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Frame of reference to understand system interactions


Type: Method

Project Phase: 

Purpose: Improve communication between researchers and end-users and guide new research to important knowledge gaps

Requirements: none

Relevant Software: none


The Frame of Reference method aims to structure the interaction between end-users and specialists in application-oriented knowledge development. Key is to use the end-user's information requirements as an explicit starting point for knowledge development, and to continually match specialist research with the information need of end-users. A core element of the method is the definition of fit-for-purpose quantifiable performance indicators. The tool is potentially useful in any situation where miscommunication may arise in interaction between interdependent actors, with different states of knowledge, working on different parts of the same overall problem. Applying this method increases the probability that specialist research produces results that are applicable in policy development or practical application (van Koningsveld, 2003). The method relies on logic and structure and may thus be used by anyone.

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Even though an incredible amount of literature can be found on coastal management, coastal research, communication, knowledge transfer and transferring findings from science to practice, a simple fact remains: end users (e.g. coastal managers) and specialists (e.g. coastal scientist) still feel that there are problems in their communication. Researchers, on the one hand, are often of the opinion that their knowledge is not effectively implemented in practice. End users of specialist knowledge, on the other hand, often claim that research findings can not, or not easily, be put to practical use. The problem is not a lack of literature, but rather we face the challenge of getting two groups to communicate better.


Basic Frame of Reference template

nonerightBasic frame of reference.png1

Van Koningsveld & Mulder (2004) suggested that end-user-specialist communication could be guided effectively by making the essential components of decision making explicit and use that framework to guide the knowledge development process. To focus this potentially endless effort, they set out to develop an easy-to-use template (defined as the ‘basic’ Frame of Reference) that could be used to guide the end-user-specialist interaction. Analysis of practical cases indicated that successful end-user-specialist interaction is associated with a 'basic' Frame of Reference comprising explicit definitions of:

  1. a strategic management objective;
  2. an operational management objective; and
  3. a decision recipe containing a foursome of elements:
    1. a quantitative state concept;
    2. a benchmarking procedure;
    3. an intervention procedure; and
    4. an evaluation procedure confronting the operational as well as the strategic objective


. Strategic management objective

Strategic management objectives provide the long term context for policy making and management. They are based on a vision on the natural and the socio-economic systems, their interdependencies, and on the role of man therein. Strategic objectives tend to vary slowly. Nonetheless, they do have a profound impact on the kind of policy making and management that is required, effective and acceptable. The historic development of water management in the Netherlands may serve as an example (cf. Van de Ven, 1993; Dubbelman, 1999; Van Koningsveld et al., 2008).


. Operational management objective

The operational management objectives concern the concrete human activities that are meant to handle the interactions between the natural and socio-economic systems. As such, they constitute the implementation of the strategic objective. Operational coastal management objectives, for instance, are related to the status of values and interests in the coastal zone. As such the operational objective should explicitly indicate the temporal and spatial scales involved. It may take more than one operational objective to cover all scales intended in the strategic objective.


. Decision recipe

From the strategic and operational objective follows our view on potentially necessary and acceptable human interventions. A proper decision recipe for intervention coherently addresses the following elements:

. Quantitative state concept

To enable objective and transparent decision making, the state of the system or certain aspects thereof, need to be described in an appropriate quantitative form. Which form is most useful in the decision making process is determined by the strategic and operational objectives, as well as by the other elements in the decision recipe. Practical effectiveness is strongly linked with knowledge of the system's behaviour. There is a wealth of literature on indicators, indices, etc. for the quantitative description of a system’s state.

. Benchmarking procedure

A benchmarking procedure is necessary in order to systematically and objectively determine when to intervene in the system. Intervention is required when a discrepancy between the current system state, and a desired or reference state (the benchmark) exceeds some predefined threshold. To facilitate useful discussions, the current as well as the (implicitly) desired state should be made explicit, preferably in terms of the chosen quantitative state indicators. This element of the decision recipe often relies on measured or predicted trends in state descriptions, costs and benefits.

. Intervention procedure

An intervention procedure specifies how we plan to intervene in (part of) the system in order to bring it to a desired state. It specifies not only the type of intervention, but also the method to determine its design. Knowledge of the system, in particular regarding physical processes, and how it responds to interventions plays a crucial role in this element. The design procedure should use the quantitative state concept as one of its primary building solutions. It should at least facilitate significant manipulation of the system's 'current' state towards its desired state, as identified in the previous step.

. Evaluation

The decision recipe and the effects of its application need to be evaluated. This evaluation should take place in the development stage of a measure (expected effects), as well as after some period of application (actual effects). First of all, one needs to assess whether or not the operational objective is being sufficiently achieved. If this is not the case, the decision recipe may have to be changed. If the operational objective is satisfactorily achieved, it is still necessary to evaluate the project from the wider perspective of the strategic objective. This may trigger modifications in the decision recipe, but it may also result in an adaptation of the current operational objective, or the formulation of a new one.


Ideally, all elements of the basic Frame of Reference need to be made explicit. Identification of the elements that have actually been made explicit reveals so-called 'white spots'. The white spots represent the remaining information needed to develop a successful and coherent approach. In the course of a research or design process, the Frame of Reference requires continuous re-framing and fine-tuning.



BwN interest

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Any Building with Nature project inherently involves complicated interactions between decision makers and specialists. One example is the development of conceptual and detailed designs that are technically sound, while at the same time they meet the original project objectives. Another example is the setup of a fit-for-purpose monitoring programme. In some shape or form these interactions are found in each of the project phases distinguished in this Guideline. In most cases, the Frame of Reference method can help to clearly define the problem at hand and structure the communication about it.


Besides the fact that the Frame of Reference tool is useful for any Building with Nature project, it is also useful for the Building with Nature innovation programme as a whole. The Building with Nature innovation programme is a proto-typical example of a 'driven' research project, just like programmes such as CoastView, Conscience and Micore. This means that the pre-mentioned potential for miscommunication between actors, with different states of knowledge, working on different parts of the same overall problem, is present throughout the programme.


How to Use

The Frame of Reference approach can be applied in every situation where miscommunication can arise in interaction between interdependent actors, with different states of knowledge, working on different parts of the same overall problem. In a research setting, proper handling of the interaction between researchers and end-users requires three basic skills, which are brought together with the Frame of Reference approach:

  • The (will and) ability of researchers and end-users to interact effectively in a process of joint problem definition.
  • The (will and) ability to focus on-going research on this jointly defined problem (effort mainly required from the scientist).
  • The (will and) ability to adapt existing procedures and processes in practice to state-of-the-art knowledge (effort mainly required from the end-user).

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Working with the ‘basic’ Frame of Reference promotes a greater involvement of the end-users during research projects and facilitates a regular confrontation of research results with developing end-user needs. A successful application of the suggested approach, however, requires an open and constructive attitude of both end users and specialists. Willingness to co-operate, an open atmosphere and a flexible attitude are also required to provide a favourable context. Individual personalities, research management and finance regimes can either stimulate or impede the development of such a context.


Phased plan process

A key element in matching science with end user needs is to use the end user's information need as an explicit starting point for knowledge development and to continually confront research results with those needs. In practice, this may turn out to be unfeasible without further confinement. As a guideline it is suggested to make at least some essential components of the decision-making process and the associated information requirements explicit, thus creating a shared 'frame of reference'.

Analysis of practical cases, by Van Koningsveld and Mulder (2004), indicated that successful end-user-specialist interaction is associated with a 'basic' Frame of Reference comprising explicit definitions of:

  • a strategic management objective;
  • an operational management objective; and
  • a decision recipe containing a foursome of elements, viz.:
    • a quantitative state concept;
    • a benchmarking procedure;
    • an intervention procedure; and
    • an evaluation procedure confronting the operational as well as the strategic objective.

End user-specialist discussions may now be focussed by starting with an empty template and trying to fill in the blank spots. Van Koningsveld et al (2005) suggested the iterative Game, Set & Match approach for this process.


Iterative method of application: Game, Set & Match

Developing a ‘basic’ Frame of Reference that can be used for coastal management and that is based on the best insights in coastal system behaviour obviously requires many iterations, implying a lot of discussion. To prevent too abstract discussions, it is suggested to strive for a fully developed ‘basic’ Frame of Reference using the “Game, Set & Match”-principle.

During the ‘Game’-phase, some item of the Frame of Reference is discussed; preferably starting from the strategic objective and working one’s way ‘down’. After some discussion, the actor responsible for defining the coastal management issue, or some mediator, ‘Sets’ the problem at hand, summarising the previous discussion and making the crucial elements as explicit as possible (state what you do know). The result is an explicit target for the participants to ‘Match’ their knowledge to. The ‘Set’ Frame of Reference may now be altered, broadened or detailed by all participants. With the resulting Frame of Reference a new ‘Game’-phase may be initiated.


In the initiation phase, several iterations may be possible during one meeting or workshop. When, after after a number of iterations, an initial coarse Frame of Reference has emerged, more time may be needed to actually match new specialist knowledge, as new technologies and algorithms may need to be developed and applied. When at a certain stage the interval between a ‘matching’-phase and a new ’game’ of discussion becomes too large, it may be useful to apply the concept of pilot applications or prototyping to allow discussions to progress beyond the mere abstract.


As a matter of example the Frame of Reference for the Dutch coastal sediment management policy of Dynamic Preservation is presented below:

The main objective for Dynamic Preservation is to guarantee sustainable preservation of safety and of values and functions in the dune area. Dynamic Preservation implies the goal to make optimal use of natural processes. Consequently, the principal intervention procedure is sand nourishment.


Using the wiki based template

To record the results of your Frame of Reference discussions (e.g. for future further improvement or (re)use) a wiki based template is available. The above Dynamic Preservation example uses this wiki based template. Create a new wiki page with the following content if you wish to use this template yourself.

Once saved the page will show the fields of the Frame of Reference template for the user to fill. The information entered in the field 'Management context' will be used as the Frame of Reference name.

NB: the Frame of Reference template is available in the  as well as the  wiki spaces only.

Lessons learned

The Frame of Reference was applied in various projects (CoastView, Kustlijnzorg, ConScience, MICORE, Building with Nature) by a large number of people from varying backgrounds (PhD candidates, Post-docs, Senior Researchers, Project Managers, Programme Directors, End Users of various kinds etc.). Based on practical experience gained providing guidance, a number of tips and tricks have been collected that are useful as a guideline for checking the quality of a Frame of Reference:

  • Check that each element is filled with the kind of information prescribed in the 'basic' Frame of Reference.
    • Try to prevent formulating objectives as actions. You can formulate objectives actively but be careful not to mix objectives with interventions.
    • Check whether the operational objective is connected logically to the strategic objective and provides sufficient handles to detail the steps of the decision recipe.
    • A quantitative state concept (QSC) should not be formulated as an action, try to link it with model output or data from measurement/monitoring. Remember it should be the building solution for the benchmarking and intervention procedures.
    • Think ahead who is the actor that could/should own these objectives (it will give you an idea on what kind of intervention is feasible).
  • Check the logical coherence of objectives, indicators and interventions.
    • For each step think about the interlinks with previous and following steps.
    • Approach the Frame of Reference from different starting points, it may give you new insights with respect to overall coherence.
    • Check whether the proposed intervention method in fact results in elimination of the problem in the benchmarking step. As trivial as it sounds this is an aspect that is often overlooked.
    • Consider whether the intervention you suggest matches with the actor you supposed could/should 'own' the objectives.
  • Take your time to define the reference state in the benchmarking step.
    • See if you can support benchmarks with scientific data. Often literature is available to assert e.g. what kind of flow velocities are hazardous when dealing with swimmer safety or what kind of dike overtopping discharges have the potential to cause damage.
    • Try to avoid subjective benchmarks. Reference states like 'sufficient naturalness', for a dune area, or 'historic atmosphere', for a beach front, can not (or hardly) be objectively assessed. This will present difficulties in making any policy based on this Frame of Reference operational.
  • Take care in the evaluation step to reflect on the operational objective AND the strategic objective.
    • This step provides the main triggers to modify the scheme.

Besides above tips and tricks for checking the quality of a Frame of Reference, another important lesson learned could be extracted from the practical Frame of Reference applications. Generalising over a large number of Frames of Reference is may be observed that once a practical problem context has been defined a logical next step is to proceed with further detailing of the method. To prevent this quantification step to become a huge bottleneck in the end-user specialist interaction the threshold to integrate data, models and tools into a given Frame of Reference should be kept as low as possible. The OpenEarth approach offers a radical new approach to handling data, models and tools (Van Koningsveld et al., 2010). It was developed partly as an extension of the Frame of Reference work. For more information please refer to the  tool description.


Practical Applications

Detailing Building with Nature designs

One of the main challenges in BwN is developing effective adaptive management strategies that successfully achieve a number of predetermined objectives. The BwN Adaptive Management Guideline provides methodologies to structure this cycle and to get the process started. The approach proposed is structured around the principles of the Frame of Reference method. Once one or more conceptual Eco-dynamic designs have been generated, e.g. following the Conceptual Design Tutorial, they need to be further detailed to assess their practical feasibility and economic viability.

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 Basic workflow is the following. From the conceptual design one or more building solutions are selected for further detailing. Once objectives have been established, analysis of the natural setting should reveal boundary conditions and functional requirements for the design. Application of those requirements in the natural setting yields the dimensions of a final design. Comparison of the final design with the original objectives and the overall conceptual design will indicate whether further iteration is needed.

Developing adaptive management strategies

Monitoring the ecosystem response to engineering works has become an important part of any large-scale development. It enables an adaptive approach, optimizing monitoring efforts and operational management at the same time: the execution of engineering work or the operation of the resulting infrastructure can be adjusted ‘on the fly’ in order to reach environmental goals. Since adjustments should be based on effect monitoring, adaptive management involves a cycle of planning, monitoring and evaluation of results (cf. Deming’s (1986) cycle of Plan, Act, Evaluate & Adjust).

For more information the reader is referred to:


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Examples of projects where Frame of Reference approach has been used:


More background information on the Frame of Reference, how it can be used and how it was used is found at the following pages:




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