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Learning in Adaptive Management: Insights from Published Practice

Christo Fabricius, Sustainability Research Unit, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, South Africa
Georgina Cundill, Department of Environmental Science, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa


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Adaptive management is often advocated as a solution to understanding and managing complexity in social-ecological systems. Given the centrality of learning in adaptive management, it remains unclear how learning in adaptive management is understood to occur, who learns, what they learn about, and how they learn. We conducted a systematic review using the Thomson Reuters Web of Science, and searched specifically for examples of the practical implementation of adaptive management between 2011 and 2013, i.e., excluding articles that suggested frameworks, models, or recommendations for future action. This provided a subset of 22 papers that were analyzed using five elements: the aims of adaptive management as stated in each paper; the reported achievements of adaptive management; what was learned; who learned; and how they learned. Our results indicate that, although most published adaptive management initiatives aimed at improvements in biological conservation or ecosystem management, scholars of adaptive management tend to report on learning more about governance and about learning, than about ecosystems or biological conservation. Whereas almost all the papers (91%) listed improvements in biological conservation and ecosystem management as aims, 59% reported these as achievements. Whereas only 27% listed improved governance as an aim, 73% mentioned this as an achievement. Conservation scientists and academics reporting on adaptive management tend to learn among themselves, and very seldom (18%) with external stakeholders. Adaptive ecosystem management is dominated by direct assessment and single-loop learning aimed at improving existing practices (86%), with about 50% engaged in double-loop learning and a similar number in deutero-learning (learning about learning). Some adaptive managers (36%) combined double-and single-loop learning and the majority of these (6/8) reported on conservation achievements. A possible explanation for these findings is that adaptive management is an evolutionary process and in most instances is still in an early pioneering stage, possibly held back by participants’ capacity for learning. The constraint of learning capacity may also explain why so few adaptive management initiatives reported on learning with societal stakeholders.

Key words

adaptive management; biological conservation; ecosystem management; governance; social learning

Copyright © 2014 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes 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