Adaptive management – “learning by doing”

Many contemporary research efforts are concentrating on creating new approaches to more closely link science, management and policy at an ecosystem level. At base, these efforts represent a search for a research and development model and practice which combine the features of:

  • management-based experimentation and innovation
  • natural resource system management on scales larger than individual enterprises and communities
  • methods for bringing about capacity for action among multiple agencies and actors (with typically divergent, not to say antagonistic points of view and interests)
  • facilitation of the social processes and organisational capacity to accomplish these.

One promising initiative in this area can be seen in the area of adaptive management (or adaptive environmental assessment and management), the emerging directions of which can be seen to be developing through the integration of ecological and participatory research approaches.

Adaptive management thus focuses on learning and adapting, through partnerships of managers, scientists, and other stakeholders who learn together how to create and maintain sustainable ecosystems. It helps managers maintain flexibility in their decisions, knowing that uncertainties exist and so provides the latitude to adjust direction to improve progress towards desired outcomes. More information on the wider decision-making environment within which such approaches can flourish are provided from the adaptation  and governance  pages in this section, and the social learning section.


Complexity fosters learning in collaborative adaptive management
María Fernández-Giménez et al. (2019) Ecology and Society
Learning is recognized as central to collaborative adaptive management (CAM), yet few longitudinal studies examine how learning occurs in CAM or apply the science of learning to interpret this process. The paper explains a range of challenges to learning including time-lags, trade-offs, path-dependency, and tensions among stakeholders’ differing types of knowledge and social worlds both constrain decision making and foster learning by creating disorienting dilemmas that challenge participants’ pre-existing mental models and relationships.


Double-Loop Learning in Adaptive Management: The Need, the Challenge, and the Opportunity
Byron Williams & Eleanor Brown (2018) Environmental Management
Adaptive management addresses uncertainty about the processes influencing resource dynamics, as well as the elements of decision making itself. The use of management to reduce both kinds of uncertainty is known as double-loop learning. This paper describes a framework for institutional learning that is complementary to that of technical learning, including uncertainty metrics, propagation of change, and mechanisms and consequences of change over time. Operational issues include ways to recognize when the decision elements should be revisited, which elements should be adjusted, and how alternatives can be identified and incorporated based on experience and management performance.


Social Learning in the Anthropocene: Novel Challenges, Shadow Networks, and Ethical Practices
Jeremy Schmidt (2017) Journal of Environmental Management
This paper considers the challenges that the Anthropocene poses for social learning techniques in adaptive management. In view of these challenges, the paper then examines how the practices of shadow networks may provide paths for incorporating a broader, more robust suite of social learning practices in the Anthropocene. The paper emphasizes how novel challenges in the Anthropocene demand increased attention to ethical practices, particularly those that establish center-periphery relationships between social learning communities and shadow networks.


Technical challenges in the application of adaptive management
Byron Williams & Eleanor Brown (2016) Biological Conservation
The paper briefly outline a framework and process for adaptive management. They then look at the key technical issues related to problem framing and the ability of resource managers to learn from their experience. These technical issues include the treatment of uncertainty and its propagation over time; nonstationarity in long-term environmental trends; the applicability of adaptive management across scales; requirements for models and management alternatives that promote learning; the value of the information produced with adaptive management; the challenge to management of uncertainty and surprise; and institutional (social) learning. To accommodate these and other challenges that are now coming into focus, the learning-based approach of adaptive management will need to be adjusted and expanded in the future.


Adaptive institutions in social-ecological systems governance: A synthesis framework
Tomas Koontz et al. (2015) Environmental Science & Policy
In this paper, the authors synthesize across two decades of studies relating to adaptive institutions. After clarifying some definitional confusion in the literature, they provide a theoretical framework to
guide research on purposeful institutional change. They identify two key factors as
(1) federalism and polycentricity and (2) networks and learning.  More broadly, social science can play an important role in identifying factors that foster adaptability in different contexts, so that policy makers can promote such adaptability


Learning about the social elements of adaptive management in the South Island tussock grasslands of New Zealand
Will Allen and Chris Jacobson (2009) Chapter 6 in Adaptive Environmental Management: A Practitioner’s Guide. Book editors: Catherine Allan & George Stansky
This 2009 chapter from Will Allen and Chris Jacobson use a case study set in the South Island high country of New Zealand to reflect on some of the social elements required to support ongoing collaborative monitoring and adaptive management. We begin by siting the case study within its wider policy context to show how this influences the choice of scientific inquiry. The next section concentrates particularly on the processes by which information and knowledge are shared across the different stakeholder groups involved. Finally, we expand on some specific lessons that emerge as important for sharing information and knowledge in adaptive management, including tools to support dialogue and improved tools for evaluation.


Share