Public participation for sustainability and social learning: concepts and lessons from three case studies in Europe

Annotation for Public participation for sustainability and social learning: concepts and lessons from three case studies in Europe

Garmendia E., Stagl S.. 2010. Public participation for sustainability and social learning: concepts and lessons from three case studies in Europe. Ecological Economics.. 69


To assess social learning as a process model for participatory sustainability appraisal

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Key Findings: 

In attempting to shape change within complex social-ecological systems, it is an important challenge to avoid the loss of potentially useful options in the process of decision-making. Methods of sustainability appraisal should therefore open up and reveal a diversity of options and views through effective dialogue, before committing to suggested courses of action. The quality of the appraisal process will be reflected in the degree to which learning opportunities address complexity and uncertainty. Participatory sustainability appraisal methods are fundamental to this type of learning, and social learning offers a valuable process model for progress in this area. However, social learning is still poorly conceptualised and lacks a strong empirical foundation within the discipline of sustainability appraisal. This article contributes a conceptual framework to assist analysis of social learning within sustainability appraisal, and presents data obtained from the application of this framework within European case studies that combine integrated appraisal tools with participatory methods. While the authors recognise that social learning was occurring within participatory workshops, it was not to the extent that was expected. The depth and breadth of that learning also depended on the design of the workshop, the time allocated and the participants involved. The authors suggest a need to move beyond theory and to further critically assess social learning frameworks through empirical testing within case studies.


Participatory sustainability appraisal methods are increasingly being used in the science, environment and natural resource management domains. The quality of the learning process has importance to the creation of outcomes, including policies, which deal effectively with complexity and uncertainty. While generating empirical evidence of individual learning outcomes may be considered desirable in order to monitor progress or significant change, it is important to consider how this empirical data is generated and interpreted. For example, in questionnaire format, as presented in this research, it would be difficult to assess whether learning resulted directly from the selected cases or from broader individual experiences unrelated to the case studies. A longitudinal study, including ‘before’ and ‘after’ assessment may be able to provide additional insight. However, at a deeper level, it might also be argued that the questionnaire approach reflects the learning that is expected by the designers of the questionnaire. In so doing, it creates the possibility of missing critical learning outcomes defined by the ‘learner’ themselves. This draws attention to the fact that individual learning is deeply personal and multi-layered. It may be a trap to conceptualise learning as a largely cognitive process, creating the possibility of missing other equally important aspects of being and knowing. If the need for empirical testing of learning outcomes is accepted as valuable, the lesson for adaptive learning would be the need to strongly consider the means by which this is undertaken. For example, beyond individual learning, it may also be worth considering the value of empirical testing to identify the existence, structure and dynamics of learning nodes at which system-wide learning is exchanged across nested adaptive hierarchies.