Management of Protected Areas:

A Collaborative System Dynamics Interactive Learning Environment

Nuno Videira*, Fabian Szulanski, Paula Antunes*, Rui Santos*, Luis Jordão*

*New University of Lisbon


The neglectful use of environmental resources is beginning to find its limits. Alongside, the concept of scarcity is slowly raising awareness among decision makers and managers. As all cultures depend on the use of natural resources, the main challenge is to find the right balance between conservation and sustainable use (Brundtland, 1993). The growth in the number of protected areas in the world (IUCN, 1990), clearly points out the effort that countries have been putting into nature conservation policies.

A crucial issue for managers of protected areas is designing and implementing sustainable policies that promote local and regional development while maintaining biological diversity. In many settings effective protection will require to change current patterns of behavior to limit our present uses that endanger protected areas' resources (Dixon, 1990).

However, at a strategy development level, many difficulties arise as managers often fail to predict with sufficient accuracy the impacts of their decisions, which leads to policy resistance situations and other unintended consequences. Therefore, learning laboratories are required and a System Dynamics Based Interactive Learning Environment (SDBILE), "MANAGE IT!", was developed with the purpose of studying the dynamic process of decision-making in protected areas, providing a low-risk setting in which different strategies and policies may be tested. It also allows managers to compress time and space, and learn from simulated deployments by reflecting on the outcomes of different decisions (Bakken et al, 1992).

Unlike a vast number of management simulators and games (Lane, 1995), "MANAGE IT!" accommodates its users in a collaborative microworld, which emphasizes the impacts of adopting either a sectorial or a holistic approach in the management of a complex ecological system.

Therefore, the work presented in this paper presents a new approach for the evaluation of the multi-objective and dynamic problems that characterize the administration of protected areas. Applying a system dynamics approach new insights are gained not only with respect to the behavior of the protected area systems themselves, but also with respect to the learning process that the users experience while observing the system's dynamics unfold.

The Simulation Model

A SDBILE should have a tight linkage of its three layers of components (Davidsen, 1996). This may be achieved through a careful design of the underlying simulation model and the interface (in which the model is embedded), by referring these layers to the source material in order to increase face validity of the learning environment.

The simulation model of "MANAGE IT!", portrays the dynamic problems observed in a coastal environment where the emergency for conservation of natural resources, services and ecological processes has led to the establishment of a protected area. van den Bergh (1996) and van den Belt et al (1996) have stressed the usefulness of adopting a dynamic simulation based approach to study different policy scenarios in coastal and marine environments where the main driving force behind economic development is tourism. On the other hand, the number of tourists is strongly dependent on the environmental conditions, namely, the state of local wildlife populations.

The model has four interrelated sectors presented in Figure 1. A short description of the fundamental relationships between the main variables is presented below whereas a detailed analysis of the model may be found in Videira et al (1996).

Figure 1- Main sectors and interactions of the simulation model underlying "MANAGE IT!"

Tourists visiting this protected area are attracted by two services that are provided: wildlife watching and water recreation activities. Visitors contribute significantly to the total budget available for the managers, by paying an entrance fee, which constitutes an important instrument to increase financial returns of conservation, as stressed by Dixon (1990). The main decision making problems occur in the allocation of this budget through three different investment policies: (1) protection of the wildlife from illegal killings; (2) information and advertisement campaigns to increase the number of visitors and (3) improvement of the water treatment technology in order to reduce water pollution levels.

The Interface

The SDBILE was designed (with POWERSIMTM ) as an asymmetric game to be installed in a computer network with four local computers and a server and therefore, one different interface was developed for each of the actors. Users roles include a facilitator and three players that will participate as the wildlife, water quality and ecotourism managers of the protected area. The metaphor underlying "MANAGE IT!" consists of the idea that users enter a virtual world, through which they "walk around" following the wood arrow signs, usually found in real protected areas.

After entering "MANAGE IT!", managers have access to the main window in which they are lead to different pathways, by clicking the different directions of the crossroads object. They may choose four types of "routes" which allow to find (1) descriptions of the role being played in each interface; (2) assessment measures of learning (e.g. pre and post tests) that are analyzed by the facilitator; (3) cognitive feedback in the form of causal loop, stock and flow and structure-behavior diagrams and (4) decision panels and reports for playing in strategic or operational mode.

When engaged in the operational mode of one of the four possible scenarios (with different degrees of complexity and environmental problems), managers are asked to decide on the fraction of the total available budget that they wish to invest for the next six months (for a total simulation period of 5 years). Before entering their policies in the decision panel, a collaborative strategy must be developed and negotiations between players is facilitated by the communication tool COURIER © T.KALLAS, in order to tackle the existing problems and obtain an overall sustainable development of the protected area (Figure 2).

Figure 2- Communication tool COURIER © T.KALLAS (left) and decision panel (right) of "MANAGE IT!"

Learning With MANAGE IT!: From Theory to Practice

As discussed by Sterman (1994), learning is a feedback process which has several barriers that prevent successful outcomes in complex systems. However, the use of SDBILE in managerial tasks allows to compress dynamics that would otherwise extend over years and therefore overcomes some of the impediments to effective learning. With "MANAGE IT!", a low-cost laboratory for learning about protected areas is provided to a target audience of undergraduate and graduate students and environmental managers.

A special concern was also given to the translation of the external instructional events described by Gagné (1995) to the design of "MANAGE IT!" so that learning processes could be supported and facilitated. Furthermore, the degree of transparency of this learning environment, more specifically the availability of the three types of cognitive feedback referred above, uncover the model structure to the users, and allow for a better understanding of the relationship between structure and behavior of the system, as stressed by Davidsen (1996).

The SDBILE presented in this paper, offers yet another contribution by providing a tool which facilitates appropriate transfer of management insights. As emphasized by Graham et al (1992), this type of tools train people to recognize the archetypal structures which explain common patterns of dynamic behavior in diverse systems. In this case, users will be asked to transfer the knowledge obtained (during simulation and debriefing sessions) of the Fixes that Fail (Senge, 1990) archetype (observed when adopting sectorial policies), to other familiar situations.

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