Four researchers and one farmer standing in a field

Why Co-Learning Between Science and Policy Is Essential for Resilience and Central to FEWscapes

Food, energy, water, and nature are our most basic needs. However, the systems that provide them – the soil and soil organisms; the rivers, lakes, and groundwater; the plants, animals, and pollinators; policies, economies, and communities – are far from basic. They are complex and interconnected, making decisions about how we steward them challenging.

But food, energy, water, and natural systems are also adaptive, especially as spaces where society and nature interplay. This means they have the capacity to re-organize and adapt based on the challenges and opportunities of the past and the uncertainties of the future.

In a 2012 paper, Reinette Biggs and coauthors stress that seeing food, energy, water, and nature as complex and adaptive systems gives us a mental framework for decisions that can ultimately help us reduce the negative impacts of big shocks, such as floods or droughts, or expand opportunities for resilience, such as increasing interest in locally produced food.

One of humanity’s best strategies for handling and adapting to complexity is learning – we’ve been doing it for millennia, and now there is arguably a greater need for it, as the pace of change continues to accelerate. Learning can deliver new knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or cultural perspectives that allow us to respond effectively to changes such as consumers demanding more climate-friendly products, pandemics disrupting supply chains, or communities reckoning with the inequities in access to food, energy, water, and natural spaces.

Learning is not just the stuff of students and scientists. No single group of people knows enough about these systems – everyone’s knowledge and perspective are critical to solutions.

That is why collaborative learning, or co-learning is essential for building resilient systems, and why it is central to this project. Co-learning is a reciprocal, collective act among all of the groups with a stake in the outcomes.

While FEWscapes is led by scientists, we recognize that we understand a very small piece of the puzzle that is our world. So, we are working to link our modelling with the real-world experiences of the people who work within these systems – natural resource managers, farmers and agricultural professionals, conservation professionals, and other leaders who have critical perspectives on what it will take to work with nature and create the world we all want.

You’ve probably heard the well-worn saying that all models are wrong, and some are useful. We’ve adapted an old parable from the Indian subcontinent, a model of sorts, to illustrate our point.

Imagine an elephant surrounded by blindfolded people trying to figure out what is standing in front of them. One person puts his hands on the elephant’s trunk and proclaims, “I think this is a thick snake;” another puts her hands on the elephant’s ear and says, “no, it feels like a giant fan;” another with his hands on the elephant’s leg says, “you’re both wrong, I detect a sturdy young tree.” Imagine their slow realization, as they share what they’re experiencing, that together they have discovered the answer: it’s an elephant!

Co-learning gives everyone a chance to learn from each other’s experiences and worldviews, thereby giving us the bigger picture. Unlike the elephant analogy, however, it’s not about finding the one right answer – it’s about finding adaptable solutions that can move us forward toward common goals that reflect what ecosystems can support and what is important to everyone affected by the outcomes.

Another necessary principle for resilience is participation, or the active engagement of stakeholders who have an interest in or knowledge related to the management of food, energy, water, and natural systems. Participation is a spectrum of activities, from providing information to co-producing tools or programs. It is necessary for bridging science and decision-making and finding agreement on actions, and co-learning can’t happen without it!

Something might strike you as obvious about all of this: co-learning takes time. It requires building trust and listening. The payoff, however, are relationships and shared understanding – fertile soil that allows more robust solutions to flourish and, potentially, desired outcomes to happen more quickly in the long run.

So, what does co-learning actually look like for FEWscapes? Here are three things to know about how we are approaching it:

First, we are engaging our stakeholders early and often. A common complaint against research projects like ours is they often bring in stakeholders too late in the game – when the results are already calculated, the conclusions are already made.

Second, we are working with stakeholders to shape our engagement process. We don’t see ourselves as the captains of the ship, dictating where we should go and what we should talk about. Instead, we seek to be co-captains with our stakeholders, ensuring everyone’s perspectives, priorities, needs, and constraints are taken into account.

Third, we are practicing co-learning by asking for broad input on model runs and results. We are seeking a shared understanding of what big questions to ask of the models and what the results mean for policy decisions.

Researchers and decision-makers are still learning how to co-learn effectively. The challenges of bridging science and policy are long standing and will not go away overnight. So, we are honored to be working with a group of stakeholders who are willing to experiment with us, and we hope we can contribute to best practices for co-learning for the sake of building resilient food, energy, water, and natural systems.

Header photo by Michael P. King/UW–Madison CALS