Advancing Integration Series


Shared learning: a vehicle for advancing integration

Dr Marcus Moench, ISET International
Processes that support learning across regions, disciplines, and scales are essential for the evolution of integrated responses to climate change. The impacts of climate change are increasingly clear; effective avenues for sharing lessons and addressing them far less so.

As the recent IPCC Working Group II report highlights, climate change will have a fundamental impact on everything from food systems to urbanisation in Asia. These impacts will emerge as climate interacts with complex dynamic social, infrastructure, and ecological systems. Management of these systems requires specialised knowledge from many disciplines and areas of activity. It requires integration.

Available projections of changes in climate are generally insufficient to meet the information needs that people working in different fields require. Most climate projections focus on averages and do not communicate the nuances required by specialists in different sectors. Climate scientists need to understand the types of information required in different contexts in order to evaluate the results they produce, extract, and interpret relevant data. Similarly, users need to understand what climate science involves, the types of information it can produce and the inherent uncertainties in order to apply it within their own areas of activity.

Bridging the above gap between the “users” of climate information the “producers” of such information requires shared-learning. Because systems are complex, interdependent and affected by interactions across boundaries, scales, and time, understanding needs to be integrated among different groups of actors. Furthermore, information alone rarely translates linearly into policy or action. Instead, it flows into contexts where ideas, issues, and approaches are contested and outcomes emerge as a consequence of power relations and negotiation processes. As a result, shared learning and integration must engage with different actors and the social positions they take.

The discussion below explores experiences from shared learning techniques by the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN) to support the development of climate resilience strategies for cities in Vietnam, India, Thailand, and Indonesia. These experiences represent an initial attempt at integration through share learning. More systematic processes within a range of social contexts, including technical and scientific disciplines, are needed.

Within the ACCCRN program, shared learning approaches were adopted as a basic strategy to engage cities and then support cities in developing a guiding climate resilience strategy. While this philosophy was common across the program, the actual process of shared learning played out somewhat differently in each city. In Vietnam, the highly centralized nature of government allowed the process to be rolled out in a fairly linear fashion through meetings and research activities coordinated by municipal governments. In India, local elections prevented government officials from attending meetings and the process relied far more on one-to-one discussions coupled and engagement with non-governmental organizations. Thailand represented yet another situation where the role of municipal governments is more tied to regional and national political structures.

Despite differences in the actual process of shared learning, in all cases it resulted in the emergence of a small set of well-informed and active individuals who, through a process of sharing, contestation and debate, translated the elements most relevant to the city into locally tailored strategic documents and courses of action. The processes were, of course, imperfect. This said, the strategic approaches enabled initiation of a wide range of activities to build resilience. They also created a “ripple” of knowledge and understanding through the cities and the set of partners involved in the program. This growing body of understanding has elements that are shared but is also differentiated according to roles, interests, and perspectives of the groups involved.

While the shared learning process has similarities to action research and participatory planning – similar to the change processes carried out in Advancing Integration - the potential role of shared-learning approaches is not limited to development contexts.

Shared forms of learning are also essential for communication between experts in technical fields. In, for example, Institute for Social and Environmental Transition (ISET)’s research in Pakistan on the impacts of temperature, medical professionals indicated that the heat index (a measure that combines temperature and humidity) is the best predictor for heat stress hospitalisation. Understanding this was essential for scientists working at the US National Centre for Atmospheric Centre to extract relevant information from ensemble simulation runs. Shared learning between professional groups resulted in clear identification of the severe impact temperature change will have on health in cities across South Asia. This critical new knowledge could not have been identified without shared-learning.

Overall, shared learning processes are central to integrating the complex impacts climate change is having on ecosystems, infrastructure, and the social fabric of society. Existing experience relates primarily to the use of shared learning processes for integration of action research and planning. Such processes could, however, be refined and targeted to bridge professional and scientific divides as well. Progress of this type is essential if societies across the globe are to integrate knowledge, build resilience, and adapt to the impacts of climate change.