AResearch Associate Professor of Law and Policy, University at Buffalo, Regional Institute, School of Architecture and Planning, 77 Goodell Street, Suite 302, Buffalo, NY 14203 USA.
The Great Lakes St. Lawrence River Basin is a highly complex, transboundary, decentralized, socio-ecological system (Friedman and Creed, 2015). Notwithstanding ecological restoration strides made since the 1960s and 1970s, the basin remains at a tipping point (Bails, et al., 2005). Alarm about non-native species and chemical and biological contaminants is long standing, however, recent concerns have emerged about algal blooms containing toxins in Lake Erie, as evidenced by the severe crisis that shut down Toledo’s water supply for several days. Microbeads found in over-the-counter beauty products also serve as a more recent threat to basin health. Economic development and land use changes in post-legacy cities are sources of further stress.
The Great Lakes Futures Project (GLFP) (Creed et al., eds. 2015) was a two-year, cross-sectoral effort undertaken to address these challenges, among others. The goal of the GLFP was to suggest areas of governance and policy reform to achieve a sustainable and thriving Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin.
The GLFP used the intuitive logistics model of scenario analysis to visualize plausible futures and make predictions regarding the Great Lakes basin, with focus on unintended consequences of society’s action or inaction (Laurent et al., 2015a). Although scenario analysis is commonly used in disciplines such as urban and regional planning, it proved to be a novel and valuable tool when used at the transboundary scale. This rigorous method transcended disciplinary boundaries; enabled the consideration of uncertainty; and created a common language among science–policy–stakeholder representatives, adding diversity and depth to the science–policy discourse (Laurent et al., 2015a). This scenario analysis explored different assumptions about how causal relationships worked and could result in different outcomes. The initiative created stories about the future that were not impossible to achieve and considered the following questions: What forces are driving change? What are the key uncertainties associated with these drivers? How could these forces impact current pathways toward the future? (Laurent et al., 2015a).
Five workshops were held throughout the two-year period of the GLFP. During these sessions, stakeholder participants engaged in dialogue on the present state and future course of the basin. These stakeholders were drawn from networks, as well as from lists of attendees at Great Lakes events, and were representative of each environmental policy sector (public, private, NGO, academic) and scale (binational, federal, provincial, state, and local), as well as multiple academic disciplines including the natural sciences, social sciences, engineering, planning, and law (Williams, 2015). Approximately 135 stakeholders participated in the GLFP over the two-year period (Williams, 2015). A core of 25 stakeholders consistently contributed to the workshops; approximately 30 to 80 others participated in only one or two workshops (Williams, 2015).
First, stakeholders identified eight drivers of change impacting the Great Lakes basin (Laurent et al., 2015a). These drivers included climate change, water quantity, demographics and societal values, the economy, energy, biological and chemical contaminants, aquatic invasive species, and governance and geopolitics. Using a protocol developed by Maack (2001), workshop stakeholders next identified critical forces of change (Laurent et al.,2015b) in the basin that resulted in four distinct, alternative futures: Thriving and Prosperous (Comer et al., 2015); Living on the Edge (Steenberg et al., 2015); Trying Hard to Adapt (Orr et al.,2015); and Out of Control (Kalafatis et al., 2015). Binational faculty–graduate student research teams further refined these scenarios and developed narratives for each future (Laurent et al., 2015a). Consensus emerged during our workshop dialogue that we are heading toward the “Out of Control” scenario, a future earmarked by the failure of humans to enact change and a striking imbalance between the environment and the economy. We are witnessing reactive government responses combined with a decline in financial resources to implement programs and monitor their compliance and effectiveness in meeting policy (Friedman et al., 2015).
Friedman et al. (2015) sets forth current barriers, guiding principles, and high-level policy recommendations for moving the basin toward a thriving and prosperous future. One meta-principle was identified to guide stakeholder thinking, understanding, investment, and action in the basin, namely that stakeholders should leverage the fact that the Great Lakes Basin is a policy system characterized by shared power, many actors, ambiguity, complexity, and flexibility. Five supporting principles include 1) thinking creatively about leveraging policies that are place-based and incorporate top-down and bottom-up governance to encourage stewardship; 2) tackling basin challenges holistically and explicitly recognizing that a thriving environment is the foundation for a prosperous economy and society; 3) strengthening resource, compliance, and accountability capacity; 4) strengthening connections among all relevant sectors – business, science, policy, education, and outreach – to encourage stewardship and improve outcomes; and 5) creating and empowering a Great Lakes “identity” and place-based visions of the basin at appropriate scales that reflect the voice of all constituents.
Given the highly decentralized nature of the basin, the GLFP concluded that no single optimal policy space exists for achieving a prosperous and thriving future. Stakeholders must strategically leverage myriad opportunities while remaining nimble. We must 1) seek out opportunities to develop strategies, mechanisms and practices that are place-based and require shared responsibility for the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin; 2) create, and build upon existing, mechanisms that embody ecosystem health as a foundation that leads to innovation and societal well-being; 3) integrate governance and socio-economic indicators into current ecosystem monitoring; 4) strengthen existing and create new Great Lakes experiential programs using social media; and 5) develop stakeholder-driven planning and visioning that is legitimized by political leadership. Indeed, it is this last recommendation that Krantzberg et al. (2015) argues is critical to developing capacity for creating a basin that thrives for future generations.
A compilation of papers on the Great Lakes Futures Project is published in a Special Issue of the Journal of Great Lakes Research (41) 2015.
- Bails J, Beeton A, Bulkley J, et al. 2005. Prescription for Great Lakes: Ecosystem protection and restoration avoiding the tipping point of irreversible changes. Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition Technical Advisory Committee.
- Comer B, Fera S, Splawinski S, et al. 2015. Thriving and prosperous: how we rallied to confront collective challenges. J. Great Lakes Res 41(SI): 161–170.
- Creed IF, Taylor WD, Sibley P, et al. (eds.). 2015. The Great Lakes Futures Project. J Great Lakes Res 41(SI): 1-191.
- Creed IF and Laurent KL. 2015. The Great Lakes Futures Project. J Great Lakes Res 41(SI): 1-7.
- Friedman KB and Creed IF. 2015. Innovative responses to transboundary challenges. UN habitat international guidelines on urban and territorial planning. Nairobi: UN-Habitat.
- Friedman KB, Laurent KL, Krantzberg G, et al. 2015. The Great Lakes Futures Project: Principles and policy recommendations for making the lakes great. J Great Lakes Res 41(SI): 171-179.
- Krantzberg G, Creed, IF, Friedman, KB, et al. 2015. Community engagement is critical to achieve a “thriving and prosperous” future for the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence River basin. J. Great Lakes Res 41(SI): 188–191.
- Kalafatis SE, Campbell M, Fathers F, et al. 2015. Out of control: How we failed to adapt and suffered the consequences. J Great Lakes Res 41(SI): 20-29.
- Laurent KL, Friedman KB, Krantzberg G, et al. 2015a. Scenario analysis: An integrative and effective method for bridging disciplines and achieving a thriving Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River basin. J Great Lakes Res 41(SI): 12-19.
- Laurent, KL, Scavia, D, Friedman, KB, et al. 2015b. Critical forces defining alternative futures for the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence River basin. J. Great Lakes Res 41(SI): 131–138.
- Maack, JN. 2001. Scenario analysis: a tool for task managers. Social Analysis: Selected Tools and Techniques, Social Dev. Paper 36: 62–87 (Washington, DC, Accessed online 08–16–2015 at: Link).
- Orr C, Williams K, Laurent KL, et al. 2015. Trying hard to adapt to a chaotic world: how complex challenges overwhelmed our best intentions. J. Great Lakes Res 41(SI): 139–149.
- Steenberg J, Timm M, Laurent KL, et al. 2015. Living on the edge: how we converted challenges into profitable opportunities. J. Great Lakes Res 41(SI): 150–160.
- Williams, KC, 2015. Building bridges in the Great Lakes: How objects and organization facilitate collaboration across boundaries. J. Great Lakes Res 41(SI): 180–187.