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Regional Environmental Change

, Volume 18, Issue 4, pp 1173–1184 | Cite as

Increasing the effectiveness of environmental decision support systems: lessons from climate change adaptation projects in Canada and Australia

  • Dana Reiter
  • Wayne Meyer
  • Lael Parrott
  • Douglas Baker
  • Peter Grace
Original Article

Abstract

There is a need to increase regional and community level action towards adaptation to climate change. Natural resource managers and planners have to make challenging decisions within the complex and uncertain arena of climate change. Environmental decision support systems (EDSS) have been developed to assist stakeholders in effective decision making for the management of complex natural resource problems. EDSS which combine community engagement in developing future scenarios with computer-based land use planning and modeling tools are used internationally and reported to be effective. Yet, they are often not used after the research and development phase. To gain an understanding of the effectiveness of these tools, we interviewed the end users of an EDSS used in a climate change adaptation project in Canada and another in Australia. The end users of the tool are key informants, yet their perspective is lacking in the sustainability science literature. The findings show that neither EDSS was used after the projects ended. However, the majority of the end users in both projects valued the EDSS, confirming that the tools resulted in direct adaptation activities and influenced the thinking and work habits of the end users of the EDSS. We report on lessons learned from the two case studies and make recommendations regarding the processes and structures required to increase the effectiveness of the EDSS, its long-term use, and the legacy of learning that is embodied within it.

Keywords

Champion Climate change adaptation Community engagement End user Environmental decision support system 

Introduction

Natural resource managers are challenged to make decisions in an increasingly complex and uncertain environment. Climate change, in all its complexity, has been addressed in the recent literature as a “super wicked problem” (Levin et al. 2012). Climate change science is well developed, yet there is a challenge in communicating this information effectively to intended end users for them to act upon (Meinke et al. 2009). Regional climate information is required that is scientifically rigorous yet able to be communicated to natural resource managers and planners, as well as end users who are not scientists. Sustainability science employed in problem-driven research aims to tie knowledge to effective actions and society benefits (Miller 2012). The performance measure of such research is the generation of useful new knowledge that is applied by end users and whose benefits exceed the research costs (Campbell et al. 2015).

Environmental decision system support systems (EDSS) have been developed to assist stakeholders in making decisions, informed by science, for management of complex natural resource problems. Current literature recognizes the need for end users of the EDSS, as knowledge users, to work together with scientists to contribute to the development of the most effective EDSS to meet complex environmental management challenges such as adaptation to climate change and natural resource management (Betsill and Bulkeley 2007; Meyer et al. 2015; Miller et al. 2014). EDSS that involve community engagement in the development of future scenarios have been used internationally and documented in the sustainability science literature (Bohnet et al. 2011; Bowron and Davidson 2012; Cohen et al. 2006; Meyer et al. 2015; Robinson et al. 2011; Salter et al. 2009; Sheppard et al. 2011; Voinov and Gaddis 2008).

EDSS are too often not used beyond the research and development phase of the pilot project (Betsill and Bulkeley 2007; Lemos et al. 2012; McIntosh et al. 2011; Meyer et al. 2013). We interviewed multiple end users of an EDSS used in a community climate change adaptation project in Canada, and a regional climate change adaptation project in Australia to investigate this problem. The objectives of the study were to (1) identify if the EDSS were used after the projects ended and (2) to identify the processes and structures that support or inhibit the sustained application of the EDSS and the legacy of learning contained within it. End users of the EDSS are key informants regarding the effectiveness of the tool, and their perspectives will contribute to future development of more effective EDSS.

Suitable and informative case studies

Two case studies were selected from climate change projects in Canada and Australia that shared similar characteristics. In Canada, a case study was developed from the “Kimberley Climate Adaptation Project” (KCAP). This case involved researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) and stakeholders from the city of Kimberley, British Columbia, in the development and application of an EDSS in order to create a community climate change adaptation plan. The Australian case study was developed from the “Envisioning Future Landscapes Initiative” (EFL). This case involved researchers from the University of Adelaide and regional natural resource managers (NRM) in the development and application of an EDSS to be applied in the development of the regions’ next NRM plan on climate change adaptation. Both projects used similar EDSS that combined computer-based land use modeling tools and community engagement in the development of future scenarios. The detailed results from each case study have been submitted for publication elsewhere, and the focus of this analysis is to compare results from the two projects.

Important information regarding the effectiveness of an EDSS can be gained from analyzing similar case studies from contrasting environments. Initial reviews found the KCAP to have been more successful when compared to the EFL project in the implementation of recommendations with respect to community-based climate change adaptation planning (Liepa 2009; Meyer et al. 2013; Pond et al. 2009). The EFL research team worked with regional NRM planners in 2011–2013 to design and implement a process to support climate change adaptation planning in their next 2014–2019 NRM plan. However, early reviews in 2014 seemed to indicate that the NRM board in the EFL did not use the EDSS introduced in the original initiative, or the application was limited, in the preparation of their 2014–2019 NRM plan (Meyer et al. 2015).

The two case studies were chosen based on their similarities in terms of methodology even though they were implemented independently. Both projects used similar EDSS, involved teams of university researchers, and included extensive involvement of local and regional stakeholders across sectors, such as NRM Boards, municipal staff, general public, non-profit organizations, and elected officials. These studies utilized similar research processes and had comparable project goals.

Both projects addressed climate change adaptation planning at a local and regional level and engaged stakeholders, as end users of the EDSS, in interactive research processes at an early stage. The participatory scenario development and stakeholder engagement phase of each project took place over 12 months. The two regions have similar regulatory frameworks and state and provincial policies, and similar levels of economic development. The two communities involved are geographically similar in that the Columbia Basin region in Canada and the Murray Darling Basin (MDB) and Eyre Peninsula (EP) regions in Australia are very large watersheds with sparse and predominantly rural populations. Further, both projects sought to translate climate science into a usable platform through an EDSS that would be relevant and accessible to stakeholders who were not climate change science experts. Both case studies held stakeholder engagement workshops that involved local stakeholders in order to gain insight into their perspectives of the utility of the EDSS presented in the projects.

The KCAP, however, appeared to have been more successful than the EFL in regard to project outcomes. Studying two similar EDSS which attained differing levels of success should help in better understanding what the end users of the tool perceive as being most effective for their decision making. Analyzing the perceptions of the end users of the EDSS in each project will enable recommendations regarding the processes and structures required to increase the effectiveness of the EDSS, its sustained application, and the legacy of learning that is embodied within it.

Canada and Australia are well suited for informative and comparable learning as they are both highly developed, resource-rich countries with advanced arrangements in decentralized natural resource management (NRM) at the state and provincial level. Despite the apparent awareness in both countries of the need to plan for mitigation and adaptation to ongoing climate change, in 2015, they were the two worst performing of all industrialized countries on the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions (Burck et al. 2015). In the 2016 Climate Change Performance Index, the two countries remained in the bottom six of the index (Burck et al. 2016). It is evident that the dynamic and multifaceted challenge of climate change will not be met by mitigation efforts alone; climate change adaptation is needed at the local level and is increasingly being delivered through regional and community planning (Measham et al. 2011; Mukheibir et al. 2013). Hence, the need to improve our understanding of the effectiveness of engagement, knowledge development, and associated adaptation planning processes.

The Kimberley Climate Adaptation Project

KCAP was undertaken by the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Collaborative for Advanced Landscape Planning (CALP) and the Columbia Basin Trust (CBT) through their “Communities Adapting to Climate Change Initiative” (CACCI), along with the community of Kimberley, in the province of British Columbia, Canada, in 2008–2009 (Liepa 2009; Pond et al. 2009; Schroth et al. 2009, 2015). The goal of the KCAP was to produce a community climate change adaptation plan. The project was guided by a multi-stakeholder steering committee and had a significant involvement of the city staff, councilors, and local stakeholders who formed small working groups which explored priority climate change adaptation issues. The project followed three stages:
  1. 1.

    Learn: Connect local observations and concerns with available scientific data on projected climate impacts.

     
  2. 2.

    Share: Bring the results of the data collection to the community to show how the predicted impacts could affect Kimberley.

     
  3. 3.

    Plan: Synthesize knowledge gained during the learning and sharing process, and create an action plan to guide both short-term and long-term adaptation measures (Liepa 2009).

     

The Envisioning Future Landscapes Initiative

The University of Adelaide’s EFL project in the Eyre Peninsula and South Australian Murray-Darling Basin Natural Resource Management (NRM) regions in the state of South Australia ran from 2011 to 2013 (Meyer et al. 2013, 2015; Moretti et al. 2009; Wells and McLean 2013). The goal of the Australian case study was to produce a regional NRM climate change adaptation plan. The majority of the workshops took place in 2012. The project followed four stages:
  1. 1.

    The research team reviewed past planning processes in the regions.

     
  2. 2.

    Envisioning workshops were held with local stakeholders to help develop elements of the EDSS design.

     
  3. 3.

    A geographic information system (GIS) tool, the Landscape Futures Analysis Tool (LFAT), was developed and delivered to stakeholders.

     
  4. 4.

    The success of the process was evaluated through training sessions and semi-structured interviews with stakeholders (Meyer et al. 2013).

     

Envisioning

Envisioning is an innovative stakeholder engagement process designed with the intent to increase individuals’ personal engagement with the EDSS (Meyer et al. 2013). The two projects, independently of each other, developed very similar EDSS; one that undertook community engagement in the development of future scenarios combined with computer-based land use planning and modeling tools. The research team at the University of Adelaide in Australia was unaware of the Canadian KCAP project of 2009 until after completion of the Australian project in 2013; yet, the two EDSS were very similar. The main difference between the two projects is that the EFL’s Australian team introduced an “envisioning” process that was not used in the Canadian’s KCAP. The University of Adelaide team developed and tested an approach to stakeholder engagement with an EDSS tool designed to encourage stakeholders to develop a deeper level of personal engagement in the process through interactive discussion leading to the creation of “values-rich narratives,” the “envisioning” process (Meyer et al. 2013, 2015; Moretti et al. 2009; Wells and McLean 2013). This process was based on the assumption that an increased sense of personal engagement by the stakeholders might increase the long-term use of the EDSS. The first step of this formally developed “envisioning” process was a participatory discussion where participants were asked to consider and then share “how they really want to experience the landscape” (Meyer et al. 2013).

While the KCAP EDSS did not contain this formal “envisioning” process, it did engage in a similar process to “envisioning,” just at a much less formal and less defined level. In discussion with a member of the original KCAP research team, the researcher explained that the KCAP was a process “with heart” where people were asked to identify places they love and then to share and discuss how they would like to see both their future and the future of those places. This element of the KCAP, although not as formally designed and presented as the EFL’s “envisioning” process, may also be seen as including a values-rich narrative into the design of the EDSS.

The similarity of these two EDSS, designed without collaboration, in different countries, and 4 years apart, is illustrative of the progress in EDSS design for regional and community climate change adaptation planning. The two teams of researchers, working with community stakeholders, and facing similar challenges in climate change adaption planning, developed very similar EDSS, the elements of which have also been supported in the sustainability science literature (Bohnet et al. 2011; Bowron and Davidson 2012; Robinson et al. 2011). This approach to EDSS is considered effective and it continues to evolve in order to increase the ongoing application of the tool. We have provided a summary of the research approach in Fig. 1 in Supplemental Material 1.

Strengths and challenges of environmental decision support systems

The strengths of the visual and stakeholder engagement components of these EDSS have been documented in sustainability science literature. Visualizations have been noted as easier to understand than an ample volume of text (Pettit et al. 2011) as well as being able to leverage the evocative strength of storytelling (Robinson et al. 2011). Visualization increases participants’ understanding of the overall plans and serves to make the plans less abstract and more concrete (Salter et al. 2009). It also allows participants to more easily understand a broader range of options for climate change adaptation actions (Bowron and Davidson 2012). Further, the visual element provides valuable educational and capacity-building opportunities while also enabling participants to better understand linkages within their regional systems (Bizikova 2009).

The scenario planning element in these EDSS has also been reported as having value as an adaptive, shared learning approach which enables participants to develop a better understanding of how NRM decisions are made (Tompkins et al. 2008). Scenario planning allows participants to develop an improved appreciation of integrated ecosystem dynamics (Beach and Clark 2015; Bizikova and Hatcher 2010; Palacios-Agundez et al. 2013; Voinov and Bousquet 2010). This element has been asserted to have value in empowering stakeholders through their involvement in and contribution to local planning processes (Ernst and van Riemsdijk 2013; Reed et al. 2013).

The participatory nature of scenario planning has been recognized as allowing for a wide variety of perspectives and values that may contribute to a broader view of potential future challenges (Beach and Clark 2015). It is also a way to build group cohesion and allow participants to gain an increased understanding of other’s points of view (Cairns et al. 2013; Palacios-Agundez et al. 2013; Pert et al. 2010). Scenario planning has been recognized as having value in that the use of scientific data integrated into the scenario development increased participants’ understanding of the real effects and threats of climate change (Pert et al. 2010). Scenario planning that facilitates a high level of interaction and co-production between scientists and stakeholders may result in a higher level of climate information use (Lemos et al. 2012; Meyer et al. 2015; Reed 2008; Roux et al. 2010; Talwar et al. 2011). Further, regarding the “envisioning” process, current sustainability science literature has recommended further research regarding the role of values in affecting the actions, decisions, and potential behavior change in communities and individuals (Dahl 2012; Miller et al. 2014).

However, it is noted in the literature that many EDSS are not used after the development and pilot project phase (Dilling and Lemos 2011; Lemos et al. 2012; McIntosh et al. 2011; Meyer et al. 2015). One of the challenges identified is that funding might be lacking to update the required information and continue the application of the EDSS, and funding cycles may be too short to support adaptive learning processes required to adopt new practice (Campbell et al. 2015; Lemos et al. 2012; Meyer et al. 2015; Roux et al. 2010; Talwar et al. 2011; Voinov and Bousquet 2010). Participatory processes are valued in environmental problem solving and supported in the literature, yet the literature lacks in adequately advancing the need for organizational and institutional changes and requirements needed to support this type of work (Meyer et al. 2015; Reed 2008).

Researchers, funders, and stakeholders often operate in polarities, and the literature suggests that if they collaborated more closely together their work would support each other and have more meaningful and sustained effects, which may increase the use of the EDSS beyond project completion (Campbell et al. 2015; Lemos et al. 2012; Meyer et al. 2015; Roux et al. 2010; Voinov and Bousquet 2010). The lack of sustained use of the EDSS may be due to the focus being on its development rather than on adoption and sustained use by stakeholders (McIntosh et al. 2011). Further, it has been noted in the literature that upon completion of the project, results are often not easily identifiable or tangible, which may lead to a discounting of the value of the process and the EDSS involved. However, considerable progress and program success can be claimed through the building of education, awareness, knowledge, social capital, trust, relationship building, communication, and an increased understanding of diverse values and opinions (Koontz 2005; Talwar et al. 2011). Finally, there is considerable value in having a representative in one or more organizations involved in the project to contribute to the ongoing use of the EDSS through acting as a champion to support the EDSS being adopted into future plans and actions (Cairns et al. 2013; Dilling and Lemos 2011; McIntosh et al. 2011). Researchers have identified and reported on barriers to sustained application of EDSS, yet there is a paucity of literature that presents the end users perspective on this issue. In interviewing EDSS stakeholders, our research addresses this gap in the literature and aids in identifying what areas the end user perspective may differ from, or support, the researcher perspective.

Methods

We undertook a detailed analysis of literature related to the KCAP and EFL case studies and held semi-structured interviews in person or on the telephone with stakeholders. Stakeholders are defined as those who attended any EDSS workshops in the KCAP project during 2008–2009 in Kimberley, B.C., Canada, and those who attended any EDSS workshops in the EFL project during 2011–2013 in Adelaide, Karoonda, Murray Bridge, and Port Lincoln, South Australia. The same set of 46 interview questions were used in each case, with an additional three questions regarding the “envisioning” process asked of the EFL participants. These questions were also available in an online format. Human Research Ethics approval was granted prior to the interview process by the Queensland University of Technology University Human Research Ethics Committee (approval number 1500001155).

Twenty-nine interviews were conducted in March and April, 2016 with the EFL participants in Adelaide and Murray Bridge, S.A, 3 years after the project’s conclusion. Twelve interviews were conducted with KCAP participants in May, 2016 in Kimberley, B. C., 7 years after the project concluded. The EFL interview questions are available as Online Resource 1 and the KCAP interview questions as Online Resource 2.

The respondents in both case studies provided a representative sample of participants. Out of the 29 people interviewed from the EFL project, 15 identified as NRM staff or board members, 10 as government employees, two as non-governmental organization (NGO) employees, one as a city employee, and one who reported their affiliation as “other.” The majority interviewed recalled attending two to three workshops. Out of the 12 people interviewed from the KCAP, there were five city councilors or employees, three non-governmental organization (NGO) employees, two people who reported their affiliation as “other,” one private business owner or employee, and one person who participated on their own initiative. The majority interviewed recalled attending three to five workshops.

The interview questions focused on the end user’s experience with the EDSS as a whole, its individual components, the outcomes of the project, and the structures and processes that might support the use of the EDSS. The data from the 1 h interview was coded and analyzed using the Nvivo qualitative data management software. Any quotations have been slightly edited for grammar and some words have been added for clarity, and placed within brackets.

Findings

Responses from the project in Canada were very similar to those recorded from the Australian respondents. We acknowledge that a challenge in this research was the difficulty in attribution of effect to direct cause. Changes in people’s beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors are very hard to attribute (McIntosh et al. 2011). Without being asked to address this subject, some respondents in both studies mentioned the challenge of attribution. Some respondents noted that they felt more aware of climate change after the project, but that it was hard to attribute this change to participation in the project alone. Further, a few respondents were able to list climate change adaptation actions in the community after the EFL or KCAP ended, but they noted that some of these initiatives may have been under consideration prior to the project and so they were unable to attribute these actions as taking place as a direct result of the project.

When asked what actions were taken in the region as a result of the project, 83% of the KCAP respondents were able to list actions. When asked the same question, only 34% of the EFL respondents were able to list actions and 59% said they did not know. When asked in another question if they were aware of other climate change adaptation projects in the community or region since either the KCAP or EFL ended, in both cases, the majority of respondents were able to list projects.

In both cases, the environmental decision support system was reported as having value

Data analysis showed that the majority of respondents in both cases felt that the EDSS was helpful in making informed decisions about climate change adaptation in their community or region. Through the use of a five-point Likert scale, respondents in both cases recorded an overall increase in both awareness of, and concern about, the potential effects of climate change on their community or in their region after participating in the projects. Eighty-three percent of respondents said that they felt the EFL was useful or very useful for their community or region’s planning for climate change adaptation, as did 67% of the KCAP respondents.

In both cases, each element of the EDSS—community engagement in the development of future scenarios, computer based land use planning and modeling tools that provide a visual element, and in the EFL, the envisioning process—was considered useful with no element standing out as having much more influence than the other, as summarized in Table 1.
Table 1

A summary of questions and responses related to the individual elements of the EFL and KCAP

Question

Response

 

EFL

KCAP

 

Did developing local scenarios help you to make decisions about climate change adaptation?

88%

78%

Yes

EFL: Did the visual display of the scenarios, and other climate change information such as the Landscapes Future Analysis Tool (LFAT), help you to make decisions about climate change adaptation?

KCAP: Did the visual display of the scenarios, and other climate change information such as the 3D Virtual Globe Google Earth, help you to make decisions about climate change adaptation?

76%

83%

Yes

Did adding local perspectives help you to make decisions about climate change adaptation?

86%

83%

Yes

Did the involvement of experts on climate change help you to make decisions about climate change adaptation?

90%

92%

Yes

Did the processes used in this project sufficiently explain climate change science to participants who were not climate change experts?

83%

100%

Yes

Do you feel that the project identified priority risks and sensitivities for further investigation by experts and local stakeholders?

69%

83%

Yes

In regard to the envisioning process used in the EFL alone, 64% of respondents said that the process helped them to make decisions about climate change adaptation.

In both cases, stakeholder engagement was identified as a critical element in EDSS development and application, as summarized in Table 2.
Table 2

A summary of questions and responses related to stakeholder engagement

Question

Response

 

EFL

KCAP

 

How important is stakeholder engagement to the success of local and regional climate change adaptation projects?

100%

92%

Responded important or very important

How important do you feel it is to have broad stakeholder engagement in regional and community climate change adaptation projects such as this?

97%

92%

Responded important or very important

How important do you feel it is to have limited, strategic stakeholder engagement in regional and community climate change adaptation projects such as this?

90%

92%

Responded important or very important

How important do you think it is for an EDSS tool to be informed by connecting the actions needed to adapt to climate change to the regular needs, priorities and values of individuals within a region?

100%

92%

Responded important or very important

Did you feel you were able to express your opinions in the workshops you attended?

93%

100%

Yes

Did the project give you contacts that you still keep in touch with?

62%

25%

Yes

After the project, were you aware that any networks were formed?

55%

67%

No

How satisfied were you in regard to your involvement in the project?

45%

67%

Responded satisfied

The data suggests that there is a need for both broad and limited stakeholder engagement. Further research is warranted to better understand the context in which broad, or a more limited, focused form of stakeholder engagement should be applied.

When asked if, as a result of the project, they had made any changes in their behavior relating to climate change, the majority of respondents in both cases said they had not. When asked if, as a result of the project, they had made any changes in their work relating to climate change, just over half (52%) of respondents in the EFL said they had, as did 42% of the KCAP participants; a KCAP respondent noted:

Yes, it helped to bring climate change adaptation to the conversation [in] all parts of my work;

and an EFL participants said:

Yes, I made a climate change adaptation plan and now we embed climate change adaptation planning in each and every project;

and

… it was a very new process so it was hard to get people to understand the work. It is such a complex issue and we have used a lot of the learnings in a lot of different ways and contexts, especially the participatory/values stuff.

The information presented above shows that the respondents from both case studies felt that the EDSS used in each project was valuable to them for making informed decisions about climate change adaptation. When asked if they had any other comments about the EFL, the majority of comments were positive; a sample of supportive responses were:

It was one of the first of its type and the consultants were spot on and got it right and it was an overall excellent project. The people delivering the project were excellent, and they were an important factor;

I would like to see it picked up and further developed if at all possible, it was valuable work but it would need ongoing funding from the Australian government;

Need to continue to develop the LFAT program and must promote and ensure use by regions in conjunction with other tools and resources.

When asked to describe the KCAP, again, the majority of comments were positive, such as:

Very interesting, it brought to the surface different ways the community could come together to do our part and helped to overcome old school thinking and changed our thinking entirely;

The project helped the community to establish benchmarks on our situation and then helped us plan to reduce the impact of climate change;

It was an excellent learning experience and a very helpful tool to inform planning and decision making since [the] completion of the project report;

and

The way it personally affected me is that it built my personal awareness of the potential impacts of climate change on this community and region and opened my eyes and got me thinking about it on practical level rather than as a concept.

Neither environmental decision support system was used after the projects ended

Although the majority of respondents in each case study reported each element as having value and being helpful to the respondent in making decisions about climate change adaptation, the majority of respondents in both cases also reported that they did not use any of the elements, neither scenario planning nor the GIS visuals and, in the EFL, not the envisioning process, after the projects ended. Many respondents from both case studies stated, in regard to each individual element, that they did not use it after the project ended because it was not needed in their employment. Eighty-three percent of the KCAP respondents and 79% of EFL respondents said they had not used the scenario development process since the workshops. Eighty-three percent of the KCAP respondents said they had not used the 3D Virtual Globe Google Earth tool after the project, and 78% of the EFL respondents said they had not used the Landscape Futures Analysis Tool (LFAT) since the project ended. In regard to the envisioning process, applied solely in the EFL, 72% of respondents said that they did not use the envisioning process since the workshops.

Our findings show that the great majority of the end users of these EDSS in both case studies did not use the tool, nor any of its individual components, after the projects’ completion. In the EFL, almost half (48%) of respondents commented that the tool was not used after the project ended and just over half (55%) of the respondents stated that they wished it had been used, comments included:

… This was an important project and I should have been more proactive to see results and it could have been and should have been used in the next strategic plan. They get trained and see a new way of learning and know that it is a good thing to do but then get bogged down with daily work and expectations and don’t use it. Also external influences on staff and management such as political or funding, some not convinced or not buying in and they control what actions we take ultimately. There are lots of externals regionally, staff changes and new priorities. It takes time and work to do things differently and it’s uncomfortable for people to change. Maybe we need to consider changing management processes and succession planning. These projects introduce change. Science needs to be translated to people in an effective way for the audience;

Some of the stuff that [the EFL team is] doing is excellent but it needs to be institutionalized, funded and implemented/used by people to have impact. I’ve moved out of the position of influence and now I’ve come around to the thinking, it’s taken me ten years to get here.

The relative success of the Kimberley Climate Adaptation Project was due in part to local “champions” of the environmental decision support system

The data showed that the EDSS was not used after the KCAP ended. However, we found that key people involved in the project had remained in positions of influence who were very supportive of the KCAP and acted as community “champions” for the process. Further, the KCAP participants reported being more satisfied with their involvement in the project than the EFL participants. While it is not possible to ascribe a clearly articulated reason for the difference between KCAP and EFL, we formed an impression that KCAP stakeholders felt they retained greater access to the project outputs than did those of EFL stakeholders. This may have been because several project “champions” remained who influenced subsequent adaptation recommendations and demonstrated a legacy of learning embedded in the KCAP. A sample of comments to illustrate this are:

[The KCAP resulted in] the acceptance of the fuels management program and we still use the posters from the project today and find them invaluable;

It was an excellent learning experience and a very helpful tool to inform planning and decision making since completion of the project report;

The community impact was less than how helpful it was for the City and planners. It was useful in that it allowed us to understand some of the key vulnerabilities and these things became our focus;

We weren’t doing anything to deal with climate change before and this triggered the whole process for us and we examined our operations and reduced our impact;

and

It helped to increase the level of understanding and awareness and recommended a number of actions and responses to consider and built support for the actions needed and funding required to get passed.

This is a key difference in the KCAP compared to the EFL project. Although many of the people we interviewed in the EFL expressed a desire to have the EDSS implemented into current practice and ongoing use, the project lacked a champion, or champions, to carry it forward. One of the passionate supporters of the EFL mentioned that they had served two terms on the NRM board at the time of the project’s conclusion, and as it was not allowed to serve more than two terms, they had to step down. This person might have served as the champion the project lacked had they been able to maintain their position of influence. Yet, even if we recorded less direct actions in the region as a result of the EFL, 52% of the respondents said that, as a result of the project, they had made changes in their work relating to climate change. The legacy of learning embodied in these EDSS is of value.

Processes, policies and structures identified to support the environmental decision support system

Questions were asked to gain an understanding of the types of processes, structures, and policies that might support the ongoing use of the EDSS and the capacity building derived from it. Again, the responses from both case studies were very similar, as summarized in Table 3.
Table 3

A summary of processes, structures, and policies to support the ongoing use of the EDSS

Question

Response

 

EFL

KCAP

 

EFL: How useful would it be for researchers, funders and stakeholders to collaborate more closely together to support projects such as the EFL?

KCAP: How useful would it be for researchers, funders and stakeholders to collaborate more closely together to support projects such as the KCAP?

100%

92%

Responded useful, or very useful

How important do you think is to manage data and information related to the EDSS beyond the project end to ensure a knowledge ‘legacy’ is carried forth from concluding projects such as this?

100%

92%

Responded important or very important

How useful do you think it would be for the region to establish a permanent coordinator position to facilitate further and ongoing climate change adaptation initiatives?

93%

100%

Responded either useful, or very useful

How useful would it be for climate change adaptation projects such as this to be funded for a longer time period, perhaps 5–8 years?

93%

83%

Responded either useful, or very useful

How important is it that planning to sustain the ongoing use of the EDSS beyond the duration of the pilot project is included from the earliest stages of project planning?

86%

67%

Responded important or very important

Many respondents from both projects suggested that a permanent coordinator position to facilitate further and ongoing climate change adaptation initiatives could be shared among organizations and added into existing positions. Regarding the need for longer-term funding, EFL respondents commented:

[That would be] very useful, 3-4 years and focus on delivery and broad understanding in the region, not research alone;

[That would be] very useful, as long as it is moved to the practical. This is leading edge and innovative and it needs time to be adopted and be successful;

[That would be] very useful, a project just gets momentum and then loses funding and good work is lost;

and

[That would be] useful, short term funding is a problem. This is about progress of work rather than individual projects.

Some comments from the KCAP participants were:

[That would be] very useful, definitely, otherwise you risk losing all what we have done, all that good work, so embed it into the organisation and community culture to keep it going;

[That would be] very useful, that way people can stick around and work together and the work does not get lost and it keeps it moving and keeps the momentum going and shows the small changes so people can see the improvements; this is important because people don’t like change;

and

[That would be] useful, it takes a long time to change habits, it happens incrementally and new ideas are helpful as well to keep the pressure on and the momentum going.

When asked to list what might help them implement what they learned in the EDSS workshops, the responses were very similar in both case studies. In the KCAP, the majority cited a need for more and ongoing communication, funding, and training and to a slightly lesser degree, more follow-up in general. The majority of EFL respondents asked for more and ongoing communication, a refresher course, and more training. That EDSS would benefit from access to support people, ongoing training, and communication is a significant finding from this study.

Discussion: Lessons learned and recommendations

Sustainability science literature has recorded the researcher’s perspectives regarding the design of practical EDSS (Matthies et al. 2007; McIntosh et al. 2011; Rizzoli and Young 1997), but there is a lack of research presenting the perspective of the end user of the EDSS. Our analysis of the two case studies provided insights for the development of recommendations to help increase the application of EDSS. We acknowledge that a challenge in our research was that there are potentially confounding factors which make it difficult to establish a clear causal link between the information we derived from our data and the recommendations we present from interpretation of the data. We mitigated this challenge through constant awareness of, and attention to the issue, the use of Nvivo data management software, and the extensive reflection and rigor employed by the multiple members of our research team. These recommendations encourage reflection and adaptation and are appropriate to application in participatory action research.

In our case studies, both EDSS were seen as being of value and raised the majority of stakeholders’ awareness of, and concern about, climate change. In the Canadian KCAP case study, the EDSS resulted in concrete, positive adaptation actions and in the Australian EFL case study the stakeholders reported that the EDSS resulted in changes in their adaptation work; yet neither EDSS was used after the pilot project ended. Both researchers and end users acknowledge that there is ongoing value to be gained from the EDSS developed for the particular project.

Key lessons learned in our research with the end users of the EDSS reflect those outlined earlier in this paper that are recorded in the literature from the researcher perspective. EDSS application would be aided by longer-term funding; organizational support is key; enhanced collaboration between funders, stakeholders, and researchers is desired; there needs to be more focus on adaptation of the tool; benefits of the EDSS may be hard to assess, yet research affirms that the legacy of learning embedded in the tool is of value; and, finally, that there is a need for a champion, or champions, to promote the tool beyond its research and development phase. Further, our findings show, in alignment with the researcher perspective, that although these EDSS are deemed valuable, they are too often not used after the project’s end.

EDSS require substantial resources to develop, such as relevant data collection, expertise, time, and funds; in order to recoup this investment, EDSS should be used beyond the research and development phase. The EDSS tools such as those in the case studies here represent the best understanding of the social ecological system at the time. Failure to use these tools beyond a particular project and then re-invention for subsequent planning processes is inefficient and a failure to learn. Introducing new practices, policies, procedures, and tools into a workplace requires organizational support to aid in the uptake of the new processes. EDSS, as a tool to inform decision making through the use of the best available science, is recorded as being of value. EDSS support climate change adaptation planning; however, the contribution of EDSS to natural resource management will remain limited without organizational support to ensure sustained application of the tool.

Significant findings from our study illustrate that there is a need for a champion, or a few people working in different organizations, to promote application as well as a need for ongoing training, communication, and access to resource people. Finally, it is essential that meaningful and committed institutional support be provided to promote application of the EDSS. Recommendations to increase the application of these valuable EDSS include:
  • From the initial research and development phase of the EDSS, open and effective communication is needed to ensure that:
    • funders, researchers, and stakeholders have shared goals in the development and application of the EDSS, reach mutual agreement, and document these goals

    • the design of the EDSS meets the actual needs of the end user

    • there is willingness from institutional governance, and organizational capacity to adapt the EDSS into ongoing use

    • the EDSS being proposed aligns with existing and ongoing programs within the governing institutions, and, conversely, the institutional stakeholders work within their organizations to ensure that it is embedded in their work plans and supported by administration

    • the EDSS is embedded in organizational culture and will have institutional support to withstand changes in staff and management

    • there is a plan for ongoing communication, promotion, and training for the EDSS by developing capacity at the organizational, community, and/or regional level

    • there is an embedded institutional capacity and sufficient flexibility through adaptive management to adjust to the complex realm of NRM and climate change with commitment to respond to new knowledge and update the EDSS, and to adjust to changing circumstances and priorities

    • there is a realistic and adequate time frame commitment of organizations involved to facilitate a change in organizational culture and to educate and motivate individuals within the organization

Conclusion

Meeting the challenges of climate change in community and NRM climate change adaptation planning is complex. Environmental decision support systems have been recorded by researchers as being valuable in assisting decision makers in this context, a finding that is replicated in our research with the end users of the EDSS. However, further research is needed to analyze how perceptions of the EDSS differ across stakeholder groups.

In order to increase the application of these EDSS, funders, researchers, and stakeholder organizations need to implement effective processes that strive to meet their varied expectations and are viable within their operating contexts and constraints. To date, this does not appear to have been achieved, and was not achieved in the two case studies presented here.

The recommendations we present in this paper represent a design criteria that is based on firsthand field research experience with end users of these EDSS, a perspective that has been underrepresented in the sustainability science literature. The dynamic and complex challenge of climate change requires a commitment to moving beyond established management practices. We conclude that the process of EDSS development must be managed diligently, and in a structured, yet flexible way through adaptive management, throughout the life of the project and beyond its conclusion, and embedded in organizational culture. Thus far, there is little organizational success in the ongoing application of EDSS for planning for climate change adaptation and managing complex natural resource issues at the community and regional level. We have presented recommendations to increase the application of these EDSS by combining the theoretical elements of best practice with the practical experiences of the end users of the EDSS, to add to this discussion.

Notes

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank all those who participated in the interviews for sharing their experiences with us so generously.

Compliance with ethical standards

Human Research Ethics approval was granted prior to the interview process by the Queensland University of Technology University Human Research Ethics Committee (approval number 1500001155).

Supplementary material

10113_2017_1255_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (241 kb)
ESM 1 (PDF 240 kb)
10113_2017_1255_MOESM2_ESM.pdf (300 kb)
ESM 2 (PDF 300 kb)
10113_2017_1255_MOESM3_ESM.pdf (297 kb)
ESM 3 (PDF 297 kb)

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dana Reiter
    • 1
  • Wayne Meyer
    • 2
  • Lael Parrott
    • 3
  • Douglas Baker
    • 4
  • Peter Grace
    • 5
  1. 1.School of Civil Engineering and Built EnvironmentQueensland University of Technology (QUT)BrisbaneAustralia
  2. 2.Landscape Systems, School of Biological SciencesUniversity of AdelaideAdelaideAustralia
  3. 3.Departments of Earth, Environmental and Geographic Sciences and BiologyUniversity of British ColumbiaKelownaCanada
  4. 4.School of Civil Engineering and the Built EnvironmentQueensland University of TechnologyBrisbaneAustralia
  5. 5.Earth, Environmental and Biological Sciences, Environmental SystemsQueensland University of TechnologyBrisbaneAustralia

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