Archive for April, 2014

Sustainability, Governance and the Navajo Nation

In the last few weeks I’ve had the wonderful good fortune of working with representatives of the Navajo Nation on governance.  One of the School of Sustainability’s doctoral students, Edward Dee, a member of the Navajo Nation, approached me about a meeting on the proposed Navajo Decentralization Plan and the incorporation of sustainability concepts in their Intra-tribal Consultation Policy.

My starting point drew on my previous work in southern Africa on transboundary conservation and the challenges of interactions between national agencies while simultaneously working between local communities and national governments.  This becomes particularly challenging when land claims and the settlement of indigenous rights are involved.  While limited in the comparisons that are appropriate between the cases, I believe that the Navajo Nation faces similar constraints both between Navajo chapters and between tribal and federal land, particularly when facing transboundary environmental problems such as water conservation, fire management, and biodiversity threats.

In thinking about environmental policy and sustainability, I stress three main points – the need for collaborative, nested, and adaptive institutional arrangements (or rules and operating procedures).  Because sustainability challenges are often ‘wicked’ in that they have no single, right answer (incomplete, inconsistent, and changing requirements) and because they generally involve multiple stakeholder groups, effective governance requires collaboration.  Effective governance requires legitimacy.  Collaboration and broader levels of participation are ways to build legitimacy in rule-making.

Sustainability challenges are also multi-scalar and cross many political boundaries and land use/land tenure borders.  Building on ideas of polycentricity and institutional fit, governance systems should try to manage to the scale of the problem.  As sustainability challenges are often comprised from multiple problems, governance will often need to be nested to address multiple problems at multiple scales.

Finally, sustainability challenges occur in dynamic, complex systems filled with uncertainty and surprise,  nonlinearity and  threshold effects.  As a result, there is no such thing as an optimal set of rules/laws/policies.  Instead, governance arrangements need to be adaptive to deal with the unknown and be able to confront a dynamic environment.

These ideas are obviously quite vague in details.  I look forward to working with representatives from the Navajo Nation on how to operationalize the concepts.

Training students to be solutions-oriented

This semester I’ve had the good fortune to teach both a graduate level Applied Project Management course and an undergraduate policy course with applied group projects with neighboring communities.  In both classes, I have a number of students preparing to graduate.  As is often the case, this time of year is fraught with concerns about grades, graduation, and finding jobs.

At the same time, I’ve had a number of conversations with friends currently working in a number of sectors – the government, NGOs, financial institutions, entrepreneurs, etc.  In nearly every case, everyone discussed the urgency to train students to 1) think critically  and independently, 2) work individually and in groups without guidance, and 3) find solutions to problems.  As readers of my blog know, I have been trying to infuse my classes with real-world experiences and opportunities to directly apply the knowledge that they are learning.

In the next couple weeks, I hope to have the videos of my undergraduate class’ group presentations to their stakeholders.  For this class (Policy and Governance for Sustainable Systems), we had projects in which local municipal governments requested our help in a range of projects.  We ended up working on four projects (with four teams on each project).  They included:

  • the City of Peoria, Arizona and recycling contamination
  • the Town of Gilbert, Arizona and switching to a “Pay as You Throw” solid waste collection
  • the City of Goodyear, Arizona and waste water management
  • the City of Goodyear and the urban heat island.

In the coming weeks, I’ll link the videos and presentations with the problem statements from the municipalities to showcase some of the finer work.

I bring these examples up now because they serve a number of purposes.  First, projects such as these help to develop the skills that our students want and need to succeed in the future.  They are able to work on and build the skills that my friends and colleagues are asking for in the students that they are hoping to hire.  Second, it provides a safe place for the students to practice, try new ideas, get feedback from faculty and engaged stakeholders with less penalty for “failure” than in a job.  Third, and related to the previous point, the students build experience and have projects that they can articulate to future employers and discuss “real” work rather than simply homework.  Fourth, it helps our communities to solve problems that they are facing and gives them access to the latest science at a low cost (just a bit of their time).  Finally, it helps connect the School of Sustainability and ASU more deeply to the local community – building ties at a number of levels.  We have students presenting to city workers (including the mayors),  finding opportunities to speak at city council meetings.  We have government officials meeting with faculty, staff, and students.  Finally, we have connections to our communities and engagement with finding problems to the challenges collectively facing us.

I’ll close by noting that it has been inspirational for me, my students, and the stakeholders – to see challenges being met, problems being solved, and the next generation stepping forward.