Integrated Catchment Management

Social learning

 Research Status: Ongoing
AGM 2005 - Spooners Ridge

AGM 2005 - Spooners Ridge


Social learning is an approach to working on complex environmental problems, particularly those with high degrees of uncertainty, lots of interested parties and disagreement around causes, effects and even desired outcomes. Many of the questions in catchment management fall into this category.

Social Learning is not, however, what many people confuse it as, - learning by people 'out there' about the important things we 'in here' think they should know. That is information dissemination, advice, or even indoctrination. At times it may be necessary to straight out tell people 'how it is' - but this is not Social Learning.

Social Learning, as an approach to complex problem solving, has emerged in recent years alongside other approaches such as adaptive management and systems thinking. (In fact it includes the core essentials of both of these). In a nutshell it is about creating situations where people can learn collectively to improve a situation. For Social Learning to support resolution of the kind of complex problems we are talking about in ICM it implies particular types of thinking, learning, and interactions.

The kind of thinking required is essentially Systems Thinking. This is about having an appreciation of the characteristics of systems, i.e., that each element will affect the operation of the whole, parts of the system are interdependent etc. The focus of systems thinking is therefore on interaction. Furthermore, Systems Thinking requires a shift of mind. It looks at underlying systemic structures and beyond discrete events and patterns of behaviour. Finally Systems Thinking in the environmental management context is about developing in-depth knowledge about programs and policies and their organizational implications. The purpose of a System Thinking based inquiry is to seek leverage, seeing where actions and changes in structures can lead to significant and enduring improvements.

Because of the high degree of uncertainty in the kind of problem situations we are talking about, and also because most of these problems have suffered from 'silo' thinking. The kind of learning that is required is active, experimental, and examines the assumptions around the problem "what do you mean it is a water scarcity problem - it is a water allocation problem isn't it?" Being active and experimental means taking an adaptive management approach to policy and management - or if you prefer - a "learning by doing approach". This means applying the concept of experimentation to the design and implementation of natural-resource and environmental policies - working out what your assumptions about the whole system are in the beginning, taking action and monitoring and assessing the effects in order to make adjustments. This all relies heavily on the reflective ability of the people and the system, and improving reflection in environmental management and decision making processes is one of the key challenges of Social Learning.

Finally it would not be 'social' if it was not about people and their interactions. Because we are dealing with problems with many stakeholders with differing views, responsibilities, and knowledge about the system (including science, management agencies and people making decisions on-the-ground), Social Learning has to be about how to bring people together. Particularly it is about bridging gaps that are usually problematic - such as between science knowledge and management decisions, or between agencies and communities). To make these connections happen there are a variety of opportunities (termed 'platforms'). In the ICM programme for instance these have included one-to one meetings, the AGMs, the CRG, the Learning Groups, the Travelling River project, the I-matrix etc. Another big challenge for making Social Learning work is how effective these platforms are not only at promoting interchange but at achieving the harder aspects of Social Learning - promoting a systems thinking approach to problems, getting meaningful reflection on the assumptions about the problem, and setting up an ongoing experimental monitoring approach to solutions.

A final comment on Social Learning would be that it is something that happens over a long period of time - not at single one-off events, and the 'platforms' that support it can often only deliver on one or two aspects at a time.

Research Results

What Social learning work has been done in the ICM programme?
As mentioned above, a number of initiatives in the programme have a social learning element to them.

These include: The CRG, The I-matrix work that Antony Cole carried out with the Community Reference Group, the Travelling River project, and most recently the development of Learning Groups. We have learnt quite a bit about the barriers and opportunites for Social Learning through these intiatives and to some extent the Learning Groups represent an attempt to make the most of that learning.

In terms of learning from our social learning efforts some things are becoming apparent. In a broad brush way some suggestions include:

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Recent Publications

Year Title File Size
2013 Sharing stakeholder knowledge in water resource management across boundaries and interfaces: experiences from Australian and New Zealand UNESCO HELP basins pdf       456KB
2012 A Summary of Outcomes and selected formal publications from the Integrated Catchment Management (ICM)research programme:2000 – 2011
pdf       1.08MB
2011 The Sherry River – a Success Story 2.97MB
2011 Facilitating voluntary action to reduce rural land use impacts in the Motueka River catchment pdf       3.59MB
2011 Integrated Catchment Management – Special Issue of the NZ Journal of Marine & Freshwater Research  
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Recent Presentations

Year Title File Size
2011 Facilitating voluntary action to reduce rural land use impacts in the Motueka River catchment. pdf       26KB
2009 Improving Water Governance –
Stakeholder Views Of Five South Island Catchment Management Processes
pdf       688KB
2006 The importance of understanding social spaces for ICM research. pdf       436KB
2006 Engaging People in Integrated Catchment Management: the Motueka experience. pdf       1928KB
2006 Integrated catchment management (ICM): integration, knowledge management and the role of collaborative learning. pdf       867KB
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Primary Contacts:

Image - Will Allen Will Allen  EmailSend email to AllenW
Phone: 03 321 9600
More details»
Landcare Research
participation, multi–stakeholder processes, participatory evaluation, networking
Image - Margaret Kilvington Margaret Kilvington  EmailSend email to kilvingtonm
Phone: 03 3256700
Fax: 03 3252418
More details»
Landcare Research
collaborative learning, facilitation, evaluation
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Page last updated Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Related areas

Knowledge interactions Sediment learning group