AWARD is committed to social learning processes which requires bringing people together to collaborate on an issue or problem. However, one of the challenges that often face these collective processes is that people do not share the same understanding of the problem, roles and responsibilities and the tools at hand. Furthermore practices are often ignored or poorly considered despite the fact that they are key to understanding resource use.

The Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) and its associated tools offers a way to think about and explore these important elements collaboratively with stakeholders. Given this, AWARD has been exploring the use of CHAT in a number of vexing NRM situations. As a theory of learning, CHAT focuses on so-called “activity systems” using the heuristic below (often called “the triangle”).

The Pulpit Rock
The Pulpit Rock

Another tool that comes from CHAT is the expansive learning framework also known as the developmental work research design (shown below). The framework offers an easy to follow stakeholder engagement process that helps people to collaboratively question the status quo, plan the way forward, implement, reflect and consolidate.

The Pulpit Rock
Sequence of learning actions in an expansive learning cycle (adapted from Engeström, 1999)
In RESLIM-O CHAT is being used in the following projects:
  • The Blyde Restoration project which has opted for a full scale expansive learning cycle as shown above.
  • Legalameetse co-management project is following some small-scale cumulative expansive learning actions. In this case each of the six communities claiming a portion of the protected area is viewed as an independent activity system. Small-scale innovative learning processes take place within a few days or even hours of intensive collaborative analysis and problem solving depending on the needs of each activity system. These numerous small cycles of learning actions should be coordinated and integrated to achieve an overall goal of co-managing the Reserve as a social-ecological system.
  • The Municipal Support Initiative adopted the boundary crossing expansive learning conceptualization. Municipalities like most public entities are usually rigidly hierarchical. In most cases they also struggle to collaborate with other relevant domains of government. There are two motives of boundary-crossing learning as a transformative mechanism in this regard:
    1. bringing people from different backgrounds (activity systems) to collaboratively confront (and transform) ways of doing work e.g between spatial planners and land owners (traditional authority). The two are invited to discuss and work on shared problems of land use planning.
    2. bridging the gap between institutional boundaries where boundary learning is designed to acquire a new, negotiated way of working across different levels.

Our experiences point to some key strengths brought by CHAT theory and tools. For instance the activity system heuristic compels people to think in detail about practices. Secondly, it helps surface contradictions and tensions in work activities in ways that seek to minimise conflict. Furthermore, the expansive learning objective is made explicit at the beginning of the engagement process with a stakeholder group, in that way it commits both facilitators and stakeholders to a defined learning process. Nonetheless, CHAT tools on their own are not robust enough to mediate the socio-ecological complexity usually found on the ground and that is central to RESILIM-O approach (link SES). Given this, a key innovation of the project has been to explore ways in which CHAT and systemic approaches can complement one another in a systemic social learning co-inquiry. For example, while CHAT has helped explicate co-management as an activity system, a systemic approach can help to explain what is being managed and why (i.e. the Legalameetse Reserve and its surrounds as a social-ecological system).

Stakeholders from the Legalameetse project explore activities and responsibilities using activity system analysis. Here we are joined by Professor Yrjö Engeström Director of the Centre for Research on Activity, Development and Learning (CRADLE) at University of Helsinki. He is well known for developing and applying CHAT as a framework in studies of transformations and learning processes in work activities and organizations.