Harnessing co-management theory to build social networks for sustainability

Cassia Attard
11 min readMar 15, 2023


The age-old question in environmental theory is “does anyone have the incentive to act in favour of the environment?”. If the U.S. emits 28% of greenhouse gasses but will bear only a fraction of the damages, what’s their incentive to change? If a fishery makes money from depleting the cod population, why would they stop operations? Most environmental issues are a classic “tragedy of the commons”.

As a Sustainability major, I’m exposed to the most prominent theories and proposed solutions to such tragedies. Most are vague and depressing. Many require governments to take action that they never will. But 5 months into my third year, I read a series of papers on a topic that I think is severely under-applied: co-management.

Co-management, at first glance, is yet another vague strategy. It’s a collaborative management strategy that “facilitates participation of resource-users” and prioritizes the “sharing of knowledge by multiple stakeholders”. In its simplest terms, it’s the active involvement of many types of stakeholders and the prioritization of shared learning to make decisions related to sustainability. But once you go a level deeper, co-management becomes a revolutionary approach to system mapping and partnership formation. This article seeks to explain why and how.

There’s been a large emphasis on partnership formation in the context of sustainability over the last decade. The encouraged collaborations are between companies with similar intentions or between public and private organizations. These partnerships are essential for bringing together different knowledge sets and expanding the reach of an organization’s work. However, the current conception of ideal partnerships for sustainability is limited. There is an opportunity to expand the scope of these partnerships and adopt a “co-management” approach in the public and private sectors.

Environmental problems are complicated

Environmental problems are complex and cross-scale. Drawing system boundaries for environmental problems is very difficult because most systems are connected. All organisms within a natural system are connected, and endless natural systems balance each other on a global scale. It’s nearly impossible to distinguish one system from another. The problem of Amazonian deforestation doesn’t start or end in the Amazon. Eutrophication of Lake Erie doesn’t start or end in Lake Erie. Environmental systems also change rapidly and somewhat unpredictably, making them difficult to manage.

The social structure of people who interact with natural systems is also complex. Those who interact directly with natural systems (ex. fishers, farmers, loggers) are often intricately connected or disconnected from each other. Powerful actors (like large companies) connect people and resources across massive scales. These social structures are often neglected when seeking environmental solutions—Conflicting priorities naturally arise, and communication is rarely prioritized.

“Competing interests and values are the norm, and conflict is a frequent operating condition” — Armitage et al

Co-management involves looking at the broader system in which an organization resides and involving the stakeholders within those expanded system boundaries. It involves thinking about the broader extent of an organization’s impact.

In a nutshell, co-management is a management approach to sustainability problems that involves:

  1. Understanding the scope of a system–drawing broader ‘system boundaries’ than were previously considered (I’ll explain this).
  2. Identifying stakeholders of the activity/organization–Now that we know the scope of the system, we can figure out who is impacted by the activity/organization.
  3. Working with the stakeholders to develop solutions and manage resources–forming partnerships and working with various organizations and types of people.
  4. Effectively sharing knowledge among stakeholders and organizations.
  5. Attempting to have the natural system mirror the social system (I’ll explain later).

Perhaps at this point, this all sounds terribly obvious and boring. But a promise, the implication is very cool.

The status quo: Top-down management

Co-management can stand in place of top-down management, which is an infamously unfavourable approach to sustainability problems. Top-down management is the familiar strategy in which those who hold power — typically government actors or large corporations — decide on sustainable management practices without the input of other stakeholders or those who directly interact with the natural resources in question. There are countless examples of naive and ineffective top-down management strategies for environmental issues. As a simple example, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Canadian Government enacted policies that prohibited Indigenous peoples from engaging in controlled burning of forests. However, in recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of controlled burning as a tool for preventing uncontrollable wildfires. A co-management approach to wildfire control would have engaged Indigenous communities, allowing for a flow of knowledge across cultural and institutional boundaries.

A quick Google of “co-management” will lead you to scholarly articles on sustainability theory and fishery governance. You will not find advice for organizations (such as corporations, NGOs, or government actors) to adopt this strategy.

While it has yet to be translated into applicable language, it is seen as the “gold standard” for sustainable resource management among environmental scholars — to the point where papers have been written attempting to explain that co-management is not a panacea on which we can completely rely.

This article seeks to translate the ever-important concepts of co-management into applicable context for the public and private sector to form incredibly important partnerships.

A deeper understanding of the power of co-management

Co-management may seem like a simple concept. However, scholars in this domain have developed extensive and complex co-management theory.

Increasing diversity of knowledge

Diversifying knowledge sources and the types of stakeholders involved in decision-making — often called “pluralism” — is core to co-management. It is essential that many types of stakeholders at different levels and varying proximity to the organization are included. This diversity allows the flow of unique information that may have been previously isolated into population subsections. When co-management partnerships are facilitated, new information flows between groups of people.

The value of pluralism in sustainability is comparable to the value of diversity in any decision-making: With greater diversity of voices, you decrease the risk of missing a helpful point of view that, say, old white men don’t have. Diversity of voices is arguably more important in sustainability than in other domains because those who directly interact with the resources are (typically) less powerful, and thus more likely to be left out of the conversation from the get-go. You can’t manage oceans without working with fishers. You can’t manage soil carbon without talking to farmers. You can’t manage forests without collaborating with Indigenous people.

Increased pluralism can be accomplished by expanding the perceived scope of an organization’s system.

Expanding the scope of analysis

Organizations form sustainability strategies around their existing inputs and output flows. That is, organizations making sustainable changes will either make alterations to their inflows (materials, supply chain, staff, money, incoming information, etc.), or their outflows (emissions, waste, societal impact, money, outgoing information, etc.). This can be done by mitigating the organization’s direct environmental impact by, for example, changing to a sustainably-sourced inflow of materials, or in a more abstract way by, for example, diverting outflow money to charities.

Any flow which is monetized is closely monitored. Companies are well informed on the flow of materials, money, and (increasingly) information in and out of their system. There is increasing pressure for companies to also understand that which is harder to put a price tag on — the flows of their system which have environmental impacts. These are also called “externalities”. For example, Nestlé most certainly knows exactly where their cocoa beans come from, how much cocoa they receive and when, how much it costs, and how much they will sell a KitKat for, but they could upkeep their business while remaining completely oblivious of the GHG emissions, soil degradation, erosion, and biodiversity loss that is associated with cocoa farming.

A small fraction of Nestlé’s inputs and outputs. Each of these inputs and outputs has inputs and outputs of themselves, and complex socio-ecological webs of impacts (see next graphic).

In order for companies to understand their externalities, they must broaden the scope of what they consider to be their system. Nestlé’s system does not end where their monetized flows end. It extends beyond through adverse impacts on people and natural systems.

A quick, reluctant shout out to Nestlé

Nestlé has in fact acknowledged the externalities associated with cocoa farming. The company has put in place a program to reduce deforestation, biodiversity loss, child labor, poverty, gender inequality, and more associated with the practice. Nestlé has even incorporated the important concept of pluralism into this plan by working with a cooperative of farmers to better understand the issues associated with cocoa farming.

Nestlé, despite the many problematic aspects of the company, has made great strides toward sustainability. I would go so far as to say that Nestlé has among the most comprehensive of corporate sustainability plans. The company has acknowledged the impact of their GHG emissions, raw materials, water use (agricultural and industrial), waste (plastic and food loss), and 15 categories of raw materials. Additionally, they divert outflows of money and information toward improved nutrition (although this is highly controversial—Google “Nestle baby formula scandal” for the rundown), environmental rehabilitation, education, and equality. Compared to most organizations, Nestlé has accounted for a wide range of externalities and made countless partnerships to incorporate pluralism into their actions.

Okay, back to the regularly scheduled program…

In an ideal world, Neslté would have drawn their system boundaries even larger. For example, while they’ve acknowledged the biodiversity loss of cocoa farming, this system does not end at the farm level. For all raw materials, boundaries should be drawn past the farm. Farms notoriously use excess amounts of fertilizer, causing runoff which pollutes nearby aquatic ecosystems. Paired with deforestation practices, nutrients flow quickly from the degraded topsoil, causing eutrophication and dead zones in lakes, rivers, and bays. Nestlé’s demand for resources in the U.S. can lead to increased agricultural intensification in another country, and aquatic destruction wherever water flows from there. This concept is called “telecoupling”, whereby choices in one place can span space and time to have profound socio-ecological changes elsewhere.

Nestlé acknowledges that their demand for cocoa has externalities. As a large company, they manage some of these externalities (by, for example, eliminating child labour). They have an incentive to do this because these externalities pose a reputational risk to large companies.
Diagram from Hanspach et al. Socio-economic systems are complex. Something like cocoa farming has impacts past child labour, farmer income, and deforestation.

One may think it is too much to ask of organizations to manage the entire extent of their impact. After all, Nestlé is one of few companies already accounting for much of their impact, and this is made possible by the sheer enormity of their capital resources. Luckily, the responsibility for telecoupled impact does not have to lie explicitly on the organization that triggers the flow — it can be braided into intricately designed social networks.

Changing the structure of networks

There exists a way to mitigate telecoupled impacts triggered by large organizations that doesn’t require the direct intervention of that organization. Nestlé could help mitigate eutrophication caused by their actions without actively tackling the eutrophication problem. Restructuring social networks to mirror relevant ecosystems can be a very powerful tool to address socio-ecological issues.

Note: this is where, in my opinion, co-management gets more concrete and interesting.

That concept seems extremely abstract and bold. How could our social networks mirror ecosystems? Why would that help?

To use a simple example, imagine a lake with several competing fisheries. Some fisheries catch trout, others bass, and others perch. Studies examining social networks of fisheries have shown they often have isolated communities, meaning they share knowledge only among fellow fishers of the same species, but not trout-fisher to bass-fisher, or bass-fisher to perch-fisher. This is unideal because, as stated in a 2017 paper published in Science, “actors who only interact within their own subgroups easily develop their own subcultures with a sense of ‘us and them,’ and different and often incompatible perceptions of the problems at hand and how to best solve them emerge between the subgroups”. That is to say, by cutting off social interactions between people who manage singular natural resources, the resource managers (in this case the fisheries) have no knowledge of what is happening elsewhere in the ecosystem.

Diagram heavily inspired Örjan Bodin and is not an accurate representation of fisheries (it is only theoretical). The ecological network is highly intertwined among resources. The social network is isolated in respect to resources, with the exception of few connections across groups.

Different species of fish are intricately ecologically connected. Perch, trout, and bass cannot be seen as completely separate resources if we value the lake and the sustainability of the fisheries. Yet, while these fish are ecologically connected, the resource managers are not. This social disconnect prevents learning across resource managers. It also disconnects incentive systems — by remaining in social isolation, trout fishers have no known incentive to maintain sustainable yields in favor of other ecosystem aspects.

For Nestlé, their agricultural systems and the nearby aquatic systems are not ecologically isolated. If farmers were connected with those involved in the aquatic ecosystem (fishers, recreational users, etc.), it could facilitate learning, a shared understanding of consequences, and even empathy among users that could drive environmentally-favourable decisions.

TLDR: A strengthened, cross-resource social network can allow incentive structures and learning to mirror that of ecological networks, and promote sustainable resource management.

But how on earth do we create these networks?

The importance of boundary spanners

When creating the “Sustainable cocoa plan”, Nestlé teamed up with the UN. The UN was important to this plan because they are one of the world’s most effective “boundary spanners” — they are connected and involved at nearly all levels in nearly all industries. They are connected to the biggest companies and most powerful politicians, and also farmers, fishermen, loggers, etc.

In order to create social networks that can “organically” help shift resource management, an initial connection must be made between groups. Boundary spanners can make that connection.

Of course, this is a gross oversimplification of the complexities of orchestrating a co-management social network. It takes time and effort to build trust among groups and the respective information systems could make it very hard to learn from each other. But boundary spanners are an essential instigator.

How can organizations approach co-management for sustainability?

The description of co-management that this article provides is already simplified, and does not do justice to the complex research in this area. Nonetheless, to simplify even further and summarize the ideas above, these are the proposed steps for an organization adopting co-management:

  1. Diversify knowledge sources: Start by finding ‘obvious’ stakeholders and integrating them into decision-making (ex. Nestlé collaborating with cocoa farmers). They don’t have to be in board meetings, but their perspective should be regularly heard. This will help the organization better understand the extent of their impact.
  2. Understand the scope of impact through socio-ecological system mapping: Now that there is a stronger understanding of some key stakeholders, map the socio-ecological system with broader boundaries (ex. Nestlé could broaden their system to include eutrophication impacts). This will uncover new stakeholders in the system.
  3. Diversify again: With the new-and-improved system map, identify and involve new stakeholders whose voices should be heard (ex. Nestlé could engage with fisheries impacted by eutrophication).
  4. Seek boundary spanners: The system diagram will also highlight key connections between flows and groups of people. Seek organizations or even individuals who can connect resource users on the outskirts of the system (ex. Nestlé could find boundary spanners that exist between farming and fishing communities). Meanwhile, the responsibility for impacts that are more directly caused by the organization should ideally rest with the organization itself.
  5. Encourage boundary spanners to foster interconnected social networks: Work with boundary spanners in whatever capacity possible to create new social networks that mirror ecological ones (ex. Nestlé could encourage social ties between farming and fishing groups).

Co-management is a powerful tool for the world to overcome sustainability crises. The social networks of those who interact with resources have a profound impact on how they are managed. Large organizations shape these social networks and have the power to rework them to mitigate environmental damage.

Most information on co-management remains locked up in literature. This article seeks to be a first step toward organizations understanding how to meaningfully engage with the practice.



Cassia Attard

Hey, I'm Cassia! I'm a 23 y/o Sustainability student at McGill. Previously, I've worked as a climate consultant and with various climate-tech projects :)