Talanoa as Expectation Management – or Raising the Bar while Jumping


Fijian Minister for Economy Aiyaz Sayed-Khayium during a Talanoa at COP23. © BMUB/ Christian Büchter

By Jeremias Herberg

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Both sustainability ambitions and obstacles are growing exponentially. This begs for the kind of expectation management arguably performed by the IASS Potsdam and other organizations, for instance the Future Earth network. In addressing the advisory role of science in sustainability, Future Earth is building advisory capacities and raising expectations at the same time. These expectations – not least, those directed to itself – rightly challenge the linear models of evidence-based policymaking.

As an alternative to “speaking truth to power”, current projects at the IASS and many debates at Future Earth often point to the concept of co-creation. In a conventional understanding, co-creation refers to the collaboration of heterogeneous actors from civil society, academia and policymaking in shaping sustainability solutions. Formats such as Future Earth’s Knowledge-Action Networks create space for heterogeneous actors to co-produce or even problematize sustainability solutions. Co-creation, I argue, can also help to clarify and incorporate the need and the capacities for expectation management. At COP23, an intervention by the Fijian delegation encouraged participants to engage with their expectations in a broad and surprising way.

Talanoa – pushing ambitions while managing expectations

Two weeks ago in Bonn, Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama introduced the concept of Talanoa. To find out more, I spoke to Fijians at the Fiji pavilion and to the COP participants I encountered in the so-called Talanoa Space (a wooden, arena-like discussion stage amidst the more fairground-style booths of NGOs and research institutes).

According to their brief explanations, Talanoa describes a patient style of conversation at eye level. Given the dire situation of the pacific islands in the midst of rising sea levels, Fiji has joined the push for more aggressive goals. But it has also called for new forms of dialogue to do so. Fiji and other proponents of Talanoa, for example Barbara Hendricks, acting German Minister of the Environment, seem to be willing to further complicate expectation management. In their vision, future expectations would be discussed in line with mutual expectations among a wider set of actors. Moreover, a Talanoa dialogue would provide space for actors to articulate their self-understandings. Fijians and their supporters thus seek to manage social, temporal, and self-directed expectations at the same time.

Making broad expectation management happen is complicated. Be it Future Earth or the Talanoa Dialogue – platforms that strengthen future ambitions while bringing together heterogeneous actors play a dual role: They seek to build the capacities for co-creative forms of policy advice, and they expand the boundaries of what can be expected from co-creation. They raise the bar while jumping.

But, are they falling over? I argue that, especially in sustainability, dialogical expectation management is direly needed. When expectations among actors are increasingly in conflict with each other, only reflexive understanding and collective practice can help to push sustainability ambitions. Especially when dialogue is at odds with pushing for higher ambitions, it is high time for a combined form of expectation management. One would need to articulate future expectations, communicate mutual expectations, and raise one’s own self-efficacy at one and the same time. How could that be possible?

Co-creating expectations

Co-creation is currently being discussed as a stepping stone to new styles of policy advice. Certainly, a co-creative practice transcends the notion of “speaking truth to power”. But perhaps more interestingly, co-creation is a viable and encouraging route when future ambitions and pragmatic constraints are rising at the same time.

Socially, co-creation entails the notion of seeking out helpful skills and expertise, while expanding what can be deemed as necessary, or what counts as expertise. Politically, seeking “innovative solutions” in mutual exchange will raise the bar of what can legitimately be called “innovative” or “a solution”. Finally, even the underlying problem definition or the wider problematic that motivates interaction between heterogeneous concerns is subject to expectation management: What is the temporal horizon, the normative stepping stones, or the logical basis for defining the problem? In short: How does the problematic of a given project channel our thinking about solutions? (cf. a recent workshop at Leuphana University Lüneburg)

While co-creation promises a methodological response, it is also intrinsically linked to the expression of mutual expectations. Eliciting social needs and desires, as is the current focus of most co-creative endeavors, may not always compliment future-driven or self-oriented expectations. When overwhelmed with what others expect from them, actors may lose sight of future expectations. And when confronted with challenges to their own ambitions, actors may be paralyzed by the need to reflect or re-orient their expectation.

To give an example, policy advisers face multiple expectations that may rather discourage a co-creative involvement. While policymakers look for guidance or grounding, post-truth populists challenge the legitimacy of any evidence base, and reformers challenge the legitimacy of scientific and political authority. As a result, when their professional methodology is thwarted by paradoxical demands, a policy advisor may refrain from co-creative approaches. Although a viable approach, the co-creation concept may itself need some expectation management. (cf. a major project at the IASS)

Expectation management of and through co-creation

Current sustainability conversations revolve around a key question: How can we remain ambitious and persistent, while settling for the means at hand? Co-creation, one of the means currently at hand, is a plausible way to do so – the introduction by the Fijian delegation of Talanoa into the COP conversation indicates that. Yet co-creation can only be encouraging if there are solid answers to two questions: Why should we engage? And how can we create an arena where heterogeneous actors feel able to collaborate in creating mutual expectations and expected futures?

Raising the bar while jumping is a risky exercise. Yet, it also represents an opportunity for playful and broad expectation management. At the 3rd German Summit, Future Earth, actors will gather to increase future ambitions. That is raising the bar. Not falling over implies that co-creation also explores mutual expectations as well as actors’ capacities to meet them.

Many thanks to Katherine Farrell, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, for reviewing this post. It was first published on the blog of the 3rd German Future Earth Summit.

Header photo: Fijian Minister for Economy Aiyaz Sayed-Khayium during a Talanoa at COP23. © BMUB/ Christian Büchter

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