Capacity And Transformation In Social-Ecological Systems
Authors: Jeremiah Osborne-Gowey
Editor’s Note: Jeremiah Osborne-Gowey is an ecologist now using social science tools to better understand adaptation, resilience and transformation in social-ecological systems. He is a Ph.D. student working with Bruce Goldstein at the University of Colorado Boulder. You can find him on Twitter at @JeremiahOsGo and learn more about him on the research lab’s website.
Learning networks fascinate me, since, as an approach to social innovation they may help transform natural resource management. This interest brought me to Professor Bruce Goldstein’s lab at CU Boulder. Bruce is leading efforts to extend our understanding of how learning networks contribute to system resilience and build transformative capacity. Along with this potential comes the recognition that learning networks can be challenging to organize and facilitate because participants are widely dispersed and their problems and solutions are not entirely the same.
Over the past year, I conducted a preliminary analysis of the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network. I drew on interviews that we conducted with network staff and members, as well as additional insights coming from network meetings and documents. While this research was a preliminary dive into the network’s inner workings compared to the work I’ll do for my dissertation, some preliminary insights emerged that I would like to share.
Learning and Capacity-Building
One of the things I looked at was how FAC Net builds capacity. I quickly realized “capacity” can take on different meanings and may manifest itself at different levels and in different ways (see Foster-Fishman et al. 2001 for a nice discussion, reference appended below).
For example, member capacity is associated with enabling and supporting existing skills, knowledge and attitudes that foster collaborative work while encouraging members to tap into those resources. Relational capacity is associated with connecting members to each other and to those outside the network that are working in similar domains or dealing with similar issues. Organizational capacity is associated with leaders who have diverse skills, well-developed internal communication systems that promote information sharing, formalized processes and procedures, and support for continuous learning.
FAC Net members come from a variety of backgrounds and bring to the table experience in communications, planning, ecology, forestry, natural resource management, wildland and structural fire and more. Given the diversity of stakeholders participating in the FAC Net, it’s apparent there’s an emphasis on collaboration and collaborative learning. It’s no stretch to say that FAC Net has substantial member capacity.
FAC Net organizers and active members connect members via peer-to-peer activities like learning exchanges and regular regional and network-wide meetings, conference calls and webinars, and email communications. Liaisons actively work to connect members facing similar challenges and connect people outside the network as well. Locally, FAC Net “community sparkplugs” work to build relationships and trust to increase adoption of fire adapted communities concepts. Does the FAC Net demonstrate relational capacity? Check.
Some FAC Net staff and members operate at the national level while others operate at regional or local scales. The FAC Net has a sizeable membership, connected by regular meetings and conference calls along with robust online networking, communication and document exchange (Podio). While the network has a relatively flat organizational structure, the network does have clearly laid out procedures and processes for communication, interaction with network liaisons and the coordinating team, and work planning and reporting. Network staff are continually requesting feedback through a variety of evaluation loops and are committed to responding and adapting to that feedback – something known as triple loop learning (see Tosey et al. 2012 for a critical review, reference appended below). Collectively, it appears the FAC Net has considerable organizational capacity.
When I started exploring network weaving – or netweaving – it became clear to me there were differing understandings of what a netweaver is and where they operated. Peter Plastrik and colleagues (2014, reference appended below) describe netweaving as supporting the health of a network and facilitating change from within, knitting together the social and structural pieces of a network, enhancing communication, facilitating connection and bolstering collaboration. Netweavers are highly connected within the network and to others outside the network; they identify mutual interests and challenges, and strategically connect to facilitate the flow of information and build social ties that enable learning. In short, netweavers frequently serve as the catalysts for self-organizing groups.
While netweavers are often described as working across the entire network, netweaving occurs at various levels within the FAC Net. For example, there are netweavers operating on the FAC Net’s staff team (national in scope/scale) while members connect at more regional and local scales. These netweavers also connect members and projects to other initiatives (e.g., FLN, Firewise, FAC Coalition and Ready, Set, Go!). In sum, for the FAC Net, netweaving appears everywhere in the network and is not just the responsibility of the network organizers.
Transformation (and Transformative Capacity)
Another area of emphasis for my case study was system transformation. While the literature has a variety of descriptions of what constitutes transformation, a common feature is a paradigm shift away from the status quo. But how can we understand whether (and how) transformations occur at various places, times and scales within the network? While it’s easier to look back and see that a transformation has occurred, it is difficult to discern whether transformations are occurring in real time. It may be too early to tell if the FAC Net is transforming wildfire management (and at what levels), but it appears the network has developed capacities that may help facilitate transformation.
For example, the network and its members have developed a strong social identity, recognizing a) the critical role wildfire plays in ecosystems, b) the need for human communities to be resilient before, during and after wildfires, and c) that effective change comes about only after addressing linkages and dynamics between ecological and social systems. The network also demonstrates substantial member, relational and organizational capacities, as discussed above. Additionally, FAC Net work tends to address both ecological and social systems at various scales within the network, recognizing and encouraging communities to come up with their own – sometimes novel – solutions to addressing complex, place-based wildfire-related issues.
There are some indications that transformation is occurring, primarily at the local levels of the network. FAC Net members are bridging gaps between fire adapted communities efforts that traditionally have occurred in a single sphere (e.g., city fire departments and federal fuels reduction efforts). Combining fire-related efforts into a single fire adaptation effort is increasing awareness among the general public and catalyzing community fire adaptation (e.g., community networking for emergency preparedness, fuel reductions on private lands, post-fire responses and CWPPs). Whether these “local transformations” result in a network-wide transformation or transform the way in which humans interact with wildfire is yet to be determined – the work of the network, and our research team, has only just begun.
My intent is not to puff up the network with hollow praise. Results from this initial research indicate the FAC Net – despite being a relatively young learning network – is effectively leveraging existing capacities while actively cultivating others. Additionally, the network has built in a number of evaluation and feedback loops that allow the network to assess and respond to member needs in their changing landscapes.
While transformation is hard to “see” in the moment, this effort to build capacity for effective and responsive collaboration may help facilitate transformation in how communities manage wildfire across the United States. And I am grateful to have an active, participatory, and front row seat to the show.
Foster-Fishman, Pennie G; Berkowitz, Shelby L; Lounsbury, David W; Jacobson, Stephanie; Allen, Nicole A. 2001. Building collaborative capacity in community coalitions: A review and integrative framework. American Journal of Community Psychology 29.2. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1010378613583
Plastrik, Peter, Madeleine Taylor, and John Cleveland. 2014. Connecting to Change the World: Harnessing the Power of Networks for Social Impact. Island Press.
Tosey, Paul; Visser, Max; and Saunders. Mark NK. 2011. The origins and conceptualizations of ‘triple-loop’learning: A critical review. Management Learning 43.3:291-307. http://mlq.sagepub.com/content/43/3/291