May 2019

Biodiversity dilemmas: can online participation platforms help?

In June 2018 Ensemble opened a call to fund projects relating to biodiversity and digital technology*. We funded four projects and have asked each team to share a bit about their work. Below is the report from one of the projects.

For this small project, we considered the potential of online participation platforms (such as forums, social media or online decision-making tools) to shape engagement around complex biodiversity dilemmas.  Our starting point was the demands placed upon the Lake District as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the ‘cultural landscape’ category.  The ‘cultural landscape’ category places biodiversity concerns into dialogue with other preservation and conservation demands, such as agricultural traditions. The partnership that manages the Lake District (organisations like the National Trust, the National Farmers’ Union and the Environment Agency) are looking at ways to engage the public in meaningful ways around these dilemmas.  One key debate is between advocates for ‘rewilding’ and those hoping to protect the Lake District’s historic tradition of upland sheep grazing.  But there are also others, like the popular tourist destination Tarn Hows: should management of the site prioritise its Victorian design, planting of native tree species, or its current coniferous landscape?

We used the online database ParticipateDB to conduct a survey of relevant online participation tools and platforms and found out three main things.  Firstly, almost 25% of our chosen sample of tools and platforms had been discontinued.  Whilst there were lots of successful ongoing online participation platforms, many attempts lack sustainability and longevity.

Secondly, there were very few uses of online participation platforms to encourage discussion around rural landscapes and biodiversity issues. Many tools exist to support urban planning and civic engagement, such as participatory budgeting.  However, the potential of online participation platforms for addressing biodiversity dilemmas seems to be largely untapped, despite lots of online citizen science platforms (for example, iNaturalist) that engage the public in the collecting of biodiversity information.

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Thirdly, we initially set out to consider online platforms that enabled deliberation, defined as ‘the active shaping of content with own contributions within a discursive decision-making process, not arriving at a decision through voting or preference-aggregation’.  True deliberation also has the characteristics of discourse quality, reciprocity, justification, reflexivity, empathy, sincerity, and plurality.  Though we found lots of very good consultation and public participation tools, we did not really find anything that matches these definitions.

In summary, we found that online participation platforms offer several possible benefits compared with traditional face-to-face community engagement.  These benefits include removal of time- and place-based restrictions and potential reduced costs.  In the context of the Lake District, online participation platforms could offer a way to consider biodiversity in relation to other concerns, such as agricultural traditions.  Ongoing challenges include attracting a sufficient number and diversity of users (not just technologically literate elites) and sustaining this attraction for more prolonged, meaningful engagement.    We look forward to further exploring how online platforms might be able to support genuine deliberation and inform biodiversity dilemmas.

Author: Dr Emily Winter. 

The project team consisted of Dr Maria Angela Ferrario, Dr Christopher Donaldson and Dr Emily Winter; Lancaster University. Research partner: Harvey Wilkinson, National Trust.

*The work of Ensemble and subsequent grants has been funded by the UK EPSRC as part of the Senior Fellowship in the Role of Digital Technology in Understanding, Mitigating and Adapting to Environmental Change grant no: EP/P002285/1.

Photo credit: Tarn Hows, Peter Trimming from Croydon, England [CC BY 2.0]