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Responding to global change represents an unprecedented challenge for society. Decision makers tend to address this challenge by framing adaptation as a decision problem, whereby the responses to impacts of change are addressed within existing decision processes centred on defining the decision problem and selecting options. However, this ‘decision-making perspective’ is constrained by societal values and principles, regulations and norms and the state of knowledge. It is therefore unsuitable for addressing complex, contested, cross-scale problems. In this paper we argue that simply broadening the decision-making perspective to account for institutions and values is not enough. We contend the decision-making perspective needs to be connected with a broader ‘decision-context perspective’ that focuses on how the societal system of decision processes affects the manner in which a particular problem is addressed. We describe the decision context as an interconnected system of values, rules and knowledge (vrk). The interaction of systems of vrk both creates and limits the set of practical, permissible decisions; the types of values, rules and knowledge that influence the decision and the capacity for change and transformation in the decision context. We developed a framework to analyse the interactions between values, knowledge and rules and their influence decision making and decision contexts of adaptation initiatives, and applied it retrospectively to three projects on adaptation to sea-level rise. Our analysis revealed: (1) specific examples of how interactions between vrk systems constrained existing framings of decision making and the development of options for coastal adaptation; (2) limitations in the adaptive management strategies that underpinned the projects and (3) how the linked systems of vrk can allow adaptation practitioners to structure adaptation as a process of co-evolutionary change that enables a broader set of social issues and change processes to be considered. Adaptation projects that focus on the decision context represent a pragmatic alternative to existing decision-focused adaptation. By using the vrk model to diagnose constraints in decision processes, we show how the reframing of adaptation initiatives can reveal new approaches to developing adaptation responses to complex global change problems.
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