Mechanisms for inclusive water governance

Just recently a book chapter project came to fruition. The open access chapter “Mechanisms for inclusive governance“, which I co-authored with Ray Ison, is part of a 2017 open access book published by Springer called “Freshwater Governance for the 21st Century“, edited by Eiman Karar.

The book had its genesis in the 2012 International Conference on Fresh Water Governance for Sustainable Development, held in Drakensberg, South Africa. This conference was memorable for me as I had the opportunity to collaborate with Derick du Toit, Sharon Pollard, Harry Biggs, John Colvin, and Ray Ison in preparing an interactive special session on systemic governance.

The conference was also a good chance to see the amazing landscapes of the Drakensberg region, including a short hike up Tugela Gorge.

Systems mapping for complex problems

A useful example of visual modelling for complex problems is systems mapping. Systems mapping involves identifying all of the elements of a problem and organising them in the way you understand them to exist as a system. Systems mapping often surfaces connections between elements of a system that are not otherwise obvious and can be helpful in showing where something needs to change to improve the system. I’ve used it in research on institutional complexity in water governance.

Take the example of a university system. The first step is to write down all the elements of the system, they might be departments, people, policies, resources, challenges or problems. This makes a big mess and the only thing you really learn is that a university is complex.

University system map

The second step is to organise these elements into groups, or ‘sub-systems’, of similar elements. For instance, all the senior leadership roles in the university can form a ‘leadership’ sub-system, whose purpose is to set strategic direction for the university. The process of grouping can help you understand the purpose of different elements.

University system - grouped



You may be able to now identify the purpose of each of these systems. For example, the overall purpose of the university is to provide education, award degrees and do research. Each of the sub-systems has their own purpose that help achieve the overall purpose of the university.

The systems mapping technique is helpful when you are trying to make sense of a complex situation and you need to figure out how all of the pieces fit together. A good way to quickly discover all the ins and outs of an organisation is to sit down with someone who has been there a long time and get them to create a systems map.

New article on ‘wicked problems’

My co-authors Ray Ison, Kevin Collins and I have recently had a paper published in Environmental Science & Policy titled “Institutionalising social learning: Towards systemic and adaptive governance“. It’s for a special issue of the journal on crafting institutions, set to appear in print this year. Here is the abstract:

This paper critically examines how public policy makers limit policy and other institutional design choices by a failure to appreciate (i) how situations may be characterised or framed; (ii) how practices that generate neologisms (invented terms or concepts) or reify (make into a thing) abstract concepts can displace understandings, and (iii) the epistemological bases of governance mechanism choices. An inquiry into the coining of the neologisms ‘wicked’ and ‘tame’ problems is reported and the implications for research and policy practice explored. As practices, neologising, reifying, categorising and typologising have unintended consequences – they remove us from the primary experiences and underlying emotions that provided the motivation for formulating these concepts in the first place. The failure to institutionalise the understandings and experiences that sit behind the invention of the terms ‘wicked’ and ‘tame’ problems (or similar framing choices such as ‘problematique’, ‘messes’, ‘lowland real-life swamps’, ‘resource dilemmas’ or ‘complex adaptive systems’) present systemic constraints to institutionalising social learning as an alternative yet complementary governance mechanism within an overall systemic and adaptive governance framework. Ultimately situations usefully framed as ‘wicked’,’ such as water managing and climate change are problems of relationship – of human beings with the biosphere. Re-framings, such as institutions as social technologies and other research and praxis traditions concerned with the breakdown of relationships may offer ways forward in the purposeful designing and crafting of more effective institutions.

Basically, we looked at ways that different authors (Ackoff, Schön, Rittel and Webber, etc) have named situations that can be understood as ‘wicked problems’. For instance, we looked at Rittel and Webber’s key 1973 paper in Policy Sciences, as well as Rittel’s lesser-known 1972 paper in Bedriftsøkonomen to explore what the underlying world view was that led them to naming ‘wicked’ and ‘tame’ problems.

We also examined how these terms have appeared in policy documents, for example the Australian Public Service Commission’s thoughtful review on “Tackling wicked problems”. One conclusion we came to was that using ‘wicked’ as a category (e.g. ‘that’ is a wicked problem) has the unintended consequence of removing people from the experiences and emotions that originally motivated the invention of the term.

We go on and say more about social learning, and (as always) a lot about praxis. If you’re into that sort of thing, then enjoy!

Participating from a distance: presenting to a workshop by video

I recently had the privilege to present at the Knowledge Ecologies Workshop held at the University of Western Sydney’s Parramatta South campus. However, I wasn’t able to be there in person due to child-caring responsibilities, so I was very pleased when the organising committee allowed me to prepare a video presentation and participate in a discussion panel by video-conference.

For those interested in climate change adaptation, action research, knowledge ecologies or seeing me on video, I’ve uploaded it to YouTube:

Now I’m not going to be hosting my own television show anytime soon, but I found the process of making this video very rewarding. Basically, I used video editing software to create a narrated slideshow, which I bracketed with a short head-and-shoulders video using my Institute’s camcorder. The great thing about the narration is that you can record audio for individual slides again and again until you feel you’ve got it right (I didn’t do very many takes as you can tell from the number of “ums” and “ahs”).

On the downside, participating from a distance limits social interaction (and indulging in morning tea), although a few people I knew came up to the laptop for a chat before the session. Still, presenting by video is a nice flexible option for those who can’t easily travel, and likely more sustainable in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

Systemic techniques for PhD success

I recently attended a two-day workshop on graduate research where a lot of emphasis was given to systematic (step-by-step) project management techniques. It’s been a while since I completed my PhD (6+ years since submission and counting), but I certainly remember many of these techniques being indispensable in the day-to-day minutiae of a lab-based research project. I used Gantt charts and an electronic calendar to schedule daily tasks at 15 min intervals. Useful for lab experiments, but obviously not as useful for big time-block tasks such as writing.

Gantt touch this!

Gantt touch this!

I don’t currently supervise any Higher Degree by Research (HDR) candidates (although I hope to shortly). However, I would advise them to think both systematically AND systemically! By systemic I mean ‘of the whole’ – in contrast to systematic which means ‘linear or step-by-step’. So, in other words, think of your research in relation to the rest of your life: where have you come from, where do you plan to go, what is your purpose in doing a PhD, how does it fit with your other activities in life?

Things like Gantt charts, detailed calendars, and the ubiquitous pomodoro are great ideas (and extremely useful), but fall under the systematic heading. These are great if you know where you’re heading but not so useful for understanding why you want to get there.

Starting with techniques such as rich picturing, moving to soft systems methodology and engaging in communities of like-minded researchers, you can begin to explore the complex situation that is your research and life environment. Think about different experiences you might have on your path to completing a PhD – in addition to the formal training you receive. Seeing the bigger picture now and then (beyond the Gantt chart) can make it clearer where you are going in the long term, and will help you find the motivation to get there.

The last NCCARF conference

It has been a while since my last post, some months in fact. I have officially succumbed to the ‘busyness’ syndrome. I even failed to make time for Mindful in May (10 minutes a day to do mindfulness meditation). However, this period of time also corresponds with the arrival of my first child, so maybe I have a reasonable excuse!

Anyway, I just wanted to quickly reflect on what will be the last NCCARF conference being held this week from 25-27 June 2013. For those who don’t know, NCCARF is the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility.

In my mind, NCCARF has done two main things: (i) fund adaptation research networks to bring together researchers around particular themes, and (ii) fund adaptation research projects through a competitive grants process. I have always had trouble understanding why these two activities seemed so disconnected – why weren’t research grants awarded to those who actively participated in the networks?

They have also done a bunch of other things, including organising the conference I’m attending this week, and recently, publishing a pile of reports from recently completed projects.

If you’re wondering why I’m referring to NCCARF in the past tense, it is because its funding has not been renewed. While the initial establishment of the facility was contentious, it has certainly supported some worthwhile activities. One such activity (in my opinion), which I helped to coordinate, was a water governance research theme that was a part of the adaptation research network for water. In my opinion this led to a lot of interesting and useful emergent outcomes, including two special journal issues, joint research proposals, an early-career researcher community of practice, conference presentations, advice to policy-makers and, most importantly, it helped legitimise governance research in water and climate change adaptation among a research community of more than 300 participants.

I don’t have much more to say for now – I am looking forward to interacting with my peers at the conference, and talking ‘climate change adaptation’ for what hopefully won’t be the last time (before it gets re-branded as emergency management!). I also hope that all of those reports from the adaptation grants program get read and are useful for adapting to climate change in some way.

Re-tracing my steps in systems thinking

I’m currently attending a three-day interactive workshop on ‘systems thinking for messy situations‘, run by Rosalind Armson. While I consider myself to be a systems thinker, and I use systems approaches in my research methods and sometimes as theoretical frameworks, I have found it very useful to re-trace my steps with the guidance of a skilled facilitator.

Day one of the workshop was attended by a larger group, and I shared the experience with my research team for a VCCCAR-funded project. We did rich pictures, system maps, multiple cause diagrams, and generally got into a frame of mind to think systemically about our ‘messy situations’. I hope that days two and three offer the same depth of approach.

We all received a copy of Rosalind’s book, ‘Growing wings on the way’, which has its own website. It’s worth a look and you can follow some of the same activities yourself.

Rich pictures

Recently I’ve been using ‘rich pictures’ as both a teaching and research method. Drawing a rich picture is an easy and powerful way to explore a situation you find yourself in, without trying to ‘solve’ problems or model what is happening. Here is what a rich picture that I recently drew looks like:

A rich picture of my situation

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Thinking about participatory workshops

I’m a big fan of designing workshops for increased participation. When I’m in other people’s workshops, I always devote part of my attention to how they are designed and facilitated. Unfortunately, sometimes I think about process so much that it gets in the way of contributing my ideas to the topic of the workshop. I know I’m not alone – others I have talked to about workshop design have admitted it is much the same for them.

what goes through my head when thinking about workshops

I have developed a short list of three design criteria (venue, participants, process) that I consider when planning workshops (although this list is not nearly as exhaustive as the very useful practice-oriented book by Robert Chambers).

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Seeing social-ecological systems

Thoughts from a forum on ecological resilience

I recently attended a forum on ‘building resilient ecosystems in Victoria’, hosted by the Centre for Integrative Ecology at Deakin University. It was an enjoyable and stimulating forum, and very well-attended.

What struck me most were the different views of resilience between ecologists and non-ecologists, especially around the concept of resilience in ecosystems and/or social-ecological systems. This ranged from simple misunderstanding and different choice of framing, to disagreement and even derision of particular frameworks.

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