Compromise not consensus: designing a participatory process for landslide risk mitigation

Abstract

With the escalating costs of landslides, the challenge for local authorities is to develop institutional arrangements for landslide risk management that are viewed as efficient, feasible and fair by those affected. For this purpose, the participation of stakeholders in the decision-making process is mandated by the European Union as a way of improving its perceived legitimacy and transparency. This paper reports on an analytical-deliberative process for selecting landslide risk mitigation measures in the town of Nocera Inferiore in southern Italy. The process was structured as a series of meetings with a group of selected residents and several parallel activities open to the public. The preparatory work included a literature/media review, semi-structured interviews carried out with key local stakeholders and a survey eliciting residents’ views on landslide risk management. The main point of departure in the design of this process was the explicit elicitation and structuring of multiple worldviews (or perspectives) among the participants with respect to the nature of the problem and its solution. Rather than eliciting preferences using decision analytical methods (e.g. utility theory or multi-criteria evaluation), this process built on a body of research—based on the theory of plural rationality—that has teased out the limited number of contending and socially constructed definitions of problem-and-solution that are able to achieve viability. This framing proved effective in structuring participants’ views and arriving at a compromise recommendation (not, as is often aimed for, a consensus) on measures for reducing landslide risk. Experts played a unique role in this process by providing a range of policy options that corresponded to the different perspectives held by the participants.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The theory has sailed under a number of names: originally “cultural theory” (which unfortunately risks giving the impression that it is culture that is doing the explaining); more recently “neo-Durkheimian institutional theory” (which, while correct, is too much of a mouthful).

  2. 2.

    These voices emanate from the theory of plural rationality’s typology of four forms of social solidarity: hierarchy, individualism, egalitarianism and fatalism, as they are called (for example, Douglas 1978; Thompson 2008; Ney 2009). A brief explanation of the theory itself can be found in Linnerooth-Bayer et al. (2015). For a mapping of the similarities and differences between clumsy solutions and other proposed ways of coping with this sort of plurality-“bounded rationality” (Simon 1947), see for instance, “muddling through” (Lindblom 1959), the “garbage can” (March and Olsen 1976), “mixed scanning” (Etzioni 1968), “interactive mixed scanning” (Gershuny 1978), “optimal rational decision-making” (Dror 1968). This mapping also holds for the more recent “sanguine compromise” (Margalit 2014), see Schwarz and Thompson (1990, especially chapter 4: “Beyond the politics of interest”).

  3. 3.

    A letter from the municipal councillor responsible stated: “The funds have not been distributed because of the delays and oversights on the part of the regional Civil Protection. In the years that followed the emergency, the National Civil Protection did not renew the state of emergency requested for the entire territory of the Campania region. As a result, the available funds were never used” (Prot. 300 IESA, 2010).

  4. 4.

    This distinction, we should mention, has also been cast in terms of wicked problems (where the terrain is contested) and tame problems (where the terrain is uncontested) with the seven distinctive characteristics of wicked problems clearly revealing that climate change is wicked/contested and the ozone hole tame/uncontested (Rittel and Webber 1973; Verweij et al 2011; Rayner 2014). In other words, these two distinctions—one originating in social anthropology, the other in planning/public administration—are interchangeable.

  5. 5.

    This can be explained by: (i) the initial selection process aimed at selecting participants with different views and perspectives; (ii) the fact that the discourses were constructed based on the information collected through the document analysis, interviews and the first meeting; (iii) the reinforcement in the informal meetings outside the formal process meetings; (iv) the fact that, from the beginning, the participants knew that the mitigation packages were the starting point for the discussions that followed in the meetings and that a compromise solution was to be found.

  6. 6.

    An excess of any one solidarity, the theory of plural rationality holds, will be deleterious, as too will its exclusion. The relationship, in other words, is “curvilinear”. But fatalism is to some extent the odd one out, in that, unlike the other three solidarities, it does not generate any of the three kinds of social capital—bonding (egalitarianism), bridging (individualism) and linking (hierarchy)—that are now recognized (Szreter and Woolcock 2004). Fatalism does have its part to play (see Underwood et al. 2014, where fatalism, so as not to offend certain CEOs, is re-labelled pragmatism) but, because of its social capital-eroding tendency, in much smaller doses than with the other three solidarities.

  7. 7.

    Of course, if there is no clumsy solution “out there”. You will not (and the risk of sounding like Yogi Berra, who famously said “If you don’t know where you’re going you may end up some place else”) find your way to it. The claim, therefore, is that, if you can ensure those two pre-requisites—accessibility and responsiveness—you are more likely to find your way to a clumsy solution, if there is one. The participatory process in Nocera Inferiore was designed to do that, and did, as is evident from the three distinct engineering solutions. It also arrived at a clumsy solution: the compromise that incorporates elements of all three engineering solutions, but was clearly distinct from them, is evidence of that.

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Acknowledgments

The research described in this paper was supported by the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme through the grant to the Safeland Project (http://www.safeland-fp7.eu/Introduction.html), Grant agreement: 226479. The paper reflects the authors’ views and not those of the European Community. Neither the European Community nor any member of the Safeland Consortium is liable for any use of the information in this paper. We thank the 43 local stakeholders, who devoted their precious time to the interviews and meetings. The same gratitude goes to the numerous volunteers of seven local associations providing help to collect the questionnaires, as well as for the 373 survey respondents. We gratefully thank our Safeland partners at the University of Salerno (Italy), Prof. Leonardo Cascini and Prof. Settimio Ferlisi, for their support and cooperation during all the research phases. We also thank Sandro Bösch at ETH Zürich for his creativity and patience in optimizing the figures. Finally, we would like to dedicate this work to the victims of the 2005 landslides and to their families.

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Scolobig, A., Thompson, M. & Linnerooth-Bayer, J. Compromise not consensus: designing a participatory process for landslide risk mitigation. Nat Hazards 81, 45–68 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-015-2078-y

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Keywords

  • Participatory processes
  • Theory of plural rationality
  • Contested terrain
  • Consensus or compromise
  • Clumsy solution