Responding to stakeholders – lessons learnt

By Klaus Hubacek and Christina Prell

1. Klaus Hubacek (biography)
2. Christina Prell (biography)

Being responsive to stakeholder interests and suggestions is important for successful participatory modeling. We share lessons from an exciting, five year project in the UK entitled the ‘Sustainable Uplands’. The project sought to bring together a variety of groups ranging from academics, policy makers, residents, conservationists, and different ‘end user’ groups that all, in some way, held a stake in upland park areas in the UK.

Our process was iterative, tacking back and forth between field work, consultations among the research team, consultations with non-academic stakeholders, and modeling. Not only were our models heavily influenced by what stakeholders told us were important values and considerations regarding upland areas, but these also informed how we went about gathering the data.

For example, stakeholders told us they wanted site visits to occur, where land managers could walk policy makers and academics around their land as one means of communicating what was important about these areas and what was important to land managers. In particular, some of these land managers were quite clear in saying that workshops, that included a number of focus group exercises involving sticky notes and flow charts, were a boring and sometimes intimidating activity. For these stakeholders, discussing environmental issues on their ‘own turf’ was an important (empowering) issue that we needed to consider and respond to in order to gain their involvement.


The iterative nature of our participatory approach meant that outcomes were necessarily uncertain and dynamic. Given the involvement of diverse groups of people, the responses of the participants and outcomes of the process were difficult to predict. In turn, this made life a little more difficult for the modelers, eg. the bio-physical modelers who were used to describing and modeling environmental systems through deductive science. Thus, the participatory approach was frustrating, partly because biophysical modeling could not progress until the issues emerged from the participatory progress. For example, there are hundreds of potential water quality parameters that could be modeled, each requiring different datasets. For natural scientists to begin a project without knowing what was going to be modeled was an unfamiliar experience. On the other hand, the participatory process was also refreshing, because the modelers also felt that their work was more relevant and more on target to what was appreciated and required by the stakeholders.

Most of the participants involved supported the participatory modeling approach, although for different reasons. For example, the conservationists saw the process as an opportunity to reach land owners after everything else had failed and land managers wanted to get involved in order to know what was going on and to have the opportunity to influence the research team. Despite the fact that these special interests were involved in the process, we found that there was a shared vision of a larger common good and an interest in working towards the vision, even though the means to get there might substantially differ.

Please share your experience of working with stakeholders (or, if you are a ‘stakeholder’, of working with researchers).

Biography: Professor Klaus Hubacek is an ecological economist in Geographical Sciences, University of Maryland, College Park. His research focus is on conceptualizing and modeling the interaction between human and environmental systems and developing and modeling scenarios of future change. Klaus has worked extensively with stakeholders in participatory research projects. He is a member of the Participatory Modeling Pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

Biography: Dr Christina Prell is in Sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research focuses on the intersection of social networks and the environment. On a local or regional scale, her work considers the role of social networks in shaping and/or diffusing views, values, and/or cultural beliefs about the environment and natural resource management. On a global scale, she considers how the structure of global trade networks drive a number of environmental inequalities, chief among these being between-country differences in pollution, as embodied in trade. She is a member of the Participatory Modeling Pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

This blog post is one of a series resulting from the first meeting in February 2016 of the Participatory Modeling Pursuit. This pursuit is part of the theme Building Resources for Action-Oriented Team Science through Syntheses of Practices and Theories funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

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