Designing Social Learning Systems for Integrating Social Sciences into Policy Processes: Some Experiences of Water Managing

Kevin Collins


Let me begin my introduction to this chapter with a short story. As a first year undergraduate, whilst browsing in my university library I came across a book on environmental politics. At the top of one of the chapters was a quote from a United Nations (UN) discussion some decades before about an ongoing policy conflict between two members of the UN. A delegate from another country, exasperated at the intractability of the situation, had stood up in the debate and shouted across the chamber to the two sparring representatives: 'Integrate damn you! Integrate!'. Not appreciating then the importance of maintaining references, I have since been unable to find either where this quote originated or the book it was in – despite many hopeful attempts.

Apart from the lesson of keeping good references, this quote has always stuck in my mind as revealing some essential questions about integration: what is it; who does it; who determines what integrates with what; and under what conditions? Is integration even a choice – an invitation that can be refused? Perhaps most revealing, for the purposes of this chapter, is that the quote does not give much clue as to how the disputing representatives might integrate.

The desire for integration is not in question. Even a cursory review of current lifestyles, societies and policy agendas demonstrates that a desire for integration is now everywhere: especially in technology, society, business and governance. In environmental arenas, integration, at its most basic, and perhaps most challenging, is advanced as the connecting and harmonizing of environmental and human activity to achieve a socially desired state. Integration is used ubiquitously in environmental literatures, policy, and practice and is often the inescapable twin of the equally enigmatic sustainability in all its various forms.

Integration is intuitively attractive and held up as the key to unlocking and progressing many policy situations in order to achieve sustainability. This is no more evident than the environmental policy 'event of the decade', the Rio + 20 conference in Brazil in 2012. Attended by heads of state and government, it is no exaggeration to say that hopes were high that agreements would be reached on a range of issues. With the global media present and watching every move of delegates, it was evident that 'something must be done' to address the lack of coherent policies and disjuncture with practice.

After 12 days of discussions and events, the main outcome was the non-binding document The Future We Want (UN 2012). Throughout, this document emphasized the need for integration of the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development in a holistic and cross-sectoral manner at all levels.

But the subsequent indications are that Rio + 20 was, at best, a political compromise that will achieve marginal gains in some areas, and, at worst, a failure. This rather bleak picture of the state of the political and global environment is all the more notable despite hundreds of international agreements and goals to tackle environmental issues and associated human welfare concerns. A recent report of the United Nations Environment Programme suggests that progress on a range of key issues relating to the Millenium Development Goals such as access to drinking water has been slow and in other areas, such as sanitation or wetland protection, non-existent (UNEP 2012). At the heart of many of these issues is the sense that there has been a failure to integrate social, economic and environmental concerns into policy and practice.

Efforts for integrating natural and social sciences are perhaps more advanced than integrating social science into policy, but, in either case, there is still much uncertainty about what integration actually entails and the methodologies that can be deployed.

This chapter explores some of these concerns in relation to integration and how a praxis (theory informed practice) based on systems and social learning approaches might be used to facilitate integration of the social sciences for policy and practice. In particular, the emphasis is on designing social learning systems as a methodological innovation for integration.

The discussion presented here draws on over a decade of designing social learning systems for engaging with and progressing complex environmental management situations relating to the governance of water resources in different contexts. At the core of this work is an emphasis on epistemological awareness as a means to enable integration of different disciplinary perspectives. The chapter does not discuss in detail the differences within the social sciences that give rise to a lack of integration – save to note that all disciplines have their own epistemologies. The approach to integration advocated in this chapter rests on surfacing epistemology and opening up opportunities for social learning. Thus, while the ideas and methodology discussed here have been developed in relation to integration of natural and social science integration, they apply as much to social science integration.

This chapter is divided into seven sections. Following this introduction, Sect. 11.2 explores the framing choices associated with many natural resource policy situations, before discussion of the links between integration and systems in Sect. 11.3. In Sect. 11.4, attention turns to social learning and designing social learning systems for integration. Some exemplars of social learning systems are explored in Sect. 11.5. A review of some constraints and opportunities relating to social learning systems is presented in Sect. 11.6. The chapter concludes with a short review of the implications for future research.

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