Principle five

Encourage learning

Knowledge of a system is always partial and incomplete and social-ecological systems are no exceptions. Efforts to enhance the resilience of social-ecological systems must therefore be supported by continuous learning and experimentation.

Key messages

Learning and experimentation through adaptive and collaborative management is an important mechanism for building resilience in social-ecological systems. It ensures that different types and sources of knowledge are valued and considered when developing solutions, and leads to greater willingness to experiment and take risks.

Resilience is all about dealing with change, and adaptating and transforming in response to change.

Because social-ecological systems are always in development there is a constant need to revise existing knowledge to enable adaptation to change and approaches to management. Adaptive management, adaptive co-management and adaptive governance all focus on learning as an integral part of decision making, and base their strategies on the fact that knowledge is incomplete and that uncertainty, change and surprise play an important part in managing social-ecological systems.

In adaptive management, articulating, testing and evaluating alternative hypotheses of how the system works are crucial tasks. Adaptive management is therefore all about learning by doing through testing out alternative management approaches. Adaptive co-management also focuses on learning by doing but has a more explicit emphasis on knowledge sharing between different actors, often from communities and policy-making. Adaptive governance focuses on boosting learning through knowledge sharing across scales in order to bridge various organisations and institutions. This cross-scale focus on learning is pursued in order to develop new social norms and cooperation.

Although specialist agencies and scientists often carry out monitoring and experimentation, and thus learn during the process, there is a growing recognition of the importance of broader participation in order to stimulate learning among different groups in society. More collaborative processes can also help make values about different ecosystem services more explicit. One of the most well-known examples of this is the Kristiandstad Vattenrike, a wetland area in the southern part of Sweden. Growing developmental pressures led to increasing degradation of what was considered a vast area of water logged swamps with low value. However, thanks to a broad and collaborative process including local inhabitants and politicians, the perception of the wetlands changed and it is now considered to be a highly valued area for a range of purposes, including recreation. Similarly, in the Australian Great Barrier Reef, a change of perceptions among politicians and the public, from considering the reef as pristine to acknowledging it as severely threatened, paved the way for stronger protection of the reef and its associated ecosystem services. Both of these shifts in perceptions occurred through processes of collaborative learning.

How can we encourage learning?

There are overlapping guidelines on how to foster learning for resilient outcomes. The most important ones include:

  • Support long-term monitoring of keysocial and ecological components
  • Provide opportunities for interaction that enable extended engagement between participants
  • Engage a variety of participants
  • Establish a suitable social context for the sharing of knowledge
  • Ensure sufficient resources to enable learning processes to take place
  • Enable people to network and create communities of practice

The design of the learning process is crucial. That is why it is essential to keep in mind conditions and obstacles that can render learning ineffective. Maladaptive or dysfunctional learning can lead to strategies and behaviours that threaten the function of entire social-ecological systems. For example, the systematic anti-environmental campaigning outlined in Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s book Merchants of Doubt (2011) set out to deliberately undermine environmental science by emphasizing uncertainty and manufacturing ‘debate’. Power dynamics can also influence how learning takes place. There are numerous examples of scientific knowledge being prioritized for learning and management above other knowledge systems, particularly ignoring traditional or local knowledge. An iconic example was the collapse of the Canadian cod fishery, where local fishers raised serious concerns about cod stocks but these concerns were ignored.