Inquiry Based Approach

This is the approach that was used in GAIA to facilitate the multi-stakeholder collaboration within and between the city teams to achieve transformation of complex and contested situations.

Developing an inquiry – why and how?

As the name suggests, the IBA is inspired by inquiry-based learning, and the “action inquiry” discourse that has been developed within management theory. In GAIA, each city team was challenged to develop an inquiry that they would guide their learning and action during the Program. But what is the point of developing and pursuing an inquiry?

We believe that it has several potential advantages over traditional linear project planning towards predefined goals. It might be easier for stakeholders with diverging mandates and agendas to agree on an inquiry to pursue rather than common objectives. It provides a team with strong ownership and ensures that issues addressed are relevant to the stakeholders. Pursuing an inquiry rather than trying to achieve a predefined goal may allow for more flexibility when handling complexity. It makes it easier to draw upon and include already ongoing initiatives. It also opens up for including additional stakeholders as the process evolves, and to adjust the scope and direction based on lessons learned.

To learn more about activites that will enable a team to identify and develop an inquiry, read page 71-82 in “The Inquiry Based Approach (IBA) – a Facilitators Handbook”

How to mobilize a multi-stakeholder team

Issues related to urban sustainability are increasingly understood as “wicked” – complex and contested. They often involve unbalanced power relations between stakeholders with diverging interests. They are frequently dynamic and constantly changing, making the causes and solutions difficult to define. Evidence suggests that transformation of wicked issues often defies simple policy solutions. Governance responsibility cannot be reduced to one organization, because effective governance is the result of multiple and dynamic links and interactions between individuals and groups operating at different levels and scales. Deliberation and collaborative learning among stakeholders is crucial.

These ideas are not new – they have been around since since public protests against large expert-driven planning projects grew in the 1960s and 1970s. However, collaborative approaches have been critized for being unable to handle power and conflict and therefore naïve and idealistic. It has become clear that any multi-stakeholder collaboration will not suffice – to be successful, it requires sensible context-specific design, skilled facilitation and careful consideration of power relations among stakeholder and of how the collaboration will relate to traditional governance interventions by elected bodies.

To learn about concrete steps that can be taken to gather and mobilize a multi-stakeholder team, read page 44-59 in “The Inquiry Based Approach (IBA) – a Facilitators Handbook”

Reframing as a step towards joint action

In order to jointly address and transform a wicked issue, stakeholders that have different opinions and interest need to “reframe” their views in order to come up with actions that are acceptable to all. Reframing can happen effortlessly as a new constellation of stakeholders shares expertise and experience. But if the issue is serious and the level of conflict among stakeholders high, reframing can be a long and difficult process. It might require that stakeholders learn more about each other rather than about the issue at stake to begin with. Finding common ground and mutual understanding and respect can be achieved by looking for commonalities in the history of stakeholders that are active in the same place; by by making different values clear to each other; and by sorting out how the issue at stake is linked to a larger system of trends and other issues.

To learn more about activites that can enable reframing, read page 61-70 in “The Inquiry Based Approach (IBA) – a Facilitators Handbook”

The action-learning interdependence

The IBA draws on experiential learning theory that empathizes that learning is necessary for action and vice versa. Therefore all IBA programmes including GAIA are based on several iterations. Each iteration includes sessions of learning, knowledge sharing, planning for action, taking action and reflecting on whether the action was successful and why. This way, an iteration comprises elements of both “opening up” for new ideas, critical thinking and open-ended reflection and of “closing down” – decision making, linear action planning and division of responsibility between stakeholders. The iterative approach enables flexibility when pursuing and inquiry, and it ensures that knowledge generated is based on experience from the ground.

To learn more about how to support stakeholders in jointly planning for action, read page 89-97 in “The Inquiry Based Approach (IBA) – a Facilitators Handbook”

Scaling up the work by bringing in more stakeholders

Typically, multi-stakeholder collaboration starts at a limited scale, with a few organisations and individuals trying to join forces to address an issue of shared concern. If the initiating stakeholders do not have immediate possibilities to bring about change, it is necessary to gradually expand the collaboration and bring in complementary sources of power – e.g. expertise, experience, networks, credibility, money or legal mandate. In order to achieve this, it is crucial for a multi-stakeholder team to reflect on which additional stakeholders should be approached, and to develop a relevant and attractive story about their work. Indeed, it has been argued that at society level, there is a constant struggle between of different stories aimed at providing meaning.

To learn more about how to broaden stakeholding around an inquiry, read page 83-88 in “The Inquiry Based Approach (IBA) – a Facilitators Handbook”

Monitoring and evaluation of the past in order to improve in the future

By definition, an IBA process is open-ended and difficult to predict. Traditional monitoring and evaluation approaches might not suffice to capture the development within a team and all relevant outcomes. While logical frameworks and similar tools can are very useful to follow up on e.g. an action plan was implemented successfully, the IBA also includes story-based tools for monitoring and evaluation. In the action inquiry literature, storytelling is considered an important means to reflect and become self-aware of actions and thinking underlying these actions. The deep-rooted notion of storytelling across human societies makes it a universal method that can be applied in most contexts.

To learn about how to monitor and evaluate collaboration by sharing stories, read page 98-102 in “The Inquiry Based Approach (IBA) – a Facilitators Handbook”

Core group meeting in Malmö.

Core group meeting in Malmö.


Core group meeting in Benwell Terraces, Newcastle, for the Artists in Residence project.

GAIA - Global awareness in action. Design by Azote