Framing futures: visualizing on social-ecological systems change

J.M. Vervoort

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


An appreciation of the complexity and uncertainty that characterizes linked human and natural systems - or social-ecological systems - has proliferated throughout the sciences in recent decades. However, dominant societal images, mental models and discourses frame the complexity of social-ecological systems in biased and simplified ways. Interactive media show much potential to help move beyond the current limitations of societal communication about complex systems. The objective of the research in this PhD thesis is to harness the potential of interactive visualization for the elicitation and communication of societal perspectives on complexity in social-ecological systems.

The thesis takes on two fundamental challenges: 1. eliciting and sharing analytic perspectives (addressed in chapters 3 and 4); and 2. combining analytic understanding with experiential engagement (chapters 4 and 5). These challenges are discussed in chapter 1. We take on these challenges through designing and evaluating a series of new communication tools. Throughout the thesis, accessibility, flexibility and feasibility of communication tools and concepts are crucial preconditions.

To frame the research,chapter 2 uses the challenges from the introduction chapter as a guide and touchstone to identify and evaluate the tools and strategies currently being developed and employed in different fields of environmental science communication. Starting with scenarios communication, the chapter goes on to explore the fields of landscape visualization, serious gaming, and visual analytics/information visualization. An evaluation of these fields concludes that as currently used, the tools and strategies from each domain had different strengths and weaknesses in terms of the communication of social-ecological systems change. To move beyond these limitations, the chapter proposes a design framework that was based on several new elements. Firstly, the use of web 2.0 technology that allowed for the fluid integration of multiple platforms. Secondly, pervasive gaming design that focused on user-generated sources of analytic communication and engagement instead of on realistic environments.

Chapter 3 reports on our first strategy to take on the challenge of eliciting and sharing analytic perspectives on social-ecological systems. The System Perspectives Scope is a tool to explore how participatory models could be used to capture societal actors’ perspectives on the spatial and temporal dimensions of complex systems. The application of this tool in two case studies demonstrates that it is possible to focus explicitly on spatial and temporal system levels and cross-level interactions, different understandings of temporal change, and different basic perspectives on the nature of change in social-ecological systems - all through a relatively simple and accessible format in an on-line context. Results indicate significant relationships between different perspectives on spatial and temporal system levels and different myths of nature.

Chapter 4explores a different analytic strategy with which key societal actors’ mental models could be captured more extensively and fundamentally. We start from the premise that change agents in social-ecological systems, in this case the agricultural innovators in the TransForum project, would have to be experienced at linking many conceptual dimensions in their efforts to create accepted change, including the biophysical dimensions but also the dimensions of institutions, networks, knowledge, power and so on. We also propose that these dimensions and the scales that change agents used to frame them would allow them to capture cross-scale dynamics that they saw as crucial in their systems. We conducted a series of in-depth interviews using the Scale Repertoire, a method that helped create multi-dimensional perspectives on change agents’ storylines that showed cross-scale interactions between these different interpretations of the project. This research confirms that change agents were in fact able to produce a wide range of scales which they could use to capture the cross-scale dynamics they saw as crucial. Based on these results the chapter argues that key societal actors should be involved in interdisciplinary research on the role of scale in the governance of complex systems. Furthermore, consciousness of scale in societal debates should be stimulated.

In chapter 5 we take on the second challenge, evaluating the complementary benefits of communication tools focused on analytic understanding and on experiential engagement in an interactive live setting. In an Oxfordshire, UK case study, we conducted workshops with local sustainable development groups where we combined a live version of the System Perspectives Scope (chapter 3) with ScenarioCommunities, an interactive storytelling tool. ScenarioCommunities proved engaging and vivid to the participants and able to motivate them into creating their own vivid storylines. The System Perspectives Scope elicited individual mental models and facilitated analytic reflection. These benefits are complementary and were perceived as such by the participants. The highly participatory nature of both tools was an asset both to the participants’ experience of the process and the methods’ ability to generate results. The workshop that started with the engagement-oriented tool produced more and better results and was seen as more successful by the participants than the workshop that started with the analytic tool. Though the case study was small, these results are consistent enough to suggest that the transition from experiential engagement to analytic understanding is more natural than the reverse order.

An alternative take on the challenge of combining the facilitation of analytic understanding and experiential engagement was to consider how these modes of communication could be fused. To explore this question, in chapter 6 we sought collaboration with multi-media designers and artists outside of science communication through a series of workshops. The collaborations with designers and artists generated ideas for serious games, group interactions, metaphors and social media storytelling. The computer game concepts and group interactions produced in the workshops proved to capture the widest range of complex systems dynamics, were engaging and focused on strategic knowledge. While the group concepts used participants’ physical experience, the game concepts are potentially limitless in the scale of their application. The social media storytelling concepts were rated highly in terms of engagement and intuitiveness, but less complex systems characteristics. The exploratory nature of this research meant that we were not able to test the actual effects of most concepts. Instead, we relied on expert opinions of their potential. Still, this research project indicates that experiential engagement and analytic understanding can be fused and that games and group concepts can lead to the development of strategic knowledge. Finally, this case study makes a strong argument for collaborative efforts between science communicators and multi-media designers and artists.

In the synthesis (chapter 7) I conclude that interactive visualization can be developed to focus directly on the elicitation and communication of analytic perspectives on social-ecological systems change. Also, combining analytic understanding and experiential engagement can be achieved through separate methods or through full integration to aim for the development of strategic knowledge. The preconditions of flexibility, accessibility and feasibility were turned from limitations into guidelines that focused the design of communication tools clearly on complexity while avoiding complicatedness. Our design-based research provided specific insights and an in-depth learning experience. I believe that focus on the diversity of individual perspectives provides an essential basis for more consensus-oriented work.Through our collaboration with artists and designers, it became clear that modes of communication can themselves represent new spaces for perspectives. I recommend that science communicators focus directly on the characteristics of complex systems and translate and integrate analytic and experiential and conceptual and practical modes of communication. Demands for accessibility, flexibility and feasibility should be turned into benefits. Artists and scientists should be collaborating on complex systems communication; design and art communities have to be informed and inspired. I recommend a conscious recognition of the role and goals of the communicator in a given context. Finally, I suggest that opportunities must be sought to institutionalize complexity-conscious communication strategies to up-scale their impact.



Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Veldkamp, Tom, Promotor
  • Kok, Kasper, Co-promotor
  • van Lammeren, Ron, Co-promotor
Award date29 Nov 2011
Place of Publication[s.l.]
Print ISBNs9789461730916
Publication statusPublished - 2011


  • communication
  • visualization
  • uncertainty
  • environmental management
  • multi-stakeholder processes
  • society


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