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Framing and reframing, part 1: our mental frames shape how we see things

Tenleytown DC, library lot and elementary schoolFor nearly any problem, question, topic, or issue you face, you need to ask yourself: "What point of view do I bring to this question?" Then ask: "Has that blinded me in any way?"

Our mental framing on any given question can be hard to loosen. When I first visited Tucson, Arizona, where I planned to go to graduate school, I flew to the Tuscon airport, and, having come from the north, got it in my head that the airport was on the north side of the city. I lived in Tucson for two years, and despite all the evidence to the contrarary, including each day’s sunrise and sunset, I could never seem to shake my initial mis-impression. The sun always seemed to be rising on the wrong side of town.

That shows how powerful a mental framing or first impression can be, and often the stakes are much higher than a grad student being momentarily unable to find his way around. (A couple of years ago, after 23 years’ absence, I again visited Tucson, and the same mis-apprehension reasserted itself–the sun insisted on rising on the wrong side of town).

In a more serious example, in my neighborhood, an issue has evolved over the past few years about the city’s plans for rebuilding a branch library and whether to do that as part of a public private partnership (PPP) involving the adjacent elementary school property (see picture) as well. A developer wants to build apartments on the site, while also accomodating the branch library, and parking for teachers and library patrons. In exchange for that, the developer would pay for some of the school’s modernization and expansion. This issue has been contentious–yesterday morning, in fact, a crowd gathered at the site (an empty lot) and demanded the public library be built now, without the PPP.

Neighborhood activists have framed this issue as a question of whether or not to allow a real estate developer to get involved with the library and school renovations. But the overall debate includes the premise that the school needs to be modernized and expanded, and that its student population will go up.

The lens through which both sides see the question is how best to serve the community and the students at the school, with a large and growing student population. Discussing the situation that way has held off or submerged any discussions of the possibility that we could leave the student population size as it is, or lower it. Intense debate about a part of the situation that was particularly emotional blinded nearly everyone to other questions about the plans.

Often when you face a futures question you have to step back and say, "hey, maybe we’re not asking the right question."

That’s often a the role of a futures-minded person in the group. The tendency is to respond to an issue or question as it was posed. But often it’s important to reframe that question. There are nearly always old arguments, philosophical differences, and vested interests that shape the way the question gets discussed. But are we even asking the right question?

In future posts, I will expand on the concepts of framing and reframing in foresight–this is an area where my Leading Futurists LLC partner Jennifer Jarratt and I are working intensively.

Image: John B. Mahaffie

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