Situation analysis

Situation analysis is a key step in TranSTEP. It is a fundamental and critical stage of the approach, in which the problem will be further defined, relevant actors will be identified, perspectives and interests explored and the social and political contexts described in detail. Since different members of the TranSTEP group are likely to hold differing views on the problem to be addressed in the assessment process, the objective of situation analysis is to collaboratively construct and agree on problem framing to a degree that allows for further action. The TranSTEP group will have a preliminary mandate or initial problem formulation from the initiator of the process (problem owner). Situation analysis builds on this initial formulation and it is the role of the TranSTEP group to challenge it and/or elaborate on it in close dialogue with the problem owner.

Situation analysis involves asking questions such as:

  • Should the issue be addressed in a general or specific way (e.g. focusing on synthetic biology as such or on a specific synthetic biology application)?
  • What implications might the issue have for different affected parties?
  • Who needs to take a decision on the issue?
  • Who is responsible, for what?
  • Are existing policies/governance structures sufficient?
  • Are ethical issues relevant?
  • What uncertainties (if any) are involved?
  • What is the level of existing knowledge?
  • What are the alternatives to the technological issue?
  • Are larger societal trends (such as liberalisation, increased focus on sustainability, etc.) likely to affect the issue?
  • What should the objectives of the TranSTEP group be?
  • What timeframe should be considered in the assessment?

Situation analysis should also include a preliminary reflection on what methods might be adequate to address the problem framed within the group. This will allow the TranSTEP group and the secretariat to search for available evidence before moving on to method reflection and assessment review.

Situation analysis aims to deliver a transparent and collaborative framing of the problem. This part of the process is perhaps the most important one since it is where the complexities of the issue are integrated into and communicated via a workable problem to be assessed. It might also prove to be the most challenging part of TranSTEP. Not only because the problem framing is crucial for the rest of the process, but also because the participants at this stage of the process do not yet know each other. It is therefore essential to allow for sufficient time for situation analysis.

Example: In the cloud computing workshop the problem to be discussed was framed as “Monitoring the European Cloud”. Most of the first day of the workshop revolved around the flaws in talking about a European Cloud, and the result was to revise the problem framing into more specific issues that could be given an integrated assessment. This reframing was carried out by allowing broad discussion and eventually challenging the participants to converge on better issue formulations.

Outcome of situation analysis: In addition to the value of a potential consensus on what the situation and problem is about, an equally valuable outcome of situation analysis is the learning process that results from the dialogue and collaboration on problem framing. It should be noted, however, that any description of a situation is debatable and that situations are not static and evolve with time. Therefore, it is important to recognise that the adequacy and usefulness of situation analysis is always dependent on its context and on the decisions, interests and views of those who participated in the process.


Helpful tools and resources for situation analysis

It can be helpful to use concrete tools to assist in this phase. What tools might be most helpful will depend on the particularities of the issue to be discussed and the TranSTEP group. Here we will therefore only offer some examples of potentially useful tools. Other tools may also be considered.

For support in identifying relevant actors, deciding on context and exploring power relations within the problem, see “Rich Picture Building” and “Analysis One, Two and Three” of Soft Systems Methodology.

– For support in prioritising specific issues, but also in further exploring different perspectives within the TranSTEP group, tools such as multicriteria analysis (MCA) might be useful for prioritisation. A simplified framework developed for prioritisation is also available: Prioritisation tool


method reflection