Solving complex problems with tools that promote understanding and empathy

We need imaginative and innovative approaches to tackle the complicated environmental problems of today. One such approach is ‘adaptive governance.’

Adaptive governance is founded on recognising the complexity of socio-ecological problems and advocating for a flexible and collaborative approach to help solve them.

Scion, in partnership with He Oranga mo Nga Uri Tuku Iho Trust, has developed a toolkit for using adaptive governance techniques based on a three-year research project using the example of ecological restoration in the Waiapu Catchment on the East Coast of the North Island.

The Waiapu Catchment is facing some of the most severe erosion rates in the world. To combat the erosion, central and local government and iwi have agreed to work together to meet shared aspirations. The research team used adaptive governance approaches to help accelerate the implementation of the partnership’s long-term goal of ‘healthy land, healthy rivers, healthy people’.

Their findings were summarised into tools for monitoring and evaluation, social network analysis and role-playing simulations. These tools are suitable for anyone looking to break down complex problems and build empathy, relationships and, in time, a shared approach to decision-making. 

“Achieving intergenerational growth across many forms of capital comes down to how we make our decisions. I’ve been privileged to act as an adviser to Scion’s adaptive governance team. The tools they’ve created will make a difference.” - Dr Dave Moore, Adaptive Governance Advisory Board Member Programme Leader, Master of Engineering Project Management, Auckland University of Technology

One of the benefits of adaptive governance is that it rejects a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Instead, methods hinge around building mutual understanding, promoting joint learning, developing ongoing dialogue, and creating a safe space for experimentation. These foundations allow decision-makers to more easily adapt to challenging environmental circumstances while working with the strengths and deeply held knowledge of the host community.

Throughout the research programme, the Scion team ran four role-playing simulations. The simulations prompted participants to think about their approach to problems from a different perspective and increased their understanding of each stakeholder’s outlook.

The team also undertook a social network analysis. This involved mapping relationships between people, groups and organisations. The information was used to help community members identify their influencers and leaders, while also learning who has skills and knowledge in different areas and what the gaps are.

Running regional hui was another way the research team was able to give a voice to the stakeholders affected by the issues in the catchment. The team then took those views and relayed them to the joint governance group responsible for overseeing the ecological restoration and community regeneration. National hui were also carried out, to help policy advisers and researchers in New Zealand understand how we can use adaptive governance.

Now at the end of this three-year phase of work, Scion will continue refining the tools developed in this programme and advocating for their use to help solve complex problems.  


Funders: Ministry for Primary Industries, Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment
Collaborators: He Oranga mo Nga Uri Tuku Iho Trust, University of Melbourne and one company