16: Building a conceptual model

At this point in the process it is useful to synthesize the knowledge you have gathered so far into a first conceptual model of the social-ecological system. This work card provides guidance and a few examples of what a conceptual model might look like.

Start with smaller workshops and meetings with stakeholders from different scales, and develop simple conceptual models of the system that bring together the important elements you have identified through previous activities. Then bring these outputs together in larger gatherings. The coalition will probably have to do some synthesis work in between the different meetings.

Suggested approach: meetings and workshops with the coalition and with different stakeholders, then brining stakeholders together to develop a more complete conceptual ‘picture’ of the system

Time required: 1-2hrs per meeting

Facilitation skill level: High

Resources: workshop materials, whiteboards, poster paper, markers, sticky notes

Synthesizing your current knowledge

By now you have generated a lot of information on different aspects of the system, relating to people’s aspirations, the dilemmas they face, and in relation to this, the key system components across different domains that need to be considered, important connections and networks, and relevant cross-scale interactions and drivers for change. Before moving further, it is useful to first synthesize this information into a conceptual model of the social-ecological system, building on your early efforts to draw your system in previous work cards. The model should help you describe the current system in terms of its benefits and dilemmas, and also relate to the broad aspirations people have for this system. This conceptual model will provide the basis for Phase 3, where you will do an in-depth investigation of how this system actually works, and why the dilemmas persist.

Stakeholder workshop from the Wayfinder pilot in Ranérou, Senegal, where a group of villagers have started building a conceptual model of their pastoral system. Building a conceptual model, helps frame the Wayfinder process and create a shared understanding of system identity. Photo: D.Goffner.

Conceptual models can be developed in different ways (see figure 16.1 for a few examples), but if you haven’t already a good way to start is to classify and group your system variables into a number of relevant categories. These could be actor groups, governance arrangements, resources units and resources systems, action outcomes, and external drivers for change. While purposefully limiting the level of detail at this point, make sure to include both social and ecological factors and consider all relevant scales of analysis.

Figure 16.1 Three examples of conceptual social-ecological systems models.

Finding common ground

Having shared aspirations and joint perspectives on what are the main dilemmas in the system will make it easier to create the conceptual model, but this step can still be tricky. There may be multiple ways of understanding how the system works, and which elements are the most relevant to include. Working with multiple conceptual models acknowledges different perspectives and worldviews. Articulating key assumptions built into the models and identifying evidence that supports the assumptions also help in making this step more transparent. While it may take a while, it is usually possible to find common ground and arrive at a shared understanding of the identity of the social-ecological system. Doing so is essential for the remainder of the Wayfinder process, since it gives it an initial framing, direction and scope.

Click here to learn more about a Multiple Evidence Base approach by Maria Tengö, Researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre

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17: Developing your initial Change Narrative

To further synthesize what you collectively know about your system, it is important to spend some time with stakeholders to discuss how the Wayfinder process may contribute to creating a more sustainable, safe and just future. This work card describes how you develop the first draft of a collective change narrative.

Drawing on all the information gathered to date, in a workshop setting, explore how people in the system think about how to create change. Ensure stakeholders feel ‘safe’ to explore different possible trajectories. Bring together different perspectives into a ‘story of change’ that could include pictures, songs, metaphors, diagrams, role plays to explore the future. 

Suggested approach: small gatherings, workshops

Time required: 1-3 hrs

Facilitation skill level: High

Resources: recoding materials, creative material that can be used to illustrate the Change Narrative

Reflecting with stakeholders about how to create change

Based on the work that you have done so far, drawing on your developing systems model, start to reflect together with the stakeholders, on how the Wayfinder process could bring about change in your system to address the social-ecological dilemma(s) described, and to enable the system to better meet people’s aspirations. At this early stage of the process, the aim is to sketch a rough draft or outline that describes in a non-technical way how change may happen through your Wayfinder process. The purpose of creating a joint Change Narrative at this point is to emphasize people’s own agency in shaping the change they want to see, to calibrate expectations and to generate commitment to the Wayfinder process.

Two Quechua women in traditional dress deep in conversation, Ollantaytambo, Peru. At this point in the Wayfinder process, it is useful to create a first draft of a Change Narrative together with stakeholders in your system. This emphasizes people’s own agency in shaping the change they want to see, helps calibrate expectations and generate commitment to the Wayfinder process. Photo: iStock.

Remind people that the Change Narrative is not a theory of change, and that it is more useful to think about it as a developing a ‘storied’ hypothesis. The more you know about the system and how it functions, the more plausible a change narrative you will be able to create. But there is an inherent degree of uncertainty in complex systems, and a change narrative will therefore never become more than a hypothesis that needs to be tested in reality and updated as conditions change. Make sure your narrative includes a set of alternative pathways to creating change. It should also includes the thee key elements introduced in work card 8: leverage points for systemic change, agency and opportunity.

Click here to learn more about the power of storytelling by Mwihaki Muraguri, Director of Paukwa Storyhouse

A Change Narrative can take different forms

The change narrative can take different forms. It may be captured as an audio recording or written texts of stories told by actors in the system. Visual representations (e.g., paintings, drawings, comic-book style graphics, etc.) may also be useful. The narrative may include stories of elders as well as young people and should capture some diversity of perspectives. Synthesize the storylines by looking for common themes to create a single narrative (or minimal set) that captures key elements and that illustrates underlying mechanisms of change. Use the attached activity sheet and discuss to help structure your narrative.

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