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Creating space, aligning motivations, and building trust: a practical framework for stakeholder engagement based on experience in 12 ecosystem services case studies

Heather A. Schoonover, Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, Lund, Sweden
Adrienne Grêt-Regamey, Institute for Spatial and Landscape Development, ETH Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland
Marc J. Metzger, School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK
Ana Ruiz-Frau, Department of Global Change Research, IMEDEA (CSIC-UIB), Institut Mediterrani d'Estudis Avançats, Esporles, Spain
Margarida Santos-Reis, Centre for Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Changes (cE3c), Faculdade de Ciências (FCUL), Universidade de Lisboa, Lisbon, Portugal
Samantha S. K. Scholte, Institute for Environmental Studies, VU University Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Ariane Walz, Institute of Earth and Environmental Science, University of Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany
Kimberly A. Nicholas, Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, Lund, Sweden


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Ecosystem services inherently involve people, whose values help define the benefits of nature's services. It is thus important for researchers to involve stakeholders in ecosystem services research. However, a simple and practicable framework to guide such engagement, and in particular to help researchers anticipate and consider key issues and challenges, has not been well explored. Here, we use experience from the 12 case studies in the European Operational Potential of Ecosystem Research Applications (OPERAs) project to propose a stakeholder engagement framework comprising three key elements: creating space, aligning motivations, and building trust. We argue that involving stakeholders in research demands thoughtful reflection from the researchers about what kind of space they want to create, including if and how they want to bring different interests together, how much space they want to allow for critical discussion, and whether there is a role for particular stakeholders to serve as conduits between others. In addition, understanding their own motivations—including values, knowledge, goals, and desired benefits—will help researchers decide when and how to involve stakeholders, identify areas of common ground and potential disagreement, frame the project appropriately, set expectations, and ensure each party is able to see benefits of engaging with each other. Finally, building relationships with stakeholders can be difficult but considering the roles of existing relationships, time, approach, reputation, and belonging can help build mutual trust. Although the three key elements and the paths between them can play out differently depending on the particular research project, we suggest that a research design that considers how to create the space in which researchers and stakeholders will meet, align motivations between researchers and stakeholders, and build mutual trust will help foster productive researcher–stakeholder relationships.

Key words

cocreated knowledge; ecosystem services; participatory research; research design; stakeholder engagement; transdisciplinary research

Copyright © 2019 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087