Searching for ourselves: A methodological exploration of a Soft System Dynamics Method as a social learning tool for watershed implementation planning

Stephan Brown


Theories of environmental planning acknowledge that social-interactional dynamics contribute significantly to the complexity of environmental problems. Especially, the collaborative capacity to coordinate activities among diverse interests is crucial for successful plan implementation. However, environmental planning typically takes successful implementation as a given rather than as a problematic outcome. Consequently, we understand very little about how to measure the institutional capacities of communities to carry out plans. On a more practical level, if successful implementation depends on the coordination of multiple stakeholders, then we need an effective tool for learning how to join different institutional purposes. And if, as this proposal contends, common purpose is embedded in (rather than separate from) collective action, the implementation-planning tool will conform to a participatory action research methodology. Drawing on Rodriguez-Ulluoa and Paucar-Caceres’ (2005) Soft System Dynamics Methodology, and informed by the cognitive model of institutions, I am proposing a Soft System Dynamics Method (SSDM) that combines the richness of Soft Systems Methodology storytelling and the rigor of System Dynamics (SD) modeling into a social learning tool for action planning. A central premise of SSDM is that socio-cultural values underlie patterns of social interaction. In watershed planning and management, the “environment” represents social goods but also contexts of social interaction where often tacit norms about roles and responsibilities are enacted and negotiated. In this sense, watershed communities are sociotechnical systems, or “communities of practice.” My dissertation research is a methodological exploration of SSDM as a social learning tool for watershed implementation planning. Three contemporary cases of watershed implementation planning processes will be selected to receive the SSDM intervention. The primary objective of the study is to explore whether and how SSDM promotes group learning about the institutional context and associated leverage points of watershed plan implementation. The study will also demonstrate SSDM both as a tool for developing middle-range theories of collaborative capacity and as an implementation planning tool for problem structuring and institutional design. This paper outlines the proposed SSDM and study design, arguing that a design view of systems can and should contribute to a participatory action research methodology for measuring and realizing group learning. Ultimately, it is hoped that SSDM represents a step closer to realizing C.W. Churchman‘s vision of the “Singerian Inquiring System” where social learning is characterized by the synergistic integration of theory and practice, facts and values.

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