The traditional, linear approach to policy-making involves defining and framing problems to be addressed; drafting solutions and evaluating their efficacy and viability; working through the political, legal and institutional processes to get solutions adopted into practice; and ultimately implementing them. Occasionally, policies and practices are modified when it becomes clear that they are not delivering as planned, but evaluation is often cursory and not well integrated into the decision-making process. The problem with this approach is that many environmental and natural resource questions are rife with uncertainty and involve constantly changing systems. The best approach today may be insufficient or in appropriate down the road as conditions change and new information emerges.
Adaptive management aims to overcome the limitations of a static approach by institutionalizing ongoing cycles of evaluation and subsequent change. Any solution or management plan is considered only temporary, with constant revision in the face of information garnered from ongoing monitoring and evaluation. The emphasis is on learning by doing, and being responsive to new information and system feedback. This requires new approaches to management and decision-making that are flexible and support ongoing learning.
Adaptive management is most effective when it is collaborative in nature, engaging stakeholders at all stages. Failure to keep stakeholders involved, and their interests accounted for, can lead to loss of support for the iterative decisions made. Adaptive management can only be successful when decisions are grounded both in good science, and political and practical realities.
In practice, collaborative adaptive management is extremely challenging, and success stories are few and far between. The MIT Science Impact Collaborative is investigating how better managing the relationships between scientists, policy-makers and other stakeholders, and structuring processes to facilitate the effective transfer of new information into practice can increase the chances of success.
For more information on collaborative adaptive management, see the following resources: