sustainability a step forward

Cognitive science and mental frames
Where most sciences are intended to develop our knowledge of  nature, processes or human beings, cognitive scientists study the way we know. One of the outcomes of recent research is that there is an underlying structure of our conscious thinking that makes it possible that we can think and communicate rational. This subconscious level is believed to be a network of mental frames or mental spaces that are connected through analogy. To give an example: When somebody refers to ‘buying a beer in a restaurant’ we can understand that because we connect our conceptual frames of beer, buying and restaurant and combine it with our own experience of beer, buying or restaurants. The same applies to our understanding of ‘buying’. This single word transfers in our Western world a frame with input frames like money, markets, goods, etc. At the end of the line are basic frames like ‘small/big’ ‘close/far’, etc.

The same structure of subconscious networks of frames can be found in expert language. The concept of ‘human risks of contaminated soils’ is built on input frames of toxicity, chemical substances, exposure routes and effects. For soil experts this concept is so evident that they are not aware anymore that only 20 years ago many conferences were needed to reach this level of general understanding.

This proposal wants to make the fuzzy concept of sustainable land management more concrete, using relative new methods of the cognitive sciences to clarify the network of mental frames that gives meaning to abstract concepts. The concept of sustainable land management does not have such a general accepted network of frames yet, as is e.g. the  case with the concept of risk based land management. Many people still have no clear (mental) picture of sustainability but refer to it as a vague expression. However, if some people say that they are putting sustainable land management into practice, they must have  a mental map of the fuzzy concept of sustainability. The idea of this proposal is to elicit those mental maps from people that work in soil management in different countries, using the new methodology of the cognitive scientists.

This proposal is an alternative for the methods we are more familiar with: through debates, discussions and negotiations trying to make a definition that is acceptable for the majority in the NICOLE network. Where this traditional discussion methodology very much depends on the use of a shared language, the alternative methodology to focus on a network of associated frames focuses on mental images evolved from people with experiences in soil and land management. We presuppose that the mental images can be more effective to reach a general understanding than the definition in a  language that is not the mother tongue of most people.

The proposal

The core of the proposal
A multidisciplinary team of cognitive scientists and communication experts interview 12 soil experts in 4 countries (UK, Netherlands, Belgium & France) that are known to have practical experiences in soil management in a way that could be described as ‘towards sustainable land management’. The outcome of the interviews is a mapping of their mental frames in sketches, schemes or description of the mental pictures they use in solving day to day problems of soil management. This material will be documented and further developed in a workshop with sponsoring NICOLE members.

Both the basic material (the mental pictures connected to the real world problems) and the outcome of the developing workshop will be reported in a booklet of visual mindmaps. It is the aim to present the booklet on the NICOLE workshop in Lille, November 2003.

The team
The Developing Company from London developed a methodology (Symbolic Modelling) by observing the work a psychotherapist from New Zealand, David Grove. He used a specific way of questioning to invite people to become aware of subconscious mental frames. Traumatized people (e.g. Vietnam veterans) often had no direct access to their traumatic experiences, but were able to describe their experiences in symbols and metaphors. Clients that were able to change their mental frames often also could solve their troubles connected to their traumatic experiences. The means of David Grove were modelled by Penny Tomkins and James Lawley into a methodology called symbolic modelling. Nowadays it is still used as a psychotherapeutic methodology, but parts of the methodology also proved to be valuable for a variety of other processes where subconscious patterns play a role. Examples vary from developing business strategies, complex communication processes to education strategies. Courses in symbolic modelling are given in the UK, US, Italy, France and the Netherlands.

In the Netherlands, Stefan Ouboter is working in the Wageningen University on the potentials to adept the method in participatory processes in the environmental field. There it could fill the gap between the rational action planning on which most participatory processes are based and the subjective and emotional perception of people.

This proposal needs three kind of skills. The first skill is the ability to model the subconscious mental maps that people use to put abstract concepts into action plans. The methodology that will be used is Symbolic Modelling and Clean Language. We call the people that have this first skill the modellers. The second skill is the ability to put sustainable land management into practice in a real world environment. We call the people that have that skill the practitioners. The third skill is the ability to understand and develop the mental maps from individuals into a scheme that can be used to further develop the concept of sustainable land management. We call the people that have this third skill the strategists.

With this proposal we want to form the following team of people:

  Modellers Practitioners Strategists
Number3 to 4 from 3 countries12 from 4 countries4 - 6 from NICOLE
InterviewersInterviewed on a specific situationDeveloping
BackgroundCapable of the Clean Language interview technique and interested in environmentExperienced in land management and aiming for sustainabilityMember of NICOLE Industrial group or Service providers Group
2 days per interview + workshop day = 5–7 days per interviewer
1 or 2 sessions of 2 hours
1 workshop +  feed back on outcome papers
Stefan Ouboter (NL) James Lawley (UK) Penny Tompkins (UK) ano (Fr)
 Representatives from: Shell, ICI, Tauw France, TNO …

The secretary of the industrial group and Stefan Ouboter will perform the project management tasks and the reporting. A professional quick drawer will be part of the team to visualize the mental maps, schemes, etc. Interviews will be recorded on tape and/or video.  Interviewed people should realize that the interview technique differs from a traditional conversational interview. Preparation is not needed, but it is important that a focus on subconscious mental processes asks for a tranquil environment, an open mind and a good concentration.

Planning of the project

The project is scheduled to be very compact. It could give the Lille workshop some extra input when the developing workshop is planned just before in October 2003. The interviews could be organised in August and September.

Penny Tompkins & James Lawley
Penny and James are supervising neurolinguistic psychotherapists – registered with the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy since 1993 – coaches in business, certified NLP trainers, and founders of The Developing Company.

They have provided consultancy to organisations as diverse as GlaxoSmithKline, Yale University Child Study Center, NASA Goddard Space Center and the Findhorn Spiritual Community in Northern Scotland.

Their book,
Metaphors in Mind
was the first comprehensive guide to Symbolic Modelling using the Clean Language of David Grove. An annotated training DVD, A Strange and Strong Sensation demonstrates their work in a live session. They have published over 200 articles and blogs freely available on their website:
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