Governance and Collaboration – Steve Ormerod

Published on April 27, 2017 in 2017 Forum Reports

Sustainable Severn Forum 2017The final session on the day exploring Governance and Collaboration with Steve Ormerod, professor of Ecology at Cardiff University looked at thoughts around trusted knowledge within the Sustainable Severn context for wise decision-making.

“Growth happens – economic and human. The Severn and its communities, its industries, its people and their enterprises, have spent lots of the last 8k years doing things in and around the estuary.

In terms of a Sustainable Development approach, integrating the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainability, how do we do this, what are the necessary conditions?

A reminder on – the environment – there’s a real urgency to slow the alarming pace of climate change and environmental degradation, which both pose unprecedented threats to humanity. We haven’t been good at this part of the Sustainable Development equation.

In more natural environment centred terms, and using the Ramsar Covention (the Severn is a great exemplar of this kind of globally protected wetland) philosophy of “wise use” of wetlands. ‘Wise Use’ is seen as the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands and all the services they provide, for the benefit of people and nature.

But how to turn these kinds of overriding principles into meaningful pro Sustainable Development decision making…

First, have we set out a clear description of all relevant of the issues? What’s the list?

And, second, have we got enough understanding in place against these?

And in doing these, have we crafted a platform for involving communities – local and ‘of interest’.

And much better have we properly shared this understanding, and in a way that allows others to test it and also offer their own knowledge? Listening to their ideas, amending and adapting an emerging knowledge framework?

And what might condition a knowledge frame?

  • Is it systemic, seeking to address root issues? In this context, a huge and massively dynamic estuary, have we really got in place enough understanding of the hydro geomorphology? The mother of all root issues…
  • Is it socialised, enabling participation by a broad range of stakeholders (not just technocrats).
  • Do we know what knowledge content is contested (or agreed)? Dynamics of and impacts on fish populations, it the estuary, up into the rivers, and back into their migration routes might be a good example?

Here’s the challenge then – have we? Can we? Create, and share, and test, and broadly agree, a useful knowledge framework for wise decision making in the Severn?

Without such, how else can we work out priorities for action and seeking to deliver integrated actions?

In doing this we might also want to ‘think about thinking’ this through…

Overall, the sum of our knowledge, even of say, estuary wetlands around the globe, is vast. But….

All of us have a vast range of opinions and beliefs and perspectives and tastes.

We make hundreds of different decisions each day, sometimes consciously, sometimes without thinking.

We hold positions on issues and events and developments, again forming these both instinctively and after a period of consideration.

As an individual, where did your knowledge come from? What influenced you to opt for the position you eventually did?

We may know what we think. But what is the reason for what we think?

What do we know about people and decision-making and their use of explicit or implicit assumptions in making choices?

Is the ‘choice architecture’ (for example, identifying the ‘default option’) critical?

How does the scope for social rewards (winners or losers!) influence choices?

The 2015 World Development Report exploring in its terms a realistic account of decision-making (to make development policy more effective) emphasizes what it calls ‘the three marks of everyday thinking.’. We all:

  • Think automatically – we tend to think fast and rely on mental shortcuts.
  • Think socially – we cooperate as long as others do the same.
  • Think with Mental Models – using models drawn from own our shared history.

In everyday thinking, people use intuition much more than careful analysis.

They employ concepts and tools that prior experience in their ‘world’ has made familiar.

And social emotions and social norms motivate much of what we think & do.

Finally, this Report shows that small changes in context have large effects on behaviour. Here the ‘trusted’ part of the frame kicks in. Or indeed, understandably, the ’reward’ part of any decision.”

[“World Bank Group. 2015. World Development Report 2015 : Mind, Society, and Behavior.]

Steve shared as a natural scientist, his perspectives of knowledge, its generation, and its use, and in complex systems?

For example – The use of science in the decision making processes. Greater collaboration between decision makers and academic and research communities. Fill gaps in evidence by influencing and improving access to external research. How knowledge generating by the private sector can become ‘trusted?’. A nod to the Universities themselves that cluster around the greater Severn…from Plymouth to Cardiff.

“If the sum of our collective (global) knowledge is vast that doesn’t make it necessarily sufficient of course. Here in this context I guess we start with answering the question – Knowledge for what? I think it’s along the lines to understand and predict impacts/benefits and consequences…

Worth reflecting here then that the Severn has been the focus of a lot of knowledge gathering by all sorts of parties. That the long established Severn Estuary Partnership has been strong on promoting and supporting the use of ‘using sound science responsibly’ and this figures large in its work on its own new Severn Estuary Strategy.

We are not short of other sources too, driven by interest then in a shore to shore energy barrage the then Government invested quite heavily in its 2008-2010 Severn Tidal Power Feasibility Study. A quick scan of the reporting topics: from (of course) its Biodiversity effects theme, to its Physicochemical effects, its Migratory and estuarine fish theme, Flood risk and land drainage and thru to its Society and economy theme, it its full form suggests the kind of headlines any sensible knowledge framework for wise use decision making in the Severn might look like.

So then, not now, not today, but somewhere, soon can we craft a shared framework? If in essence, e.g. thru the 2008-2010 studies, or thru the work developer interests, it already exists, bring it forward and lets test its value?

Before concluding, let’s be upfront that decision makers need frameworks that take account of uncertainty and risk. Choices will need to be made with imperfect knowledge.

Just as one example, understanding the environmental effects (impacts) of tidal lagoons relies on predictions from modelling techniques. E.g.

  • Physical processes – effect of changes in tidal range, hydrodynamics etc on erosion, accretion (inside and outside lagoons) including far field effects.
  • Fish, birds, sub tidal habitats, intertidal habitats.

Need to consider imperfections/errors in modelling – how mature models are, extent to which they have been calibrated, tested, confidence limits, etc.

Risk of compounding uncertainties.

There are serious issues here of the consequences of not considering uncertainty. Insufficient bird habitat created would be bad for nature and implications for people could be dramatic regards coastal flood defence.

Core then will be enough, sufficient, discussion/debate between regulators and stakeholders on appropriate frameworks.

[Analogy with climate change decisions – where decisions are derived from uncertain models].

This event, its very title, Sustainable Severn, suggests I think a big prize. A great west of Britain cluster of opportunity, its great port cities (Bristol, Cardiff, Newport, etc), its industries, its communities (of c3 million?), its history and cultural complexities, and in focus its potential as a source of low carbon energy, are all of course hosted by one of the UKs natural wonders – the Severn estuary.

The first event Sustainable Severn event, in 2013*, concluded that

Everyone agreed that there is a huge opportunity in the Severn. The best way to get a sustainable Severn is to create a mixed technology approach to capturing energy; a long-term approach to creating economic benefit; and a restorative approach to the estuary’s environment.’.

[* ].

There are many choices ahead; we won’t make the right ones without the right trusted knowledge.”