Publications: Research reports and publications

Social networks for sustainable settlements - a case study

8 October, 2013
Cawthron Report 2360. Prepared for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. Part of the Soft-Urban Infrastructure for Sustainable Settlements (SUISS) project.


When the Top-of-the-South sustainability clusters first decided to come together as a forum to progress regional sustainability more effectively, they were inherently adopting a strategy to achieve change. Four years later we need to ask: 'Has the expected change occurred?' This study assesses the benefits of a regional sustainability forum as a means to progress local sustainability using Te Tau Ihu Sustainability Forum (the Forum) as a case study.

There is an urgent need for societal scale behaviour change if society is to achieve long-term sustainability, and to do this, the energy of communities needs to be mobilised through the development of 'soft infrastructure'. Soft infrastructure includes the social networks and processes that create the capacity to change and which in turn help nurture a resilient and sustainable society. Over the last four years the Forum has developed such 'soft infrastructure'.

This development has been assessed using a multi-focused social network survey. We surveyed individuals who became members of the Forum with a retrospective assessment (prior to the establishment of the Forum) and two years subsequent to this. Three lines of enquiry were investigated: (i) the extent and nature of change of the networks over time and whether those changes were conducive to the Forum achieving its goals; (ii) whether the Forum had impacted on the participants' psychological attributes known to be of importance for creating change; and (iii) whether the Forum had met its objectives.

Survey participants were selected on the basis of their attendance at the Forum. Forty people were identified as the Forum participants and invited to participate in the survey, with 24 of these choosing to do so (60% response rate). Survey responses were analysed using standard statistical techniques. However, further data analysis was also determined by the level of investigation. The changing nature of the networks was assessed using social network analysis; the methodical analysis of social networks that enables the mapping and measuring of relationships between people and groups. With regard to the psychological attributes, we also sought to develop an efficacy scale — a scale that would indicate to what extent individual participants believe themselves capable of accomplishing significant social change as a result of their Forum membership.

Our findings show that the establishment of the Forum has been of benefit. At two years after the establishment of the Forum, many of its objectives had been achieved, indicating that the Forum was making progress towards sustainability, although not as action oriented as some might have wanted. New network connections were made over time, and engagement and collaboration were fostered between key regional players. Knowledge has been shared, informing participants of world-wide sustainability trends and best practice. There had also been more frequent opportunity to collaborate and have input into local government policy decisions since the Forum's establishment.

The ratings on the efficacy scale were also consistent with a sense that the network has gained both individual and collective expertise through collaboration, and that this feeds into an expectation that they are better able to find the solutions to regional sustainability problems. Forum participants believe themselves capable of accomplishing significant meaningful change for sustainability. However, from a collective perspective, some members are frustrated by the lack of action and the lack of resourcing to take action. Participants show more confidence in the Forum identifying potential solutions to regional sustainability issues than being able to create or action the changes in the wider community that are required.

While the small number of survey respondents requires that we interpret the efficacy scale ratings with some caution, they are consistent with the other survey results. The eighteen items comprising both self and collective efficacy, work reasonably well together as an efficacy scale to provide one overall measure of a group's perceived effectiveness in achieving change. However, it would be pertinent to undertake further research with a larger cohort to assess the potential of two sub-scales — one representing the more action-oriented 'can do' attitude and the other, a more deliberative 'gain through collaboration' attitude.

A 4-year follow up using the same survey methodology was deemed impractical because a high turnover of participants (from restructurings, over-commitment,etc.) made it difficult to reassess the same cohort in sufficient numbers. However, group discussion and individual participants' feedback to the research team indicate that the above reported findings at the two year mark, remain relevant after four years. As a network, the sustainability practitioners have developed their capacity for resilience, but many want to reach further — mobilising the wider community to become increasingly sustainable. Despite this, Forum members have increasingly been consulted by local government representatives on issues of policy and planning, and their expertise utilised in other fora. And as a network they have taken a role in regional governance on issues of sustainability.

Operating as a forum in this way is not without its challenges. The lack of resources — particularly financial resources — means that participants volunteer their time and energy to the Forum, which can take its toll. Lengthy meetings can become burdensome on peoples' time and energy, particularly when the lack of resources impedes action on the outputs of the Forum. The high turnover of participants has also led to the loss of 'key players', contributing to both the breakdown of relationships and the loss of institutional memory, particularly of the Forum's achievements. So while network building has triggered a positive shift in relations among sustainability professionals, who now feel they can more effectively meet the challenges of sustainability, they are hampered in their efforts. Without the requisite resource support it will remain difficult to utilise the opportunities to present alternative ideas and options to the wider community and generate support and momentum for these changes through community mobilisation.

While funding the Forum may be a difficult task for regional agencies, given the Forum's perceived lack of structure, informal arrangements and struggle to be self-organising, what needs to be remembered is this: Despite its limitations, the 'positives' of the Forum's existence include:

  • longevity — the Forum has existed for over four years
  • members are still motivated to attend the Forum, are learning from their experiences and perceive themselves to be effective in achieving change
  • expertise from members of the Forum is still being drawn upon by regional agencies.

In fact, it is the research team's observation that many of the core group of 'key players' can be found at almost every new initiative set up by local government. More than ever, the expertise of these key sustainability individuals needs to be shared with an ever widening social network and this may well be done most effectively by resourcing this core group so that they may work more effectively within Te Tau Ihu Sustainability Forum. Finally, we argue for an effective role for local government in establishing and supporting appropriate network governance arrangements as a new form of interactive governance.