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Should it stay or should it go? Navigating stability and transformation for managing resilience in coastal governance

As coastal systems are further challenged by increasing local economic activities and environmental drivers like climate change and its impacts, calls for improving the resilience of these systems get louder. While various global agreements such as the Paris Climate Agreement or the Aichi Biodiversity Targets include resilience as one of their goals, they do not include recommendations for achieving effective operationalization of resilience on a local level. In their new paper, Rölfer et al. (2022) assess upcoming challenges when implementing social-ecological resilience (SER) in coastal governance, and propose a five-step plan to navigate these tensions by co-producing system, target and transformative knowledge. This way, researchers gain a starting point for transdisciplinary approaches to operationalize resilience concepts in coastal social-ecological systems (SES).

In environmental management, the definition of ecological resilience as the stability of multiple different states is broadened to encompass human intervention: Social-ecological resilience is the capacity of a system to persist, adapt and transform when faced with human-induced changes. Here, human intervention determines the stabilization (preventing a system to move to a less desirable state) or transformation of a system (moving the system to a more desirable state). The decision to stabilize or transform a SES is often loaded with tension: Stabilization can “lock-in” an undesirable system state as well, therefore preventing transformative change. Additionally, it is often unclear what kind of desirable state should be achieved through transformative processes, stressing the need for clear normative visions. Lastly, complex SES often call for both stabilization of desirable aspects, and transformation of undesirable characteristics, impeding a common normative vision that allows for effective conceptualization of SER.

Fig. 1 Different approaches of systems resilience: a) engineering resilience, b) ecological resilience, and c) social-ecological resilience, illustrated by the ball-and-cup heuristic (Walker et al. 2004); a and b are adapted from Liao (2012, Fig. 2).

Not only is the SER of coastal SES impacted by tensions of transformation or stabilization, but operationalization of resilience is additionally more difficult through decentralized governance systems, fragmented management activities, and the separation into land and ocean. The authors stress the need for more transdisciplinary approaches based on actionable knowledge created in co-production with society, science, and policy. They propose the use of three types of knowledge as a foundation for their framework: “Systems” knowledge (what is?), “target” knowledge (where to?) and “transformative” knowledge (how to get there?) inform knowledge co-production that can facilitate bottom-up approaches within local coastal governance processes. The operationalization process by Rölfer et al. consists of five steps (Fig. 2):

Fig. 2 Addressing social-ecological resilience in coastal SES, based on systems, target, and transformative knowledge. The order of steps is indicated by numbers, and iterative learning cycles are indicated by straight and dashed lines.

With the first and second steps, system knowledge can be gathered: System scales and boundaries are defined in Step 1, and key SES functions, identity as well as feasible and (un)desirable characteristics are identified in Step 2. Step 3 provides target knowledge by developing a common normative vision of a SER coastal system. Such a vision is necessary to minimize conflicts between actors and the vulnerability of SES to conflicting activities, enabling a cross-sectoral approach with coordinated, collective action. In Step 4 and 5, transformative knowledge is developed. Step 4 includes the assessment of the adaptive capacity and agency of actors within the SES. Local actors are crucial for the transformation to climate resilience and sustainability. Identifying their adaptive capacity and ability to leverage change through individual and collective action can help discover where power relations in institutional organizations may hinder transformative processes. Lastly, in Step 5 information services are co-developed for informed decision-making. This fosters exchange between science and society, making the integration of available data about coastal systems into local planning possible.

As Fig. 2 illustrates, iterations between the steps are necessary, and the process may not always start at Step 1. Rölfer et al. stress that resilience is not static, but a characteristic of an adaptive, flexible, and evolving system. Their approach to operationalization reflects this, as it not only focuses on a goal but also facilitates the adjustment of the target to manage for resilience. It highlights a transdisciplinary bottom-up approach at the local level which can help to design a collective normative vision. Depending on this vision,  researchers together with decision-makers in coastal governance may be able to decide if it is more desirable if a system should stay (be stabilized) or go (be transformed) to manage for SER more effectively.

To find out more details about the process of managing SER and how the different steps interact, check out the paper here.


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