Hi, I’m Espen. I help facilitate evidence-based social change.
At the moment, I’m particularly thrilled to contribute to Andre Tanker (‘different thoughts’) – a newly founded research center that I co-created in order to help Danish nonprofit organizations educate and mobilize the public through effective, evidence-based communication of expert knowledge.
Want to learn more about me and what I do? Check this section out.
Humanity is currently facing an important choice. Do we live up to our role as stewards of the planet and nurturers of each other, or do we opt for ‘business as usual’? To me the answer is pretty simple.
I believe that we can and should act in a timely fashion to address the interrelated problems of the modern world in a meaningful way. This basically means going beyond the short-sighted knee-jerk reactions that unfortunately guide so much contemporary thinking and doing.
In particular, I believe that the right responses essentially come from an evidence-based approach to the challenges we face – an approach that will often tell us that causes are systemic in nature and, thus, also suggest the need for systemic changes to the way our societies are structured.
Fortunately, hoards of skilled people are already working on this.
However, focusing on the right level of analysis and identifying the corresponding solutions is only part of the puzzle. With the goal in sight, the road that eventually leads to appropriate change must itself be traversed with scientific rigor. In other words, efforts to mobilize the movements and design the cultures that are conducive to such developmental processes must also rest on a strategic, science-based foundation. This intentional facilitation of evidence-based change is what I’m particularly interested in developing and inspiring.
Too often, the communication of a cause is guided by a set of unfortunate misconceptions. Consequently, the work seeking to foster the public will and action needed to bring about large-scale development risks undermining itself.
One of the basic things to pay attention to here – and something that is routinely overlooked – is the well-established scientific fact that the audience, in this case the public, cannot be considered a blank slate, an empty container into which communicators can simply pour information and facts, thereby automatically conveying some uncompromised expert message.
Instead, human beings are immersed in a web of understandings built from a life of experience – cultural and otherwise – that is organized as mental models and in powerful, unconscious ways guides all ongoing efforts at making sense of the organism’s surroundings – including the latest tweet from a nonprofit.
Moreover, much of this sense-making is guided by understandings that are, by nature, far from suited to grasp the complexities of climate change or the causes of global economic inequality. Quite on the contrary, actually. The principal goal of human cognition has been to keep alive a collection of genes (and their bodily vessel) facing the relatively concrete threats and joys of the more immediate surrounding environment. This makes us optimally responsive to and effective at grasping whatever exists at a ‘human scale’. That same system – complete with its vast array of cost-effective, simplifying mental shortcuts – has since been co-opted to build the mental models that let us think about complex human society.
Needless to say, even though these cognitive characteristics are by no means ‘wrong’, they’re simply not fortunate when it comes to understanding and acting on the real intricacies of large-scale, societal issues. In short, humans have a severely hard time dealing with systemic causation.
It would thus seem that the game is rigged and that inspiring people to think beyond the short-sighted, individualistic solutions of our time indeed presents an uphill battle.
And yes, these are serious challenges, alright. Not paying attention to the basic tendencies of human cognition and the cultural understandings that already exist out there might very well mean that a message will have a hard time surviving the rapid waters of public thinking. Fortunately, with the right empirically-driven tools it is possible to navigate those complexities and develop, for example, communication that effectively makes the expert perspective broadly available and inspires support for concrete reforms at the appropriate systemic level.
The struggle for evidence-based change is in large part a struggle about meaning. And that struggle must be fought with the right tools.
Dane, modern boheme, avid traveler, cognitive semiotician, struggling writer, location-independent entrepreneur, aspiring surfer, and social change enthusiast. This humble website is my attempt to provide an online home for my thoughts and activities related to the latter.
Now, if you’d prefer a more classic resumé experience, check out my LinkedIn profile. Otherwise, feel free to continue reading.
At the moment, I’m channeling much of my energy into Andre Tanker – a research center I recently co-founded in order to help Danish cause-driven organizations create the public understanding and collective action necessary to arrive at evidence-based societal shifts.
The approach we take is based on our collaboration with Washington D.C.’s FrameWorks Institute, and we are currently working toward applying their research-based communications method, Strategic Frame Analysis, in a Danish context.
In short, this means looking at the public’s basic understanding of particular social issues and developing empirically-grounded communication recommendations that aim at improving that same understanding.
Among the necessary steps are the mapping of existing public thinking on a given subject, the identification of particularly counter-productive understandings, and the creation and empirical testing of communication elements (such as explanatory metaphors) that effectively support understanding of the often complex expert story.
The process results in actionable guidelines for entire advocacy fields. Narrative packages that specify ‘how to talk’ about a particular issue in ways that “translate” the fundamental expert insights into something mentally manageable.
Used in unison by advocates, this more productive narrative then helps create the public support for specific policy solutions.
So, how did I end up playing around with these things? The short version goes something like this:
With an ongoing thematic focus on the mobilization of social movements, my road through academia, which concluded a few years ago with degrees in social anthropology and cognitive semiotics, has been a major source of inspiration. The studies provided me with a host of useful insights and tools that I already then considered directly relevant in the attempt to design a better world through collective action.
However, wanting to get my hands dirty through the application of that knowledge, I was pretty stunned when I learned that concerted efforts at science-based facilitation of social change weren’t actually easy to find.
After a short period, which included an initial stint of communication-focused collaborations with various organizations and companies, it became clear to me that if I wanted to see the kind of approaches I envisioned happening, I would have to take part in pushing for them myself.
Fortunately, clever people in other parts of the world had already successfully applied insights from, for example, the study of human culture and the human mind in order to mobilize the public will needed to address the often systemic causes behind many of today’s unfortunate social and environmental circumstances.
In particular, the excellent science-based communications work done by the FrameWorks Institute caught my attention. I wanted to bring that approach to Denmark, and a transatlantic collaboration arose – Andre Tanker was born.
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