sustainability science & design

Welcome to the online record of my work in progress

Credit: Sistemika

23.09.2021 Understanding the governance of sustainability pathways: Hydraulic megaprojects, social-ecological traps, and politicized networks of action situations

To enable robust and just sustainability pathways, we need to understand how social-ecological systems (SES) respond to different governance configurations, considering their historical, institutional, political and power conditions. We advance a robust methodological tool for the integrated analysis of those conditions, focusing on SES traps and building on an existing case study: the Doñana region (Guadalquivir estuary, SW Spain), an estuary-delta SES. Doñana is characterized by institutional rigidity for water resources and wetland conservation governance and, more generally, by a SES rigidity trap. Here, we focus on a relatively recent hydraulic megaproject involving deep dredging in the Guadalquivir estuary, finally canceled due to its broad negative socioeconomic and environmental repercussions. Our methodological development consists of a novel combination of the politicized version of the Institutional Analysis and Development (pIAD) framework and the Networks of Action Situations (NAS) approach. Our analysis reveals a governance configuration characterized by strategic interactions among key actors posing no new large socioeconomic or environmental risks in the short term. This pattern is however vulnerable due to an underlying coordination failure and sub-optimal equilibrium situation, which emerge from a pattern of uncooperative behavior that cannot be explained without considering discourse inertia and power dynamics. Deep dredging could have led to a sudden fall of governance into a below sub-optimal equilibrium and regime shift toward a lock-in trap posing high sunk and trajectory-shifting costs. Currently, the game is on for achieving a shift to a high ‘blue equilibrium’ and launching a robust sustainability pathway through collective action.

You can have a look at the preprint here

21.04.2021 A Transformative Theory of Change for urban Nature-Based Solutions

We have recently presented a narrative and a Transformative Theory of Change (TToC) reflecting on the portfolio of activities and the array of outcomes of EIT Climate-KIC’s project Adaptive Cities Through Integrated Nature-Based Solutions (ACT on NBS). ACT on NBS aims at upscaling the application and quality of NBS to increase urban resilience against the effects of climate change. The project works towards this aim through the creation of a self-sustainable Innovation Ecosystem, bringing together city representatives and stakeholders, including researchers and experts, from different cities. ACT on NBS narrative has been built in the context of MOTION, a project funded by Climate KIC and carried out by members of the Transformative Innovation and Policy Consortium (TIPC).

You can download the narrative and TToC here.

19.2.20 Blue uncertainty: Warding off systemic risks in the Anthropocene - Lessons from COVID-19

COVID-19 has made evident that we are ill-prepared to respond to an international health emergency, the complex interdependence of social and ecological systems, and that to reduce the risk of future zoonotic pandemics we must safeguard nature. Approaches based on complexity science taking into account that interdependence and its associated systemic risks must be mainstreamed in current policy making, in general. However, at present, that could result in failure for three main reasons: (1) those approaches might be too sophisticated for current policy making pursuing sustainable development; (2) the reductionist views from conventional economics still deeply influence economic and environmental policy making; (3) it is unlikely that far-reaching policies aimed at stimulating post-pandemic economic development can be steered through radically innovative approaches that remain untested. Here, using COVID-19 as an example, I suggest that the use of innovative complexity-based approaches could be enabled through intermediary approaches equipped to resonate with the mindset pervading current policy making. In particular, I propose to understand the response to unexpected systemic threats as instances of reactive policy making driven by radical uncertainty, and advance three notions that could enhance that understanding: modulating contingency, adaptive inference and blue uncertainty.

You can have a look at the preprint policy forum here, finally published in Earth System Governance.

Adapted from Ghosh et al. (2020)

9.10.2020 Testing a formative evaluation methodology for observing and learning about transformative change towards sustainability

There are increasing calls worldwide for steering innovation policies towards systemic, transformative change to sustainability. Within that context, learning is being increasingly regarded as a core feature of sustainability transitions: learning is a condition for the definition and implementation of new policies, embodying different goals and different means of implementation and governance. We are exploring its role in the context of a formative evaluation process initiated by the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium (TIPC) aimed at appraising experimental interventions at policy, program or project level. The methodology is based on a learning and reflective processes, and co-designed with practitioners on the ground, through the use of two main means: (1) a Theory of Change approach to unpack the outcomes and long-term aims of an intervention and their relationship with the tools and activities that the intervention under evaluation deploys; (2) a novel conceptual framework centred around a typology of Transformative Outcomes (see image on the left) and second-order learning, to identify and reflect collaboratively about leveraging processes and outcomes critically implicated in transformations. On 4-5 November, at EEEN2020, we will showcase an application and preliminary results of the methodology in an initiative aimed at upscaling Nature Based Solutions for urban resilience against climate change (ACT on NBS).

1.10.2020 Evaluating tourist profiles and nature-based experiences in Biosphere Reserves using Flickr

Monitoring visitor dynamics and their nature-based experiences is an important dimension in the conservation management of protected areas. In the current digital age, the content analysis of social media information is being increasingly used in such a context. Here, tested whether social media content analysis provides similar information to that obtained from stated preference methods. We aimed to identify differences in the classification of tourist profiles and nature-based experiences, both from online social surveys and photo content analysis, targeting Flickr's social media users visiting two Biosphere Reserves in Southern Europe. Overall, we found both matches and mismatches between the results from content analysis and online surveys depending on the categories of tourist profiles and their experiences. “Landscape and species” was the only category with consistent matches between content analysis and online surveys for both tourist profiles and nature-based experiences. We suggest that conclusions based on content analysis or online surveys alone can lead to incomplete information. Instead, the adoption of both content analysis and online surveys should provide complementary perspectives for the monitoring of nature's cultural capital.

You can have a look here.

2.6.20 Digital conservation in biosphere reserves: Earth observations, social media, and nature's cultural contributions to people

In the “digital conservation” age, big data from Earth observations and from social media have been increasingly used to tackle conservation challenges. Here, we combined information from those two digital sources in a multimodel inference framework to identify, map, and predict the potential for nature's cultural contributions to people in two contrasting UNESCO biosphere reserves: Doñana and Sierra Nevada (Spain). The content analysis of Flickr pictures revealed different cultural contributions, according to the natural and cultural values of the two reserves. Those contributions relied upon landscape variables computed from Earth observation data: the variety of colours and vegetation functioning that characterize Doñana landscapes, and the leisure facilities, accessibility features, and heterogeneous landscapes that shape Sierra Nevada. Our findings suggest that social media and Earth observations can aid in the cost‐efficient monitoring of nature's contributions to people, which underlie many Sustainable Development Goals and conservation targets in protected areas worldwide.

You can have a look here.

28.5.20 Evaluating transdisciplinary science to open research-implementation spaces in European social-ecological systems

Researchers in multiple, related fields that address complex social and environmental challenges, have shown ongoing enthusiasm for applying transdisciplinary social-ecological systems (SES) research to promote sustainability. However, few studies have evaluated the effectiveness of SES approach, assessed its achievements, and identified challenges to its implementation toward knowledge production for environmental conservation. In our latest study, we report the results of a qualitative, participatory evaluation of several SES projects across Europe using an evaluation methodology tailored to transdisciplinary projects.

You can have a look here.

15.11.19 ESA - Copernicus Sentinels improve hydroperiod estimations of Mediterranean wetlands

Seasonal wetlands are common in Mediterranean climates. They flood during rainy seasons in autumn and winter and dry-up in summer. Precipitation changes in these areas have profound effects on the dynamics of wetlands, affecting plants and animals that inhabit them. These wetlands can suffer changes in their hydrology, becoming transformed into permanent lakes or completely drying-up—but Copernicus Sentinels are making a difference.

Check out our success story at ESA's news website.

8.7.19 Modulating contingency in explanations of path-dependent maladaptive traps in social-ecological systems – The case of Doñana

Sustainability transitions must be guided by a sound understanding of the architecture of the policy and institutional designs of both the process of change and the target outcome. Our most recent article contributes to current research on the institutional conditions necessary for successful sustainability transitions in social-ecological systems, addressing two interrelated theoretic-analytical questions through an in-depth case study. First, we focus on the need for enhanced historical causal explanations of social-ecological systems stuck in maladaptive traps at present. Second, we focus on the explanatory potential of several factors for shaping maladaptive outcomes, at two different levels of analysis: political-economic interests, prevailing discourses and power, at a contextual level, and institutional entrepreneurship, at an endogenous level. In particular, we address that explanatory potential when the core logic of path dependence, consisting of neoclassical economics principles, fails to predict maladaptive outcomes from a historical, evolutionary perspective.

1.12.18 Continuous improvement of the science-policy interface in Doñana

The Doñana coastal region consists of a diverse mixture of intensive socioeconomic development and nature protection areas, resulting in a multiplicity of stakeholder and societal interests and conflicts. Owing to historical, political and legal reasons, Doñana is ruled by a complex institutional regime involving numerous organizations and characterized by rigidity and strong power asymmetries. These features make Doñana a particularly difficult place to innovate and improve institutional designs, governance and management approaches. In this context, we propose “continuous improvement” as a strategy to innovate incrementally at the science-policy interface, in an ongoing collaborative effort with the diverse set of stakeholders. Continuous improvement, as part of Kaizen*, is based on the idea that progress through small cooperative changes can result in major improvements, as opposed to big transformations imposed top-down (Chung 2018, TQM Jour). We apply it in our daily work as a working mindset and a lean approach to resource use, minimizing the need for large funding investments and enhancing low-value processes. We operate in the belief that, in rigid and asymmetric settings, radical innovation is curtailed but breakthrough redesigns may emerge from small combined changes, attained through co-design in cooperative environments. This poster presents our long-term initiative in Doñana, which ultimately seeks the operational implementation of adaptive management as a novel approach to natural resources and ecosystems management.

You can download the poster here.

1.1.15 Facilitating sustainability transitions in the Doñana region

Last December, 2014, after several years of working in a mixed consultancy and research capacity, I finally managed to put together a PhD thesis that brings together insights from both worlds, combining participatory action research, institutional analysis and a case study method. My thesis deals with the institutional conditions for sustainability transitions in estuarine socio-ecosystems including nature reserves, with a focus on water management and wetland conservation in the Doñana region.

More specifically, I focus on the need for more flexible, participatory and adaptive approaches for policy and decision making, to better tackle the uncertainty of our management actions on complex natural resources and ecosystems. For that purpose, I address three interrelated questions of research interest: (1) evaluating the usefulness of an action research program for introducing change in Doñana; (2) improving, through historical analyses, the understanding of the origin of certain institutional rigidities identified during the previous program, which were related to the well-known dichotomy "economic development" -agricultural in this case- vs. “nature conservation” -wetlands- (both highly dependent on water resources); (3) examine the historical role of entrepreneurship at both poles, as well as that of the hydraulic-regenerationist discourse of the beginning of the 20th century in its relationship with political-economic interests and power. The study of the historical origins of institutional rigidity is very relevant, for it hampers innovation and, therefore, could prevent potential transitions towards sustainability at present. In Doñana, in particular, the identified rigidities seemed to be preventing innovative advancements in the sustainable management of water for both socioeconomic development and wetland conservation.

The action research program led to the collaborative development with stakeholders and decision makers, of a series of policy recommendations (see Chapter 9) for improving water management and wetland conservation in Doñana and the Guadalquivir Estuary. The program was supported by preparatory research on adaptive management approaches in British Columbia (Canada), where they were designed and implemented for the first time at large scale during the 1970s. On the other hand, the historical analyses helped to identify three mechanisms that, in conjunction, explained the historical origins of institutional rigidity in Doñana: (1) the hydraulic-regenerationist discourse facilitating political and power mobilization top-down, and signalling increasing returns to local actors; (2) the self-reinforcement of the process at a local level; (3) an endogenous entrepreneurial component that acted as a mechanism for action in an environment of great uncertainty at both socio-economic and ecological level. The knowledge acquired during the investigation allowed the elaboration of a number of potential avenues that can facilitate the transition towards sustainability in the Doñana region.

You can download the thesis here.

14.11.13 Adaptive management of kelp forests

Kelp forests are key components of the Atlantic coast, contributing greatly to ecological structure and function by providing key ecosystem services. They are highly productive ecosystem engineers of rocky cold- and temperate-water marine coastlines, hosting a high diversity of species that includes fish, mammals, invertebrates, other seaweeds and epibiota. In particular, numerous species of fishes use kelp forests as feeding sites, nursery areas and shelter from predators. However, direct harvest of kelps, overfishing, pollution, diseases and climate-related factors may be causing the decline of kelp forests in several parts of Europe.

While the conservation and sustainable management of kelp forest ecosystems may be a cornerstone for the fulfilment of EU policy obligations, such as the conservation and “good environmental status” guidelines provided by the Water Framework Directive, Marine Strategy Framework Directive and Habitats Directive, knowledge gaps and uncertainties currently limit our ability to optimize the management of these ecosystems. In such situations, Collaborative Adaptive Management approaches offer a particularly valid alternative to traditional approaches. By providing an active interface between policy/management and research, in which policies and interventions are designed as experiments from which to learn, adaptive management facilitates robust decision-making and eliminates the need to wait for the independent accumulation of scientific evidence.

I co-facilitated a participatory process on the Adaptive Management of Kelp Forests in collaboration with the Interdisciplinary Centre of Marine and Environmental Research (Porto, Portugal), as part of the Marine Biodiversity case study of KNEU Project. The latter is aimed at facilitating the flow of knowledge between biodiversity experts and users in Europe. During the workshop, the participants reviewed the existing evidence concerning the status, trends and ecological functions of kelp forests; developed collaborative models of the main policy/management actions required to achieve a commonly-agreed goal (the sustainable management of kelp forests); identified the main knowledge gaps and uncertainties under which current policy/management regimes must operate; and suggested a number of recommendations for future action.

You can download our policy brief here.

14.5.11 A sectoral agreement in Galapagos - Integration, equity and efficiency in the tourism industry as an engine for sustainable development

Economic development in Galapagos Islands depends heavily on the tourism sector. However, the archipelago is extremely fragile from an ecological standpoint. In this seminar, Cristian Cavicchiolo introduced the project "Sustainable Development of the Productive Sectors of Galápagos", funded by the Inter-American Development Bank and the Provincial Chamber of Tourism.

The project aims at integrating the main productive sectors of the islands as a strategy for strengthening the lower productive chains and increasing the equitable distribution of tourism revenue. The project is also expected to reduce opportunistic behaviour and the overexploitation of natural resources. Cristian also presented a pilot project aimed at increasing the quality of the tourism sector in the islands, an initiative aiming at coordinating the main national, regional and local administration in order to increase technical efficiency as a way forward towards sustainability.

14.11.10 Evaluation of the Environmental Repercussions of mooring facilities over two special protection sites in Formentera Island

Entrusted by the local environmental authority, in this study I led an assessment of the environmental impact of ecological moorings in two locations at Formentera Island with a special conservation status (Ses Illetes beach and Estany d'Es Peix, Mallorca, Spain) as a previous step to a full Environmental Impact Assessment.

14.10.10 Environmental sustainability in organisations - Social Media Day Palma de Mallorca 2010

In this series of interviews, the event's participants told us how they incorporate environment and sustainability criteria in their organisational policies, as well as how they use social media to promote their environmental values, turning them into a competitive advantage.

10.10.10 The European Platform for Biodiversity Research Strategy (EPBRS)

During the last decade, the development of powerful analytical tools in the fields of molecular and population genetics, remote sensing and information technologies has facilitated a revolution in the study of evolutionary and ecological processes, and the time is ripe to facilitate their integration into ongoing management actions.

What is EPBRS?

The European Platform for Biodiversity Research Strategy is a forum at which natural and social scientists, policy-makers and other stakeholders identify structure and focus the strategically important research that is essential to:

- Use the components of biodiversity in a sustainable way.

- Maintain ecosystem functions that provide goods and services.

- Conserve, protect and restore the natural world.

- Halt biodiversity loss.


Watch some of the mini-interviews that I made to some of the participants of the EPBRS meeting 2010 in Palma de Mallorca. Questions asked:

1. Why are evolutionary processes important for biodiversity?

2. How can they be incorporated into better management practices?

3. Which kind of research can help achieving that goal?

20.11.09 Structured Decision Making, general guidance and management recommendations on environmental sustainability and climate change for the Playa de Palma Project

In the context of the Playa the Palma Urban Reform Project, the Playa de Palma Consortium entrusted the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies (IMEDEA) with the development of the project´s general guidance on environmental quality and climate change. After several internal meetings, IMEDEA started an innovative Structured Decision Making process for catalysing synergies among the participating researchers, accelerating a general diagnosis of problems of the so-called Playa de Palma System and offering a series of recommendations on both issues, which were summarized in:

- The improvement of the water system's ecological quality.

- The conservation of the coastal ecosystems.

- An increase in the adaptation capacity to climate change.

- The adapted use of water resources to future changes in the resource.

- An improvement in the design and management of urban ecosystems.

The participating researchers envisaged the process as a very positive action, assessing it as an open environment for the exchange of expert opinions and the development of an interdisciplinary product, widely cross-participated and efficient in structuring and progressing towards the elaboration of the recommendations. As a final product, it was elaborated an explanatory mini-documentary aimed at describing the stages of the process to a non-specialized audience.

You can watch a first mini-documentary about general guidance on environmental quality and climate change above, or at CIENCIATK, the citizen outreach platform of the Spanish Research Council. Additionally, you can watch a second documentary including more specific policy recommendations presented directly by the participating researchers, elaborated after one year of field studies aimed at the characterization of the Playa de Palma System at different levels: water quality, biodiversity, urban ecosystems, coastline and climate.

10.6.09 Innovative developments in the management of coastal fisheries in Canada and Spain: from participatory management to adaptive management

In this conference-workshop, organised within the framework of the "Understanding Canada" program (through the Canada Foundation), we explored the lessons and mutual synergies between participatory management strategies (Galicia, Spain) and adaptive management (British Columbia, Canada) of coastal fisheries, and the possibilities for using such synergies and lessons in the future, as well as potential opportunities at the institutional level (brochure). More specifically, we aimed to:

1. Develop a comprehensive review of the Galician ('top-down' and 'bottom-up') strategies for coastal fisheries management.

2. Develop an overview of the Canadian experience with adaptive management of coastal fisheries, with an emphasis on salmon fisheries in British Columbia.

3. Gather information about the role of science, stakeholder participation and institutional coordination in the process of policy formation in Canada and Spain, and identify potential synergies that could emerge from the cooperation between both countries.

We are currently preparing the results and conclusions of the conference-workshop, and an documentary which will include a summary of the presentations by David Marmorek, Prudencia Santasmarinas, Juan Freire and Juan M. Blanco Gómez and Miguel Gómez Losada. Meanwhile, we hope that you enjoy the above illustrated feature of the conference-workshop (carried out by Manuel Elviro Vidal - Metanarrativas)

Funding: "Understanding Canada" Program (through the Canada Foundation).

25.5.08 Action-research and adaptive management in the Doñana region

Supported by the TRANSAM Project and institutional analysis, I coordinated an action-research program at the Doñana Nature Reserve between 2005-2008, funded by the Hydro-ecological Restoration Project Doñana 2005 (1998-2006). The general purpose of the action-research program was to evaluate its instrumentality for proactively introducing adaptive management tenets at the research-management interface of the Doñana Nature Reserve. More generally, the program was used to propose improvements in water resources management and wetland conservation in Doñana at a broader geographical scale and governance level. This was realised through the involvement of stakeholders from a wide range of institutional and organisational levels, and by broadening the scale and scope of the discussions at the final workshop of the program. The program participants agreed on seven key recommendations:

1. The transparent definition of shared management goals and functioning models of the marshland/wetland ecosystems of the Doñana Nature Reserve.

2. The structuring of existing monitoring programs, based on established goals and functioning models, and seeking to optimise coordination among agencies.

3. The incorporation of social research and public participation into policy making and management plans.

4. The definition, within the new Management Plan of the Guadalquivir River Basin, of a specific sub-basin for the wetlands and tributaries of the Doñana Nature Reserve. Such a definition would resolve the contradiction inherent to the declaration of most river branches flowing into or surrounding the Doñana Nature Reserve as highly modified watercourses (therefore free from the obligation of achieving a good ecological status).

5. The continuation and enhancement of the collaborative dynamics that emerged after the Los Frailes mining accident. These dynamics are broadly perceived as a social good, which should be promoted both politically and economically.

6. The improvement of instruments for information exchange and inter-agency goal definition among the Doñana Nature Reserve, the Doñana Biological Station and the Guadalquivir River Authority. Examples include the development of protocols, standards, joint committees, virtual workspaces and corporate databases for mutual support and joint decision making.

7. The stepwise introduction of learning, novelty and innovation into management, based on the transfer of knowledge generated in well-defined pilot projects and programs (Caracoles).

For a detailed description of the program, its context and the institutional analysis carried out for supporting it, please see this article in Ecology and Society or my PhD thesis.

14.11.07 TRANSAM Project

The TRANSAM (Transference of Adaptive Management) project is a long-term research initiative launched in 2007 and currently ongoing at INGENIO, my host institution. The general aim of TRANSAM is to investigate the causes of the limited transfer of ‘adaptive management’ from Canada to the European Union (EU). Adaptive management constitutes one of the most promising approaches to overcome the current limitations of traditional, command-and-control management and policy making of natural resources and nature conservation, at both the operational and decision-making levels. It is an approach initially conceived and developed by C. J. Walters, R. Hilborn y C. S. Holling at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada) and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (Vienna, Austria), during the 1970s and the 1980s. The aim was to create a robust tool for the management of natural resources while keeping a continuous interaction among stakeholders.

Since its inception, adaptive management has been applied to a wide range of natural resources management and nature conservation problems worldwide, mainly in Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand and, more recently, in some countries of the European Union. This has provided an accumulating body of knowledge that present it as a valid alternative to command-and-control, which may be considered instrumental for achieving sustainable resource use. However, after 40 years of development and (often) successful implementation in Canada, until the current decade it received limited attention in Europe – and even less in Southern Europe. The limited implementation of adaptive management in Europe contrast vividly with its widespread use in the Anglo-Saxon world (Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand), bringing up questions on whether there are specific institutional, technical, scientific or even cultural traits of the societies across the Atlantic divide that prevent the dissemination of these seminal ideas.

The objectives of the TRANSAM project are:

- To document the Canadian experience with adaptive management, with an emphasis on British Columbia.

- To assess a series of case studies in which particular institutional developments allowed for the implementation of adaptive management initiatives for natural resources management and nature conservation.

- To develop a deep understanding of both the concept and the associated process of stakeholder involvement, in order to inform and provide support for an action-research program developed in the Doñana region between 2005 and 2008.

Technical publication available here.

Funding: International Council for Canadian Studies through the Canada-Europe Awards.

1.8.04 Habitat suitability study for the Bewick's swan during its wintering stage in the Netherlands

This habitat suitability study for the Bewick's swan (Cygnus columbianus bewickii ssp.) in the Netherlands was my first research work. It gave rise to a lifelong passion about science and discovering hidden social-ecological patterns and dynamics. In this study, I analysed the influence of certain factors that could be potentially determining the spatial distribution of the Bewick’s swan over its wintering grounds in the Netherlands.

In particular, the project aimed at an identification of the main agricultural environments used by the swan as feeding grounds, after food depletion in their main aquatic habitats. For that purpose, I selected land used for sugar beet crops and grasslands, which were their main food sources during the whole winter season, and presence of livestock, as potential predictor variables. Population distribution information was extracted from a long-term dataset collaboratively developed during almost two decades by scientists and birdwatchers using more than 375 marked individuals. Besides the ring code, information included site’s name and code, date, observer’s name and code, and, occasionally, extra details about habitat and food choice, social status and flock-size. Information about the bird's location was recorded using GPS.

The population’s distribution information was linked to the agricultural and livestock variables (surfaces per municipality and heads of livestock per municipality, respectively) with the aid of GIS tools. Thereafter, I performed a multiple regression analysis that showed that surfaces of sugar beet crops and grasslands had independent significant contributions towards explaining the variation of the distribution. The study was performed as a general approach due to time constraints, but served as a robust guideline for more detailed spatial analyses in the future. A relevant conclusion of the study was that land and water management plans must include studies concerning the spatial requirements of migratory water birds that currently use agricultural habitats at any stage of their annual cycle.

Technical publication available here (with apologies for my bad use of English; at the time of the study, back in 2004, I was a less skilled speaker/writer than I am nowadays, but it is still worth having a quick look :)