Toward sustainable landscapes: harnessing social learning for collective action

We are looking for a dynamic masters student who is interested to get involved with on-the-ground action research concerned with social change toward sustainability.

Contact Georgina Cundill: g.cundill@ru.ac.za

Healthy ecosystems underpin the resilience of local communities, and can have a strong influence on businesses and government. Provisioning ecosystem services such as agriculture and water provision are obviously important for everyone, everywhere. However, less well recognised ecosystem services, such as soil formation, water purification and carbon sequestration are crucial to the continued provision of these services. It is therefore not sufficient to consider only agriculture or water when considering healthy ecosystems, we must look to, and protect, the landscape in which these services are provided. A key way to do this is to invest in restoring landscape level ecosystem processes, particularly through sustainable land and water management practices.

Shifting toward such landscape scale management, however, often requires transformative changes in behaviour and institutions. Participatory approaches that are based on social learning principles are generally considered to be capable of sparking collective action around common concerns, and therefore support such transformative change. Social learning approaches can facilitate knowledge sharing and co-production among diverse stakeholders around a common purpose. A key feature of such approaches is that learning and behavioural change move beyond the individual and influence networks and organisational systems. Through an iterative process of working together in interactive dialogue, exchange, action, reflection and continuing partnership, new shared ways of gaining knowledge emerge that lead to changes in practice and behaviour.

However, despite the substantial promise of social learning, very few documented examples exist that analyse how these learning processes actually work in practice, and how they can be facilitated effectively. We do not fully understand, for example, how to bring a diverse set of actors together, such as leaders and decision makers from NGOs, stakeholder representatives, government, business and youth leaders to transform their relationships with each other and to unlock resources, funding and commitment to a collective strategy for sustainable landscape management.

Methodologies for assessing the outcomes of such processes are also in their infancy. As a student you will be part of a trans-disciplinary team that will apply an innovative and integrative approach what will bring together process and change management, knowledge co-production, social learning and innovation and enterprise development.

The student's main task will be to co-create, monitor and evaluate the learning and action outcomes of the participatory process involved in creating a multi-stakeholder platform for landscape scale sustainability.

Background reading: Kristjanson, P., Harvey, B., Van Epp, M., Thornton, P. 2013. Social learning and sustainable development. Nature Climate Change, 4: 5-7.

Bursary: R50 000 per year, plus free accommodation at the Presence Learning Village in Patensie, South Africa, and field transport.