Community Research and Development Information Service - CORDIS

Final Report Summary - OPERAS (Operational Potential of Ecosystem Research Applications)

Executive Summary:
Ecosystems provide humankind with a range of benefits, or ecosystem services (ES). High-level policy frameworks have adopted ES, but the application of the concept in decision-making practice remains challenging. Between 2012 and 2017 OPERAs explored how and under what conditions the ES concept could support sustainable decision making and ecosystem management. OPERAs co-produced a diversity of approaches in twelve 'exemplar' case studies across a range of ecosystems and established the online, knowledge marketplace Oppla to improve and simplify how knowledge to better manage our environment is shared, obtained and created.

Key messages:
1. Minimising damage to ecosystems and ensuring human well-being requires effective integration of ES across policy sectors
2. It is important to understand what people value when developing ecosystem management plans
3. Traditional economic methods alone are insufficient to value the full benefits of ES; socio-cultural valuation can ensure a more comprehensive treatment of values.
4. Land use decisions come with trade-offs over space, time and between stakeholders, but tools are available to help decision-makers to navigate trade-offs effectively
5. There are many methods, approaches and tools to support ecosystem management, but applying them requires sharing real examples from which to learn best practice

Project Context and Objectives:
Ecosystems provide humankind with a range of beneficial resources, goods and services. Yet human use and exploitation of the biosphere is increasing at such a pace and scale that many of the major ecosystems are threatened and may not be able to continue to function in ways that are vital to support the existence of humanity. Re-framing environmental resource use has led to the emergence of the ecosystem services (ES) concept, which explicitly acknowledges our dependence on nature and the need to better protect and manage natural resources.
Although ES have been adopted in high-level policy frameworks - including the Convention on Biological Diversity and the EU biodiversity strategy - the application of the concept in policy and decision-making practice remains challenging. Between 2012 and 2017 OPERAs explored how and under what conditions the ES concept can move beyond the academic domain towards practical implementation in support of sustainable ecosystem management.

1. Review and synthesise knowledge gaps, user needs and best practice
2. Increase knowledge and understanding to support policy and decision-making
3. Improve and develop methods, tools and instruments to support ecosystem management
4. Co-develop and test these approaches in practice with stakeholders across a range of ecosystems in twelve 'exemplar' case-studies
5. Establish communities of practice and a knowledge marketplace where the latest ES thinking is brought together (the Oppla online platform;

Project Results:
Key message 1: Minimising damage to ecosystems and ensuring human well-being requires effective integration of ES across policy sectors

ES need to be included in policy to minimise damage to ecosystems and to ensure the sustainable supply of these essential services for human well-being. To achieve this, integration is required at all levels of governance and across multiple policy sectors. Current level of integration of ES varies across policy areas and governance levels. However, generally, the existing policy frameworks for ES remain far from optimal and so, further knowledge and guidance on how to integrate ES in policies was developed. Specifically, integration into sectoral policies should occur at three levels: conceptual, operational and implementation. Conceptual integration occurs where documents underpinning sectoral policies (e.g. strategies and roadmaps) either explicitly or implicitly consider ES. Operational integration is where specific measures or instruments are identified and committed to address ES related objectives within policy sectors. Implementation integration is where concrete measures achieve integration on the ground in actual policy- and decision-making situations. Several high-level policy initiatives provide opportunities for the effective integration of ES into sectoral policies. These include the green economy, resource efficiency roadmap, green infrastructure strategy and the reform of environmentally harmful subsidies.

Concrete policy instruments are essential to support the integration of ES in practice. Different types of policy instruments exist to support or, as in most cases, have the potential to support the integration of ES. These instruments classify into three different types: information, decision-support and implementation. Information instruments include indicators for assessing the implementation of policies; databases and frameworks for monitoring, mapping and accounting; and a range of science-policy assessments supporting policy development. Decision-support instruments include instruments for planning and targeting, reporting, and impact and risk assessment/procedures. Implementation integration includes concrete measures to achieve integration on the ground in actual policy- and decision-making situations.
For effective integration of ES in policy more targeted actions and application at all three instrument levels and at all levels of governance is necessary. A three-step approach was developed based on using the green economy framework as a premise and strategic platform to assess level of integration and improve the integration and implementation of ES in sectoral policies. Step 1 assesses the current level of policy integration across sectors. Step 2 identifies key policy and sectoral opportunities and needs for future integration. Step 3 provides advice on how to use the assessment of sectoral integration of ES as a concrete means of developing 'green' transition plans for different economic sectors. The application of this assessment approach in practice shows varying levels of integration across different policy sectors, with the level of operational integration generally lacking behind conceptual integration. For example, none of the EU policy sectors currently provides a comprehensive framework for the implementation and uptake of ES.

A study in Dublin found that a Socio-Cultural Valuation method for ES served as a favourable approach for public consultation and provided useful data on ES to inform land use planning. This led to the Council committing to utilise the ES approach for public consultation within the new Fingal County Development Plan (2017-2023).

Key message 2: It is important to understand what people value when developing ecosystem management plans

Sustainable citizen behaviour is important for effective ecosystem conservation. Decision-makers sometimes fail to engage with the public surrounding the importance of ecosystems and many people are unaware of the importance of conservation, or how it is relevant to them. Successful public engagement in the conservation of ecosystems depends on framing the topic in a way that everyone understands. By highlighting the ES that people care about, decision-makers can adopt an approach that resonates with the public. To achieve this, it is important to map and understand the values that a community places on its local ecosystems.

The role of engaging citizens and other stakeholders was tested in eight, diverse case studies (Swiss Alps, the wine sector, Scotland, Barcelona, the Lower Danube, the Montado region, Dublin and Pan-Europe). This led to the development of an eight-step framework for eliciting demand for ES from citizens and stakeholders. 1. Determine the study objectives, e.g. find out the value that local residents place on coastal areas. 2. Identify and engage with key stakeholders from groups or individuals who can affect, or are affected by, ES. 3. Identify all potential ES for a study area, select an ES framework (e.g., CICES, TEEB, MAES) and use this framework to work out, with stakeholders, which ES are relevant to the study. 4. Develop indicators for ES supply in order to measure and understand ES demand. 5. Select methods to elicit demand, e.g. choice experiments, participatory GIS, workshops or focus groups; the choice depends on the stakeholders and the study objectives. 6. Elicit stakeholder demand for ES and carry out the planned research. 7. Analyse and compare demand, e.g. identify the most highly valued services within the study and compare stakeholder demand with ES supply. 8. Assess the implications of the results and determine potential actions to improve or maintain ES.

A number of different methods can elicit the values people place on ES. Their selection depends on the context, specific circumstances, and objectives of the study, including whether or not the study informs decision- or policy-making. The purpose of valuation includes: a) assessing the current social value of an ecosystem and its services; b) determining preferred future ecosystem states and acceptable trade-offs; and c) identifying and understanding the diversity of stakeholders and their behaviour. Regardless of the chosen method, it is important to approach a study in a way that relates to stakeholders. This includes using language that resonates with stakeholders and framing issues for specific audiences. Identifying different perspectives on ecosystem conservation can provide guidance for targeted information of use to local organisations in reaching a diverse set of stakeholders. Policy makers can also use this insight to make decisions based on the values of a wider stakeholder community within an ecosystem. These values are usually not immediately obvious, which is why engaging citizens in decision-making processes is key. Considering demand for an ES can inform actions to improve or maintain that service and to inform nature conservation goals and actions ('capacity effect'). Understanding demand can also influence decisions and reduce conflict ('constraint effect'). If supply of the service is low, but demand is high, managers could harness this demand to involve stakeholders in managing the ecosystem. However, if both demand and supply are low, awareness raising may be a more appropriate strategy.

Key message 3: Traditional economic methods alone are insufficient to value the full benefits of ES; socio-cultural valuation can ensure a more comprehensive treatment of values.

Decision-makers need to be aware of the full range of implications of management decisions and can use various valuation methods to gain this understanding. This often involves assigning monetary values to environmental services. However, monetary valuation lends itself to certain ecosystems, and services, to the exclusion of others. Social values and cultural services are particularly difficult to identify, monetise, quantify and explain and so are often ignored. Personal experience, social institutions and social interactions inform social values, which can be particularly important for certain groups and communities. Social-Cultural Valuation (SCV) is a way of making these services, and the values associated with them, explicit. Taking account of the full suite of ES can ensure that proposed management practices are more widely accepted and have a greater chance of success. ES are a complex and unfamiliar concept for most people and their role can be difficult to communicate or understand. It is important to understand what people value in the environment in order to communicate effectively, gain support for potential management schemes and reduce conflict. As many ES are linked, and depend on healthy ecosystem function, Cultural ES (CES) can be used to communicate the value of the whole ecosystem and the full range of services it provides. SCV is also important in helping stakeholders to engage with their environment and to understand their relationship with it. In this way, SCV can be utilised as a new public consultation model to inform Green Infrastructure planning.
As there are a range of services and value associated with an ecosystem, SCV must use a variety of methods in order to understand fully how and what people value in their environment. People relate most closely to CES as these are experienced in the settings or situations in which they most typically interact with nature and realise its benefits. By comparison, the value associated with Regulating ES (RES) are less obvious or less well understood. A number of SCV methods are available, can be used in combination and have been tested in practice. Participatory Mapping of ES (PPGIS) and associated values helps people to connect their values to the landscape and to see the area as a whole. Decision-makers can also identify 'value hotspots' or areas where conflicts might arise. Deliberation allows people to develop their ideas through iterative discussion, building consensus and learning throughout the process. Choice experiments force people to think about what they value most using weighting or ranking techniques. Visualisation tools can help people to understand better the ES and landscapes in question. Scenario techniques encourage people to think about the sort of future they would like and what sort of management might help to achieve this.

Key message 4: Land use decisions come with trade-offs over space, time and between stakeholders, but tools are available to help decision-makers to navigate trade-offs effectively

Navigating trade-offs is an essential part of decision-making. It is particularly important in natural resource management in ecosystems where decisions made today may have implications for other ecosystems and future generations. To operationalise the ES concept and to manage natural capital wisely, decision makers need to have a full understanding of the trade-offs associated with their decisions, particularly regarding ES provisioning. If the increase of one ES happens directly or indirectly at the cost of another, maximising the provision of that service might lead to sub-optimal results. To support decisions, explicit information about trade-offs between ES is required and trade-off methods tested in practice. Different ES trade-offs exist between different ES categories. Some ES are more likely to lead to trade-offs rather than synergies, whilst others can be synergistic if well managed. Regulating and cultural ES are more likely to have a synergistic relationship, while trade-offs are more common between regulating and provisioning services. Setting objectives for ES provision is often not straightforward, since the relationships between how much of a service is provided, and the value it has for society are often non-linear (e.g. minimum levels needed before a benefit is provided), location-dependent (pollination near crops, air purification near urban areas) and context-dependent. Improvements are often possible compared to the current level of ES provision and Business-as-Usual scenarios.
Ecosystem management often requires choices to be made between different land use options and may use decision support tools to weigh up the trade-offs involved. A number of decision-support tools deal with trade-offs explicitly by working with preferences, e.g. CBA, MCA, MCDA, mDSS, while others do so implicitly by quantifying the impacts of different decisions and comparing these against one another, e.g. TESSA, ToSIA, WeLCA. Policy-making can often involve trade-offs when choosing which activities to encourage or favour and where to allocate funding. The Environmental Harmful Subsidy (EHS) tools supports policy making in identifying the impacts of policies, and navigates the potential trade-offs associated with them.
Multi-functional landscapes provide a test-bed to explore the many facets of ES trade-offs and synergies. Research in the French Alps and in Costa Rica looked at whether services align spatially, i.e. form a 'bundle' (synergy), or not (trade-off). Spatial relationships typically relate to the land cover or land management with which these services are associated. For example, in Costa Rica biodiversity hotspots had the highest co-benefits for other services, while carbon hotspots had the lowest. In the French Alps, scenarios of temporal synergies and trade-offs were used to explore how ES respond to factors such as changes in policy decisions, hydrological regimes, or climate. However, multifunctional landscapes are not always win-win situation; some trade-offs are unavoidable. Supply and demand trade-offs, studied in Barcelona, the Swiss Alps and the Lower Danube, refer to the societal demand for ES and the capacity of the ecosystem to provide ES. Trade-offs among beneficiaries looks at the degree to which changing boundary conditions or planning decisions affect the ES objectives of different groups of stakeholders. In Peru, the ES approach contributes to territorial management by creating networks and strengthening relationships between actors.

Key message 5: There are many methods, approaches and tools to support ecosystem management, but applying them requires sharing real examples from which to learn best practice

Despite their being a wealth of research on the subject of ES, the principles of the concept do not always make it into practice. There are a number of reasons for this. Particular gaps in knowledge as well as practical obstacles can create bottlenecks. A lack of standardisation in terms of the methods used in the research itself, or the reporting of findings can make it difficult to compare projects, identify trends and make recommendations. These issues in turn can make it difficult for decision-makers to know where to focus funding, which behaviours to encourage and how to give guidance on best practice. There are now many tools and methods, that have been tested in real-world situations, to support decision-making in applying the ES concept. However, the tools and methods alone are not enough to encourage better ecosystem management. There is also a need to provide access to these tools and to foster their use through co-learning and applications in practice. Co-learning and knowledge exchange is achievable through communities of practice. The OPERAs project worked with nine Scottish organizations to establish an ES Community Scotland (ESCom) for individuals with an interest in using the ES concept to further ecosystem management ( With over 500 members, and regular events to bring together researchers, decision makers and practitioners, ESCom illustrates how an ES community of practice can create space, align motivations and build trust.

Providing free and ready access to ES tools, methods and worked examples is also a critical pillar of using the ES concept for better ecosystem management. The Oppla information hub was developed with this purpose in mind ( Oppla is an online, knowledge marketplace; a place where the latest thinking on ES, natural capital and nature-based solutions is brought together. Its purpose is to simplify how we share, obtain and create knowledge to manage our environment in a better way. Oppla is an open platform that is designed for people with diverse needs and interests - from science, policy and practice; public, private and voluntary sectors; organisations large and small, as well as individuals. Membership of Oppla is free and includes access to the following services. Ask-Oppla is crowd-sourced enquiry service, where members of the Oppla community help to answer one another's questions. The Oppla Marketplace is a knowledge supermarket from where to obtain guidance, software, data and other useful resources, as well as promote the outputs of individual's own projects or networks. The Oppla Community is an easy-to-use system for networking with other members from around the world. As a not-for-profit company, Oppla also provides a legacy for the OPERAs project by continuing to engage with science, policy and practice into the future. It has also supported the Intergovernmental science-policy Platform on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in developing its web portal of policy support tools, thereby ensuring the widest possible access to ES knowledge worldwide.

Potential Impact:
Oppla - a new knowledge marketplace where the latest thinking on ecosystem services, natural capital and nature-based solutions is brought together.

One of the most enterprising outputs of the collaboration between the OPERAs and OpenNESS projects is Oppla: a non-profit organisation with a mission to "assist people in making nature work for the benefit of humankind". Oppla works to achieve this aim by managing a web-based community and innovation hub for sharing knowledge about natural capital, ecosystem services and nature-based solutions. In doing so Oppla provides solutions for a number of problems that are common throughout the research sector, notably:
1. Bringing together the outputs of environmental research (typically dispersed across multiple platforms) so that information can be more easily obtained.
2. Helping the outputs of environmental research achieve impact in other sectors by 'packaging' tools and resources in ways that are more accessible to target audiences.
3. Providing longevity to research outputs beyond the lifespan of projects.
4. Enabling organisations to immediately engage with an established community of interest: saving time and money on outreach and dissemination.

Oppla is the first spin-off SME of its kind to emerge from the EU FP7-Environment programme and since launching in 2016 has generated approximately €0.5 million in projected project income, alongside a community of over 1500 members drawn from a wide range of sectors (representing science, policy, business and society). In its first year Oppla has developed a network of approximately 100 strategic partners, including the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), through which it now aims to begin operating as a global platform: significantly increasing the impact of the OPERAs project.

Oppla provides a 'freemium' model for users, meaning that membership and access to services are free at point of use. Content is obtained and managed using the principles of crowd-sourcing and open data, creating unprecedented opportunities for co-design and innovation. Current services include:
1. Ask Oppla: A crowd-sourced enquiry service, where members of the Oppla community help to answer each other's questions.
2. Oppla Marketplace: A 'knowledge supermarket' where users can obtain guidance, software, data and other useful resources - as well as promote their own products and outputs.
3. Case Study Finder: An interactive map where Oppla members can browse and contribute case studies of practical projects.
4. Oppla Community: A searchable directory of Oppla members, which includes a 'Find My Match' facility - enabling users to identify other members who share similar expertise and interests.
5. Oppla Groups: Facility for users to create their own micro-communities within Oppla, focusing on specific topics, activities, scales, localities, etc.
6. Oppla Labs: A 'virtual laboratory' for showcasing, testing and sharing feedback on tools that are in development (software, data, models, guidance, etc).
7. Oppla Webinars: An ongoing programme of web-based presentations and discussions on a wide range of topics.

Both the Oppla organisation and web platform are continuing to expand, with significant new developments planned for 2018 and beyond. Members of OPERAs remain involved in the governance of Oppla through its Strategic Working Group, ensuring the future success of Oppla is guided by the same academic rigour and entrepreneurial spirit that led to its conception.

Creating impact through OPERAs videos

To communicate OPERAs work, a series of animated videos were developed that examined different aspects of the ES and OPERAs research in a concise and entertaining way. All the videos are available to stream and download from the official OPERAs youtube channel. The videos have been popular with the general public with over 10,000 views to date. In addition to their use for people to view from home, the video series have also been used as a means of engagement during citizen engagement workshops with both the general public and stakeholders. The videos leave a strong legacy of helping people to comprehend and develop a positive understanding of ES, understanding the context of where it's development came from, to the future implications of its integration into European policy.

The Antwerp Declaration

Launched during the European ES EU conference in Antwerp in 2016 - co-organised by OPERAs - and signed by over 300 people, the Antwerp declaration was based on a survey of over 100 conference delegates and discussion during the conference. The three key principles were outlined in the declaration:
1. Re-focus on principles of sustainability - ES quantification, valuation and mapping which is carried out with consideration of equality and social justice will ensure fairer distribution nature's benefits.
2. Reclaim the notion of value - ES assessments which include diverse values, incorporate alternative world views, respect indigenous and local knowledge, and do so at multiple scales of governance will be better able to reflect the needs and desires of society
3. Expand collaboration - effective ecosystem service assessment and management can best be achieved through collaboration across disciplines and sectors. This requires long-term institutional support.

Building ES communities of practice

Many OPERAs exemplars realised the need to bring together key stakeholders from science, policy and practice to identify where their research would provide added value and provide synergies to ongoing initiatives. This has led to the emergence of several communities of practice for individuals with an interest using the ES concept for better land management. In Scotland, nine organizations jointly launched the Ecosystem Services Community Scotland (ESCom; With over 500 members, and regular events to bring together researchers, decision makers and practitioners, ESCom illustrates how an ES community of practice can create space, align motivations and build trust.

A map of Europe's natural treasures

OPERAs research identified how communication is a major barrier for the ES concept. To support communication to a variety of non-expert audiences, a graphic ES map for Europe was developed. It illustrates many of the concepts covered by OPERAs research and is available as a public resource.

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