In a recent post on policy-relevant science I talked about boundary workers and boundary organizations. The boundary I am talking about is between science and policy and the notion of the boundary between scientists and policy-makers is something receiving increasing attention by social scientists. Briefly (read the last post if you want more), the idea originated with people who span between inside and outside of a company, mutated to be the boundary between scientists and others, and led to adding a new concept – boundary organizations (e.g. conservation NGOs, land trusts, etc).
But today, I want to talk about another idea that emerges from thinking about the boundary: the boundary object. As the name implies a boundary object is a thing, not a person or group of people, that helps to span the boundary. In the original corporate model, things like price lists and user licenses were boundary objects. In the science policy boundary, there are many possibilities – maps and models being two of the most commonly cited, but many many other objects can (should?) be thought of as boundary objects as well.
To be a good boundary object, an object needs several properties:
- Spans/lives in two worlds/translates – this is the most obvious point. It needs to have genuine uptake of the language and concepts of the scientists but also genuine uptake of the language and concepts of the policy makers. It probably needs to be enough of a compromise to maks both sides a bit uncomfortable. A bit too certain for scientists. A bit too quantitative for policy makers. An ANOVA table or regression table does not span (full comfort for scientists, all the discomfort for the policy makers). A bar graph of standardized coefficients is a bit better. A decision (regression) tree is a lot better (and it makes both groups stretch their comfort zones)..
- Central – a good boundary object needs to get to the heart of the matter and show the key variables enough to stimulate discussion and yes, provoke disagreement, or it is not doing its job. Just a map of the area without any layers is not a boundary object. A map that identifies existing resources, existing practices, proposed regulatory zones is a good boundary object.
- Highly public – a boundary object needs to be easily available to everybody on both sides of the boundary – probably on the internet in this day and age. A drawing on a cocktail napkin from a discussion between two people is not a boundary object. But if it is scanned and put on the internet (or emailed to a group) it could be.
- Credible – a boundary object needs to be reasonably credible as objective and neutral. If it is seen as a tool for one side to win, it won’t be used. Indeed, even if it is unintentional (e.g. bad initial parameters in a model), just being perceived as biased can be the kiss of death to the life of a boundary object.
- Changeable/editable – boundary objects need to be changeable. As the discussion across the boundary changes and moves, the boundary object needs to capture and reflect. In some cases, a boundary object can become the centerpoint of negotiation.
I stated earlier that both maps and what-if (scenario-driven) models are great boundary objects. Assuming they map or model the right variables it is pretty clear how they meet the five criteria. Especially maps. The ideal model to serve as a boundary object has a number of clear input parameters that can be changed to see how the outcomes change. This is especially powerful when the model is fronted on the web where anybody can tweak the parameters and play with the model. A model is also powerful when the assumptions can be written down clearly (although just making clear the what the inputs and outputs are is useful).
As the title of this post suggests, boundary objects can be extraordinarily, surprisingly successful in invoking boundary spanning. I’m sure almost any ecologist who has put themselves in a policy context (hearing, forum, etc) has seen the power of a map. I saw it a couple of weeks ago in my town – there was a public hearing on building a giant student apartment complex in close proximity to some wetlands. The whole conversation centered on the architectural drawings (which were mounted on a 3×5 poster board). And when a scientist got up and started talking about why he thought the soil survey was wrong, he didn’t just say it, he took the time to hook up to a projector and show soil maps. Maps just change the whole conversation. They don’t make people magically agree (of course!). But they make the conversation much more concrete, much less talking past people and not being heard, and ultimately much more productive.
Models are used much less often in environmental policy in my experience (but still frequently). They can also be game changers. It doesn’t mean people agree with the model. But they do mean people can start to understand what the most important variables are. And they can start to have concrete dialogues about what the right assumptions are. A great example where maps and models interesect is the diagrams being produced of sea level rise in response to climate change. To a large degree the map aspect dominates. But in more nuanced conversations outside of the press, they start to lead to error bars (whats that map look like if the seas only go up 20 cm or up 1m), they start discussions about what we do and don’t know about ice melt, etc. My whole job before I returned to academia was building models to be used as boundary objects in the business world. I spent 5 years of my life modelling the changes to mail sorting that would happen with automation (optical character readers and bar code sorters). These models served as a focal point for launching 100s of discussions from the impacts for unions, to change in the number of facilities needed to what types of machines to buy and what types of mail to incentive in the future.
Maps and what-if models aren’t the only useful boundary objects. I already mentioned decision trees (output from a regression tree). While a single regression tree might be less trendy and statistically proper than a random forest, it is a WAY better boundary object. Managers intuitively get regression trees and can immediately start discussing limitations of the statistical model, matching the model vs their mental model of reality, and see policy implications. Another boundary object is forcing a quantitative weighting of priorities. This can be done with techniques as simple as voting for rank order. Or as complex as using analytical hierarchical process. Having a discussion to conclude that genetic diversity deserves 27.2% of our attention, taxonomic diversity 37.8%, and functional diversity 35% is totally arbitrary and inherently wrong by being so one dimensional – but it is a fantastic way to have a constructive conversation! (again that theme of a good boundary object takes everybody out of their comfort zones). Similarly a “health of nature in Maine” index combining different factors with arbitrary weights would be stupidly oversimplified from the reality ecologists know, but a great boundary object. Even reports serve as boundary objects – think of the just released IPCC report (of course the many maps, charts and models are each boundary objects) but the wording of the report itself stirred great debate and discussion on what we know, how certain we are, etc. Scenario generation (sensu this paper) is another less-quantitative boundary object.
As a slightly more detailed case study … even just simple access to data can serve as a boundary object so long as the effort is made to genuinely put the data in the middle of the boundary, not just in the scientist’s world. I’m working on a project for the Maine Sustainability Solutions Initiative to take a mix of freely available, but technically complex data (e.g. shapefiles) and new data (e.g. model projections) produced by our researchers and just put it in a simple, map and trend chart interface in a web-browser. I keep getting told – well those GIS layers are already available or you’re missing the complexity behind the forecasts, but they’re kind of missing the point of a boundary object. Its about putting conversation starting information out in a genuine spanning (lives in two worlds) context. The average state legislator or town councilor is not going to pull out a GIS layer. But they will spend 5 minutes on the web. And if they do they will be able to get a trend chart of climate change in their town or a map of land cover change over the last 20 years in their town or the changing economy of their town (part of the appeal of maps and part of the spanning is people always want to look at where they live) . And they will start putting patterns together. Start comparing past to projected future. Start looking for more information on assumptions behind the models. And have a lot of conversations they wouldn’t have had. Time will tell if this specific project serves its purpose, but if past experiences with boundary objects are any guide, my money is that it will. This ties into the theme of how to make sure research gets across the boundary and doesn’t just mold away in journals – which will be the topic of my next post on boundaries.
But my bottom line experience is that getting a bunch of people in a room with different opinions and “just talking about it” or “letting everybody be heard” is vastly less effective than getting a bunch of people in a room with different opinions with a boundary object at the center of the discussion. It focuses things in very concrete ways and towards negotiation and compromise and increases the level of understanding and minimizes the amount of talking past each other between the sides.
One could speculate for a long time about the psychology of why boundary objects work (an irrational belief that anything coming out of a computer is correct, the ability to find “my house” on the map, focusing people in a constructive direction, genuine success at translation and spanning, and etc). These are interesting topics of study in their own right (and are being studied), but not my own field of research. I just notice how well they DO work. Its almost like its magic (except of course the reality is its a lot of hard work behind the scenes). Hence the title of “unreasonable effectiveness”
What boundary objects have you used in your work? Were they effective? What made them effective? Any experiences with what made them more effective?