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Envisioning robust climate change adaptation futures for coastal regions: a comparative evaluation of cases in three continents

The paper investigates the potential of backcasting by comparing three different cases on vision and strategy development for climate change adaptation planning in coastal regions.
Figure 1: The Backcasting Adaptive Management Methodology


The need to integrate various foresight approaches in climate change adaptation planning and future planning increasingly resonates in environmental science and policy arenas. In contrast to forecasting and exploratory foresight approaches, normative foresight approaches like backcasting are the least applied approaches in climate change adaptation planning.

This paper reports on a comparative study of three different cases on vision and strategy development for climate change adaptation planning in the following coastal regions: The South African Breede–Overberg Catchment, The Mississippi Estuary-New Orleans region, and The Dutch Rhine-Meuse Estuary. The objective of the paper is two-fold: to develop a better understanding of such processes, and to further develop the Backcasting-Adaptive Management (BCAM) methodology (Figure 1). The BCAM methodology is a first attempt to describe backcasting and Adaptive Management as complementary approaches for climate change adaptation (see Van der Voorn et. al., 2012). The BCAM methodology combines the strengths of both approaches: backcasting provides AM a long time frame for the fulfilment of short- and mid-term management goals, whereas AM aims to secure adaptiveness within this timeframe. The study addresses whether stakeholder engagement enables implementation and follow-up, whether the guiding and transformative potential of a vision is different in cases of multiple or single vision studies, and how multiple pathways support robust climate change adaptation planning.

Multi-case study research

A multiple-case study research approach has been designed to investigate three cases on vision and strategy development for climate change adaptation planning: (i) The Breede–Overberg Catchment Management Strategy in South Africa; (ii) The New Orleans Horizon Initiative Water Management Strategy in the United States; and (iii) The Rhine-Meuse Estuary sub-programme of the Dutch Delta Programme in the Netherlands.

The cases show a combination of common characteristics and diversity on other criteria, which can be adequately dealt with through a multiple case study design. Common characteristics include: historically vulnerable deltaic or coastal regions with changing climatic conditions and the associated increase of extreme weather events such as floods and droughts, and a high level of economic activity in major cities or in the region, and a long tradition of technocratic management paradigm in water resources management.

Diversity is also present throughout the continents (Europe, North America, and Africa), the case study design, the research methods applied, and type of data collected. Diversity results from a purposeful choice of the cases to: compare climate change adaptation planning effort in different governance contexts and countries and their relative advancement in this effort. Diversity is also present in the governance contexts, which takes into account the different actors and networks involved in formulating and implementing policy or policy instruments, and the types of participatory vision development process. The governance context and the nature and design of vision development in each case study can be described as follows:

  • The South African case is characterised by top-down governance. The participatory vision development process was government-initiated but decentralised and empowerment-oriented.
  • In the US case, there is a strong belief in market-based solutions, a ‘small government’ and private sector initiatives although water safety is a public responsibility. The participatory vision development process was initiated and facilitated bottom-up by a private think-tank.
  • In the Dutch case, polycentric governance dominates, which combines top-down, bottom-up and networked governance with network-based coordination of initiatives and sectors. The participatory vision development process was government-initiated but built upon a polycentric process.

A novel framework for case evaluation and comparison (summary)

Backcasting approaches for vision and strategy development for climate change adaptation planning are the least described and evaluated approaches in the field of climate change adaptation. A novel framework has been developed to evaluate and compare such backcasting applications in terms of: (i) the inputs and resources used, (ii) the type of future vision, (iii) the type of stakeholder engagement and process, (iv) methodological aspects, (v) pathway development and (vi) impact. The dimensions are summarised below*.

  • Dimension 1 relates to different kinds of inputs and resources allocated to climate change adaptation planning, which involves an adequate integration of different bodies of knowledge and expertise. This integration is evaluated from the perspective of participation, by focusing on who contributes to vision development and how.
  • Dimension 2 refers to the transformative and guiding potential of the vision developed in the cases. The potential of a future vision to act as a medium of change lies in its transformative elements. The guiding potential of vision relates to whether the vision provides orientation and guidance that motivates stakeholders to commit themselves to the envisioned future and converge in their actions to bring about that future.
  • Dimension 3 concerns stakeholder engagement to take into account the various stakeholders involved, which may have different perceptions of problems and solutions, claim different roles and mobilise different resources to serve their interests.
  • Dimension 4 concerns pathway development, which is about defining pathways for bringing about the vision and meeting multiple goals. Pathways provide details on how (measures) and by whom (agency) change is brought about. This dimension also evaluates the robustness of pathways, which allows the vision to be realised under changing conditions (e.g., changing climatic conditions) see Figure 2. This requires a pathway to address various types of uncertainties and to include robust elements, which are pathway elements such as signposts (i.e., indicator for measuring change) and milestones (i.e., deadlines for the desired change to be achieved).
  • Dimension 5 is used to evaluate the methodological diversity present in the three cases studied.
  • Dimension 6 involves the impact of a participatory vision study corresponding to whether the participatory process was included by formal decision making and to examples of follow-up and implementation activities and broader spin-off.
Figure 2: Pathways and robust elements for pathway switching

*A full description of the dimensions and the corresponding evaluation criteria can be found in the article that was published in Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change in October 2015.

Key messages (summary)

We have developed and applied a framework for the evaluation of cases on vision development for robust climate change adaptation planning. The outcomes are useful for further methodology development for the BCAM methodology and other vision-based normative approaches in climate change adaptation planning. The framework has been useful to evaluate and compare a diverse set of cases, showing both differences and similarities in very different contexts.

The study results show considerable diversity in our cases on regional participatory vision development, which is both an emergent outcome and a design principle of the study. The cases provide valuable insight into the different ways, in which vision development took place in different governance contexts. The nature and design of vision development are characteristic for the related governance context, which appears to have less impact on the outcome of the process than expected. This may indicate that other dynamics are at play such as learning processes, which are beyond the scope of our evaluation framework. Such processes provide further insight into how expertise and knowledge have affected the development and stakeholder endorsement of the visions in the cases.

The cross-case comparison have led to the following findings, providing general patterns in vision development for climate change adaptation planning. First, all three cases demonstrate the presence of visions in climate change adaptation planning, regardless whether a single or multiple visions were used for pathway development. Moreover, the cases demonstrate that a single, shared future vision is not a prerequisite for vision and pathway development and endorsement, which is counterintuitive and defies the dominance of single, shared visions in the current literature. As illustrated in Figure 3, alignment of strategic policy actions or measures could enhance the fulfilment of multiple goals that related to different but complementary future visions.

Figure 3: Multiple visions and pathways for multi-objective goal attainment

Secondly, the cases confirm that broad stakeholder engagement is essential for enriching vision and pathway development. It generates stakeholder commitment for and co-ownership of the results of stakeholder processes, although the latter does not guarantee implementation. The involvement of marginal groups requires major capacity building effort, but broadens both stakeholder involvement and commitment considerably. This supports inclusion of divergent and marginal perspectives on the vision, which may not happen otherwise.

Thirdly, the cases show that developing long-term pathways and robust elements refers to a conceptual and methodological novelty for which resources are not always available and expertise seems limited. The Dutch case is more advanced in pathway development than the other cases, which may point to the leading position of the Netherlands in climate change adaptation effort. A longitudinal study would be useful to investigate and compare advancements in the case study regions over long periods of time. Nevertheless, the global relevance of our “regional” cases on participatory vision development lies in the more advanced tools and methods, which have broader relevance for climate change adaptation research and practice worldwide.

Fourthly, the influence of the governance context on the extent of follow-up and implementation seems less important in the cases than a good connection to formal decision-making process. Instead, both institutional embeddedness of participatory processes and their outcomes and a good connection to formal decision-making processes are highly required for follow-up and implementation.

Finally, government agencies play an important role in the observed impact of the vision studies, because they are responsible for managing stakeholder processes and provide institutional protection for follow-up activities and broader spin-off, including the allocation of resources required for these activities.

Based on these case study findings, the following major conclusions have been drawn:

  • A single, shared future vision is not a prerequisite for vision and pathway development and endorsement
  • Broad stakeholder engagement supports strategy development, but the involvement of marginal groups is complicated and requires substantial efforts
  • Multiple pathways and robust elements are helpful but require novel expertise
  • More institutional embeddedness of participatory processes through connecting to formal decision-making processes leads to better implementation of the outcomes of these processes.

The global relevance of our regional cases on participatory vision development includes more advanced tools and methods like the use of robust elements and testing pathways against different context scenarios. Broad stakeholder engagement, including marginal groups, is important to develop better visions and stimulate their endorsement. Furthermore, exchange of cases and their learning results between different regions is needed and could be used to enhance capacity building and to accelerate the dissemination of new advanced tools and methods. Against this backdrop, we propose the following recommendations for global climate change adaptation strategy development, which can be downscaled to the regional level:

  • Include broad stakeholder engagement for vision and pathway development.
  • Develop multiple, long-term pathways with robust elements and test pathways against different context scenarios.
  • Build capacities and expertise on the application of robust elements and pathways and establish the transfer of best practices.
  • Develop a global agenda and framework for disseminating knowledge and experience to transfer global, national and regional climate change adaptation efforts, cases, and knowledge, e.g. on robust elements and multiple-pathway development.

View this study at the Journal ofMitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change.

Suggested citation:

Voorn, van der, T., Quist, J., Pahl-Wostl, C., Haasnoot, M., (2015). Envisioning robust climate change adaptation futures for coastal regions: A comparative evaluation of cases in three continents. http://10.1007/s11027-015-9686-4

Related content:

Van der Voorn T (2015) Supplementary material on visions and goals.

Van der Voorn, T., Pahl-Wostl, C., Quist, J. (2012) Combining backcasting and adaptive management for climate adaptation in coastal regions: A methodology and a South African case study. Journal of Futures 44, 346-364.

Quist, J., Thissen, W., Vergragt, P.J. (2011) The impact and spin-off of participatory backcasting: From vision to niche. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 78, 883-897.

Van der Voorn T (2010) Anavigating synthesis report on integrated and adaptive watermanagement in New Orleans.

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