Influencing outcomes for people and nature
In March, the Natural Capital Project, a partnership among the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment, Stanford University’s Woods Institute of the Environment, The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund that works to develop ecosystem services concepts, tools and science that influence decision making and lead to better outcomes for humans and nature, hosted a Natural Capital Symposium at Stanford. The three-day event provided a platform for a broad audience to learn new and existing tools, network among fellow researchers and practitioners, and share and discuss ongoing ecosystem services research and projects.
The Natural Capital Project will celebrate its 10-year anniversary later this year, so it seems appropriate that the organization hosted what some veteran participants heralded as the group’s “largest and best NatCap Symposium yet.” The participation and energy apparent at the conference suggest there is real momentum behind this work and continuing demand for ecosystem services science and applications across a variety of different contexts and scales.
This year’s event, which hosted three concurrent tracks — Pathways to Impact, Learning Exchange, and Trainings — attracted over 200 diverse participants and thought leaders from more than 20 countries representing non-governmental organizations, academia, government and the private sector. The U of M and IonE were well represented with over 10 participants, several of whom presented posters and led talks and discussion panels.
Here are five key lessons we learned at this year’s Natural Capital Project Symposium:
- Ecosystem service decisions occur at the human level and are context dependent.Engagement with those who have a stake in decisions is a critical component to effective ecosystem services research and projects. Accurately representing the diversity and complexity of stakeholder values is also key. We need to continue to zero in on where, when and in what decisions nature matters most to scale our research appropriately. These points were brought up time and again — starting with the symposium’s welcome address by NatCap director and Stanford University professor Gretchen Daily, to subsequent panel discussions about natural capital in policy and private sector decisions, among many others.
- We all need to become multilingual, both literally and figuratively. There was great diversity of backgrounds, disciplines and languages represented at the symposium, and it became immediately clear not only how important that diversity is to ecosystem services work but also how it poses very real communication challenges. Symposium panelists proposed a few ways to meet this challenge and reach more diverse audiences, which included telling more personal stories about our work; using simple, understandable language; and putting a human face on the problems we address.
- There is often a spatial mismatch between supply and demand for nature and its services. This gap, first touched on during the Nature in Cities: Frontiers in Urban Ecosystem Services plenary session, is quite evident in cities, where questions of access, scale and quality of urban “nature” are key and emerging topics. However, this mismatch is relevant in other contexts as well, as highlighted by discussions around certification programs for corporate supply chains and the diversity of water funds in Central and South America. In closing out the symposium, NatCap and TNC’s Peter Kareiva further emphasized a need to explore and fill research gaps in how the supply of ecosystem services affect social equity and people’s access to opportunities.
- Despite being in an era of Big Data, data is still expensive. Ecosystem services data — spatial or otherwise, needed for both biophysical modeling and valuation in ecosystem service assessments — and decision support tools have made leaps and bounds in the past decade (Google NatCap, and others presented innovative and exciting examples during the symposium), but information and technology needs are still limiting factors in many contexts and decisions globally. Reduced data processing time, increased access and transparency of data, and better understanding of uncertainty are just a few of the related topics NatCap will continue to explore with its partners in the future.
- The burden is on us to show that what we do changes decisions. Discussions throughout the conference highlighted a need for even greater support of the interface between ecosystem services science and policy. Steve Polasky, U of M College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences Regents professor and an IonE resident fellow, and University of Vermont’s Taylor Ricketts, both NatCap directors, highlighted the trade-offs between additional complexity in ecosystem service models and an ability to translate that science to decisions and policy. Impact evaluations of ecosystem service projects and engagements may be one place to start to improve our understanding of how ecosystem services science influences outcomes for both nature and people.
Banner photo by Asian Development Bank (Flickr Creative Commons)