Servicio de Información Comunitario sobre Investigación y Desarrollo - CORDIS

Final Activity Report Summary - COEVOLVE-WATER (Coevolutionary processes and water management)

This project developed the concept of socio-ecological co-evolution. First coined by Richard Norgaard at UC Berkeley, co-evolution aspired to provide a new metaphor for re-thinking the interrelationship between humans and their environments. Co-evolution is an interlocked process of change whereby technologies, institutions, values and environments, each select for the dominant traits of the other and each change in relation to others.

The motivation for this research came from the lack of empirical applications of co-evolution. An assumption was that this was because the initial model of Norgaard:
i) underspecified the evolutionary dynamics of co-evolution, emphasising instead positive feedbacks;
ii) developed as it was at a general systemic level, it did not have a place for human agents.
Training and research activities were carried at UC Berkeley under the supervision of Richard Norgaard.

A major outcome of the project is a new co-evolutionary model. Its foundation is a population of households with different production and consumption attributes. This is equivalent (but also in important ways different) to a population of organisms in biology with different genetic attributes. Evolution shows over time in the changing frequency of different types of production and consumption attributes in the population. Evolution is the outcome of innovation and selection. Innovation includes inventions or introductions of new practices from outside of the system. Selection comes as new introductions are differentially adopted by households through imitation, persuasion or coercion. Households that are perceived by peers as 'doing well' are more likely to be imitated and see their practices spread in the population. Households in groups with better cooperation are more likely to do better than those in non-cooperative groups. The bio-physical, economic and social environments within which households and groups operate affect the differential performance of practices. Co-evolution happens as consumption or production practices modify the local biophysical environment, in expected and unexpected ways, creating new selection conditions that affect the evolution of future populations.

This conceptual model was put to work on two empirical cases. The first studied the evolution of production practices in a small community of family farmers in southern Brazil. The second studied the evolution of water consumption practices in Athens, Greece. Each case showed how practices that fit better their socio-economic and biophysical environment spread through imitation, in turn producing new environments into which new introductions came to operate. In the Brazilian case, this helped explain the proliferating diversity of production practices and the selective environment within which the recent introduction of organic agriculture operated. Sustainable policies are more likely to be those that recognise local diversity and support farmers to reduce risk and maintain adaptability to external conditions. In the Athens case, the theoretical framework helped identify a historical pattern of co-evolution of water demand and water supply. Policies of diversification of water supply, adaptive management and collective, participatory governance are likely to increase the resilience of the city to climatic and socio-economic stresses.

Policy diversity, adaptive management with experimentation and collaborative co-governance are oft policy implications of co-evolutionary theory. The California Bay-Delta water management program is one of the few programs where these principles have been put into practice. A study of the program revealed certain tensions between adaptability, efficiency and accountability. It also exposed the real-world clash of adaptive management ideals with dominant political-economic processes. This forces one to rethink the possibility (or even desirability) of universal co-evolutionary policy principles. Diversity, adaptation or collaboration can only be specified in relation to real-world contexts and may have to be balanced with other valid social goals.

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