Stakeholder Model Assessment

This last week I have been undertaking the final piece of fieldwork for my PhD thesis in my study area, EU Special Protection Area number 56, ‘Encinares del rio Alberche y Cofio’ (SPA56). The aim of this fieldwork is what I have been terming ‘Stakeholder Model Assessment’ and involved interviews with several actors and stakeholders within the study area to assess the credibility and potential utility of my integrated socio-ecological simulation model of land use and cover change (LUCC).

Specifically, two questions guiding these meetings were;

  1. from a technical/modelling standpoint, how can we utilise local stakeholder knowledge and understandings of LUCC better in our simulation models?
  2. if we understand that often science does not move fast enough to deal with pressing environmental and political problems, how can we use socio-ecological models (incorporating local knowledge) to speed the process of decision-making and consensus building in the face of incomplete knowledge about a system?

The simulation model I have developed is a tangible manifestation of my ‘mental model’ (i.e. understanding) of processes of change in SPA56. This research aimed to develop an understanding of how well this manifestation corresponds with a (hypothetical) simulation model that would be produced using the ‘mental model’ of the stakeholder.

I embarked on this fieldtrip with a certain amount of trepidation as I was laying myself and my model open to a degree of criticism from a source of knowledge not often tapped. That is, whilst LUCC models developed in an academic setting are routinely exposed to academic peer review they are infrequently reviewed by those actors which they attempt to represent. I was quite prepared to be told that the results and model structure I had developed were not realistic or largely irrelevant.

I was pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong as much of the feedback received was positive, both about model results (maps of land cover for 25 years hence – i.e. 2026) and model structure (i.e. model rules and assumptions). I’m just about to start writing this all up for my thesis but the findings can be outlined as follows;

1. Interviewees were very accepting of the results but focused on the results of individual scenarios that fitted most closely with their projections of future change. They did not seem to have any problems with model output for the scenario that matched their perception of future change, suggesting that the model accurately reflects the expected change for that scenario. (Spatial) criticism of results was rather weak however and their analysis was rather broad.

2. Interviewees confirmed model rules and assumptions, with some caveats;

  1. Distance between fields and farmstead were not deemed important for farmer decision-making
  2. Some interviewees suggested land tenure was not important, others that size of land parcels would dictate what land was changed to
  3. Agent types (i.e. ‘Traditional’ vs. ‘Commercial’ farmers) were deemed sensible. Greater variation is present in SPA56 farmer behaviour but generally this dichotomy is accurate

3. All interviewees commented that the model was lacking consideration of urban development and change (i.e. expansion)

4. Individual agricultural actors (i.e. farmers) were generally apathetic towards model (linked I suggest with their generally pessimistic view of future state of agriculture in the study area). Higher-level, institutional stakeholders (i.e. local development officials and planners) were much more interested in potential uses of the model for planning.

5. Interviews suggest the model is realistic/credible enough to act as a focus around which discussion about future change can proceed (‘model as mediator’ or ‘model as discussant’). Interview discussion followed the presentation of model assumptions and allowed the stakeholder to reflect on the processes causing change.

6. Interviewees’ ‘mental models’ were little influenced by the process of model assessment and discussion for two main reasons;

  1. they are apathetic towards the model and sceptical about what it can do for them
  2. presentation of model structure (and the model structure itself) is not as detailed or nuanced as their understanding of processes and change.

7. Related to point six, some interviewees were positive about the model because it confirmed their understanding of future change. That is, they envisaged opportunities to use the model as a rhetorical tool to further their interests. [More thoughts on this important point to follow soon…]

All-in-all a useful and interesting trip. These are my initial thoughts, more in-depth analysis and reflection is ongoing – I’ll post something more permanent on a page on my main website in the near future.

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