Societal Frames: Are we solving the right problem?

There is a line I hear often, and one that I myself use sometimes: ‘Give a hungry man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ I like that it goes beyond being an act of charity, and aims to be empowering. But, this narrative gets complicated when comedian Trevor Noah points out, “it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.” And even more confusing when J Lee Radcliffe chimes in, “Don’t you need some bait to catch the fish? What about a boat? What if the pond is far and one might need transport to get there…?”

All these new perspectives make me wonder: Is there a way to solve this man’s hunger, sustainably? Are we even solving the right problem? What will help us find the right problem to solve? This line of enquiry grows manifold when I think of complex societal problems, be it across health, education, livelihood, equity or climate change. 

Our team at Societal Thinking has been attempting to find the right problems to solve since its inception in 2016. With every change in perspective, we have evolved. When we started, we were focused on building platforms to solve large scale problems. But we soon realised that Societal Thinking values and design principles were also helpful in understanding the problem better. Our search for the right problem to solve has manifested as what we call ‘Societal Frames’. 

What are frames?

A frame, simply put, is an approach to recast or reorganise how we think about a problem or a challenge. It helps us see the world from a distinct vantage point by magnifying certain elements and minimising others. 

I often associate it with looking out to my garden from different windows of the house. From each window, the pots, the plants, the leaves and the flowers look different. And it is interesting how pretty it looks when seen from the frame of my Instagram-friendly phone camera!

‘Societal’ Frames: For and by society

‘Societal Frames’ articulate the challenge as seen by society through the ‘Societal Thinking’ lens. Is there a way to see the problem differently or find a better problem to solve? Sometimes, looking at a problem from a different angle enables us to reimagine solutions in a unique, innovative manner that can move all of us to a new equilibrium

Societal Frames are by and for the consumption of the key actors (Civil Society, Markets, Governments) of the society and the process of developing them is highly consultative. These Frames define underlying principles to figure out the feasibility, viability and desirability of alternative pathways one can take. Builders can build better, implementers can implement better and policymakers can make better policy by referencing the frame. It is a reimagination of the problem that inspires collaborative action.

How do Societal Frames work?

Societal Frames are built at the intersection of a country and an issue. For example, let us explore creating a frame for healthcare in Kenya through the Societal Thinking lens.

First, Why: Why should Kenya care about this problem at scale? The reasons could vary, from convergence of events, to changes in policy, to even a pandemic crisis.

What: We use the principles and values of Societal Thinking and rearticulate the ‘what’ that needs to be done. What are the reasons compelling solvers from Kenya to act with speed, scale and sustainably? What is the reason for looking at things from an exponential change lens? What is the problem that we are trying to solve? What problem, if solved, will make things easy or irrelevant? What are the problems behind the problem that need to be solved? 

Who: A Societal Frame should be sponsored and released by society. The sponsor should have the ability to put the frame in front of the society for public consultation, gather and incorporate feedback, and then publish the final version that everyone in the society can use. The most-suited sponsors for a societal frame are the government or civil society actors interested and vested in healthcare in Kenya. They should then bring together diverse actors from State, Markets and Civil Society to reimagine this new frame.

When: Frames are only useful in an ‘impact aperture’. Like in a camera, the aperture allows a certain amount of light to enter and captures the best picture at that moment. Impact aperture is the right moment when a social problem; a burning need to solve it; a leader; a right enabling ecosystem; headwinds etc are available for a frame to happen. 

How: How can network effects be induced for healthcare in Kenya? How can the innovation ecosystem be energised in the country? How can shared infrastructure be built that can support universal healthcare?

Musing on hunger, I realised it is, like any other social problem – large, complex and dynamic. Societal Frames allow us to appreciate the scale as well as the diversity of these problems. They put forth new perspectives and lead us to imagine previously unimaginable alternatives. 

Societal Frames make the audacious possible. 

Interested to learn about Societal Frames? See Societal Frames in action.

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About the Author
Shubha Narayanan