Collaborative environmental governance: Achieving collective action in social-ecological systems

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Science  18 Aug 2017:
Vol. 357, Issue 6352, eaan1114
DOI: 10.1126/science.aan1114


  • Small-scale fishermen preparing their nets.

    Although collaborative approaches to environmental governance are increasingly advocated, a better understanding of if and how multiactor collaboration in interlinked social-ecological systems is able to effectively address various environmental problems is urgently needed.

    Photo: Nature Picture Library/Alamy Stock Photo
  • Fig. 1 Different structural characteristics of networks.

    (A) Representation of a cohesive collaborative network comprising numerous collaborative ties between actors engaged in coastal-zone management in Sweden (50). The differences in centrality between the actors with the most connections and those with an average number of connections are relatively small, and the closed triangular structure (inset) is a common building block in this network (two friends of a common friend also tend to be friends). The centralization score is 0.26 (on a scale from 0 to 1), and the modularity index that captures the extent to which the network consists of subgroups peaks at 0.07 (on a scale from 0 to 1). (B) Representation of a centralized collaborative network from a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) biosphere reserve in Canada (100), where the differences in centrality between the actors with the most connections and those with an average number of connections differ substantially. The open triangular structure (inset) is a common building block in this network (an actor connects two unconnected actors). The centralization score is 0.63 and the modularity index is ~0. (C) Representation of a more compartmentalized collaborative network of small-scale fishermen in east Africa (70). The colors represent fishermen using different fishing gear (traps, nets, etc.), and the dotted lines enclose different identified cohesive subgroups (subgroup membership also designated by symbol shape). The subgroups partly coincide with gear type. The building block capturing two socially connected actors using the same gear (inset) is common in this network. The centralization score is 0.11, and the modularity index peaks at 0.58.

  • Fig. 2 A social-ecological network model of an integrated social-ecological system.

    The multilevel network–modeling approach is illustrated with a stylized small-scale fishery system, where actors are represented by fishing vessels (social nodes), and ecological components are represented by different targeted marine species (ecological nodes). The red links represent collaborative ties, the blue links represent trophic interactions among the marine species, and the black links show which vessel is targeting which marine species (these vertical links thus capture how different actors have different stakes in different components of the ecosystem). This approach can be used to model other systems. For example, the social nodes could constitute individuals, groups, organizations, or any other abstraction of an actor or governing entity, and the ecological nodes could constitute other biophysical entities such as habitat patches or more abstract ecological entities (45) such as ecosystem services (44).

  • Fig. 3 Social-ecological building blocks.

    (A and B) Horizontal fit, i.e., alignment of social and ecological connectivity. (A) To the left, two actors (red) managing two separate but interconnected ecological components (green) are not collaborating, whereas to the right they are. (B) To the left, two actors managing the same ecological component do not collaborate, whereas to the right they do. (C and D) Vertical fit across different network layers. (C) To the left, the actor is managing one of two interconnected ecological components, whereas to the right the actor is managing both components, thus internalizing ecological externalities (closing the social-ecological loop). (D) To the left, the actors managing interconnected components are not collaborating [as in (A), left] and only one of them is collaborating with the potentially mediating actor operating on a higher administrative level (orange). To the right, the vertical cross-level social ties of the mediating actor indirectly connect the two other actors.


  •       • How to create and maintain collaborative networks that are able to address tough problems involving deep-rooted conflicts of interest, while simultaneously being conducive to the efficient coordination of relatively simple tasks
          • How to facilitate social-tie formation processes in the local context such that the evolving collaborative network develops desirable global structural properties, including a good fit to the biophysical context
          • How to best engage actors in collaborative networks even though some of them are not interested, are interested for the “wrong” reasons, or use the collaborative venue only as a way of obstructing any changes to the status quo
          • How to create and maintain collaborative networks that are flexible and adaptable to changes, yet stable enough to facilitate the development of mutual trust and shared commitment

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