Collaboration tools for land use policy development

Verweij, Peter


The scientific community develops data-driven tools to support land use policy development. These tools capture facts and knowledge in various forms, such as: land cover maps, trend graphs of agricultural yields and, more complex, scenario based impact assessment models. Despite the demand for tools and their large supply, literature indicates that uptake of available tools for policy making, is low.

Data-driven tools for land use policy are complex. Their complexity lies in i) the multiple scientific disciplines that interact through land use and ii) the contextual political process that involves balancing different needs and wants from a variety of stakeholders. Addressing these complexities requires dialogue and collaboration between those involved. Tools that facilitate and advance this process of dialogue and collaboration are therefore particularly helpful. Consequently, a tool is defined here as a data- and software based object that informs and facilitates dialogue, both through its joint development and its associated application process.

This thesis makes a scientific contribution to the field of dialogue and collective thinking for tools for land use policy development, by integrating methods from software engineering with participatory approaches and workshop design. In particular it investigates how collaboration methods and practices can help overcome issues hampering the use of data-driven tools with the overall objective to support the formulation of supported and feasible land use policies. The latter is where this thesis’ societal contribution lies.

The overall objective of this thesis is: to provide collaboration practices for scientists, stakeholders and policymakers for developing and utilising data-driven tools to support land use policy development. The objective is further specified in four research questions: How can different scientific communities, tool developers and users work together to develop an integrated land use policy assessment tool? How can the applicability and transparency of a land use policy assessment tool be enhanced to better understand drivers and impacts of land use change? How can a land use policy tool include stakeholder knowledge and facilitate to rapidly reach a common understanding between different views on land use? How can tool development enhance and facilitate collaboration with the overall objective to influence land use policy?

Chapter 1 introduces this thesis by looking into context in which the tools are to operate: (a) the different conceptualisations of land (land cover, land use and landscape) and how perspectives on land management are tied to land ethics of individuals. This is followed by (b) a brief explanation of the land use policy making process, the actors involved and the role that data-based scientific tools play in it.

Chapter 2 investigates how land use tool developers can use methods and practices from software engineering to help close the demand-supply mismatch. Software engineering is a discipline that studies how people work together to build a useful computer system, how a (real-world) system should be broken down in meaningful abstractions, and technology. This chapter uses a case to illustrate how the User Centred Design and agile methodologies were used in the field of environmental modelling.

Chapter 3 studies how the transparency and applicability of a land use change model can be enhanced with the overall objective to facilitate analyses and interpretation of results. The reimplementation of the model has been tested in several cases studies.

Chapter 4 introduces a method to include stakeholder knowledge in a spatially explicit tool during moderated group sessions. Knowledge and preferences of workshop participants are captured in a computer program and linked to available spatial- and spatio-statistical data. During such workshops an iterative approach is followed, starting with simple (knowledge-based) rules and step-by-step adding complexity, using the participants’ interpretation of model-results. In these multi-stakeholder processes, science is not merely a messenger of data and knowledge products through reports and briefings, but enables participants to internalize scientific knowledge, and integrate it together with local and tacit knowledge.

Chapter 5 describes the co-design of a web-based information platform as evidence base for policy making. Three principles made the platform’s uptake and growth possible: It is funded, promoted and used by national and regional policy makers; it simplifies tasks of rapporteurs, data providers and local management; and it is continuously being adapted to changing needs and insights.

The final chapter 6 synthesizes the methodological findings and recommends practices to address the barriers for tool uptake. These are followed up by three overall reflections.

Firstly, on the advantages and limitations of the use of data. While data are a crucial asset to find time, place and event relationships that are hard to see otherwise, limiting the view of the world to ‘data-only’ causes to miss out on relevant other aspects. Especially aspects that are intrinsically about values, or aspects that are complex and multi-interpretable fall in this last group.  

Secondly, I reflect on collaboration as a means to converge perceptions towards supported solutions. Collaboration aids to: a) reach a common understanding by getting to know each other's thinking, identifying similarities and differences, and what these mean for each other; b)  facilitate the development of a shared vision under a feeling of shared ownership and c) reflect on one’s own thinking and recognising assumptions and values in it. While in general I argue that collaboration is worthy of pursuit, it sometimes is a burden, and it is not always successful.

And thirdly, I reflect on choosing the right tool. Tools are helpful for making informed decisions by separating factual knowledge from biases and beliefs. In their simplified representations of reality, tools have limitations that are not always explicit. Moreover, the choice for what simplification to use is driven by the background and interest of the researchers and donors. As land use, and land use policy development, is inherently complex, a single tool cannot capture all associated aspects on its own. Methods that facilitate to see the big picture by encouraging systemic thinking and recognising the role of actors and contexts, are needed to bring together disconnected worlds in people’s minds.