|Title||Social learning for solving complex problems: a promising solution or wishful thinking? A case study of multi-actor negotiation for the integrated management and sustainable use of the Drentsche Aa area in the Netherlands|
|Publication Type||Journal Article|
|Year of Publication||2009|
|Authors||Van Bommel S., Roling N., Aarts N., Turnhout E.|
|Journal||Environmental Policy and Governance|
|Keywords||competing claims, multi-stakeholder negotiation platforms, natural resource problems, nature conservation policy, participation, power relations, social learning, sustainable learning|
To investigate the practise of social learning in a multi-actor negotiation platform, identifying key challenges.
This article discusses limitations and barriers to social learning. Using a case study involving a multi-actor negotiation platform in the Netherlands, the authors found that social learning was not achieved due largely to disagreement and distrust. This was in spite of the process showing early signs of meeting the pre-conditions that are generally agreed in theory to underpin social learning. The main reason posited for the failure to achieve social learning was the presence of unequal power relations, which enabled a dominant coalition to impose problem definition, limiting complexity and therefore the range of possible solutions. The authors argue that unequal power relations are inevitable, in which case social learning is simply wishful thinking. Rather than abandoning social learning however, the article concludes by suggesting that criteria of interdependence need to be much more rigorously established as part of the social learning processes. In other words, rather than viewing interdependencies as a pre-condition for social learning to occur, it is the learning process itself that is used to identify and challenge existing power relations.
The central argument of this article is that equal power relations are not a precondition for social learning, but rather an outcome of the actual process of social learning. Social learning itself should therefore explicitly challenge existing power relations. This potentially encourages complexity and uncertainty to be embraced rather than powerful coalitions limiting problem definitions, and therefore potential solutions, to within narrowly defined boundaries determined by dominant beliefs and values. The human condition, and political expediency, often creates a strong desire for certainty, particularly given that much of natural resource management involves high stakes issues. The challenge for adaptive learning processes is to create an ‘arena’ or space where the desires for control and certainty are reduced and interdependencies are encouraged. The power of truly interdependent structures is that all participants then begin to share not only the problem definition and potential solutions, but also the outcomes whether they be ‘good’, ‘bad’, or something in between. Sharing outcomes, ensuring full disclosure and an iterative process, allows all actors and actor groups to fully own collective decisions reducing the potential for blame and distrust. In this environment, the emphasis is not on what is known but on what is willing to be learned.