The focus of this chapter orients around the introduction and definition of collaboration in sustainability science. The chapter will discuss the basics of collaboration; what it means and how it is used as a method of sustainability to develop equitable solutions. In addition to the introduction of collaboration, the chapter incorporates a brief overview of the process, as there are no set guidelines or specifics to collaborate. As the variation of sustainable challenges is inevitable, the different levels on which collaboration may occur are also outlined. Similar to other methods of solution development, collaboration provides numerous benefits, but also presents an equal counterpart of challenges faced. In a field defined by the complex challenges it aims to address. The process of collaboration proves to be a fundamental asset in the development of an equitable and sustainable solution.


As society progresses forward, breakthroughs in knowledge and innovation continuously arise. However, complex societal challenges constantly combat the forward progression to a more sustainable future. More often than not, these societal challenges are shared difficulties, which require collaborative efforts to inspire change and sustainable ideals. Collaboration is the process by which two or more individuals, groups, or organizations work together to agree upon and achieve a set goal. In order to attain the desired goal in a collaborative process, all participants or groups must properly communicate with one another, as the intent of collaboration is to incorporate a joint decision making process. With this being said, each member in part of a collaborative process holds equal say and equal power in all stages of the process. As for the process of collaboration, there are very few set standards that must be met, which will be outlined in the chapters collaborative process section. Much like the field of sustainability, the problems a collaborative process aims to address are context, time, and place specific, meaning that one method or solution may not be applicable to all sustainable challenges across the globe. As a result, the procedure and the level on which collaboration may occur are subject to variation in effort to attain the most fitting solution.

Collaborative Process and Benefits

For a process to be considered collaborative, there are a few important factors that must take place that will help it to be the most beneficial.

  • Should have a problem that has not been successfully addressed autonomously
  • Should have a problem that does not have a clear solution
  • Should include a group of individuals from varying backgrounds
  • Certain stakeholders should create a type of dependency on others
  • Perspectives should not always be agreed upon
  • Should include a group facilitator

Collaboration works best with complex issues that have not been successfully addressed autonomously. The problem should not have a simple solution because if it did, it usually insinuates the solution would not require more than one person to solve it. The first step often in solving a complex problem is to clearly define a solution. An example would be from the Vernal Pools case study (See attached: The Maine Vernal Pool Special Area Management Plan, located after the Sustainability Reader.) In the Vernal Pool case study, the solution was clearly stated to: create a regulation that better protected the natural habitat and continued development in growth zones. The physical state of these regulations required a precise solution, collaborating minds, and differentiating knowledge to be produced.

Collaboration requires a group of individuals from different backgrounds and different forms of knowledge that will bring forth reliable information towards creating a solution. Knowledge from a multitude of backgrounds can expand individual understanding and improve time sensitive projects by having the source of information readily available to the collaborating team. In Durham, NH, a team is working quickly to resolve the erosion of salt marshes located at Wagon Hill Farm (See attached: Wagon Hill Farm case study, located after the Sustainability Reader.) Having a member from Coastal Resilience helped to quickly and appropriately address tital measurements without additional outreach, which otherwise could deter the team from immediate advancement.

Individuals of the research team, also considered stakeholders, should have interests that create dependency on each other, meaning that some of the stakeholders might have more available resources or knowledgeable expertise that will help in advancing research. A stakeholder is an individual who shares interest or concern in a specific matter; in regards to sustainability, stakeholders are typically those who are involved and affected by complex challenges. An example of this dependency would be a stakeholder that is acquainted with governmental funding. Governmental funding might help support the group’s current research, however a strict application for this type of economic service is required. If a member from the current team is familiar with this type of application from former experience, it will be beneficial to the entirety of the research team because of the former expertise in applying for governmental funding. On top of that, it provides a higher chance of acceptance than if it were to be addressed for the first time by somebody else in the team.

The variety of knowledge should also bring different perspectives that are not always agreed upon by everyone on the research team. Coming from diverse backgrounds and knowledgeable professions, varying ideas and progressive disagreement between stakeholders is common and sometimes encouraged to critically analyze the complexity of the problem. Productive disagreement is valuable in collaborating to tackle the problem from all directions, but in order for it to be productive, everyone must be allowed to present and willing to listen thoroughly to each member.

A collaborating team also works best when there is a facilitator. In this case, it is a person who makes the process of group collaborating more organized and more easily accomplished. This does not mean that one person is making the decisions, but rather making sure that the research is moving in the right direction. The facilitator of the team is responsible for organizing the group meetings and making sure information is available to all members of the research team outside of meetings for divided group/independent research to refer back to. It is important that this person does not biasly direct group discussion or provide more insight than the rest of the members. This means that the facilitator should be able and willing to separate their organizational efforts of leadership from their personal expertise or contribution to the research to promote differentiating ideas when it comes to creating a solution. An example of a successful facilitator would be Aram J. K. Calhoun, from the Vernal Pools case study. (See attached: The Maine Vernal Pool Special Area Management Plan, located after the Sustainability Reader.) Aram was not only the facilitator of the Vernal Pools research team, but also a huge contributor through her expertise as a professor and wetlands ecologist.

Horizontal management, another name for this type of facilitating, is an important structure of leadership which allows for the flow of information and decisions to come from all directions, which is displayed by Figure 1. Studies have shown that this type of management improves involvement, growth, and morale of the researchers involved. When there is a negative abundance of horizontal management, a traditional form of management often takes its place. As a result, the workload tends to be more tedious on the individuals associated with the research.

Figure 1: this figure is representative of the horizontal style of leadership in a collaborative process. (Figure 1 was created by former Sustainability 501 students)

Figure 1: this figure is representative of the horizontal style of leadership in a collaborative process. (Figure 1 was created by former Sustainability 501 students)

Above all, collaborative work has many benefits when it is applied to complex problems. It encourages group effort and teamwork to digest information and provide significant input from each of the researchers and team members. It also encourages team, individual and company growth by allowing each part of the team to provide input and knowledge which can further lead to individual confidence and team accomplishment. These benefits can be seen when collaborating on a multitude of levels.

Levels of Collaboration

Collaborative methods are applicable at virtually any scale. Due to the unique concept of the method, individuals have the ability to collaborate within groups and organizations, between groups and organizations, and with each other. The scale on which collaboration may occur is dependent on the capacity and scope of the problem at hand. Some collaborative efforts are carried out on a much larger scale, while some efforts are based on the involvement of very few stakeholders, as explained in Figure 2. Stakeholders are those who display interest or concern in regard to a specific topic or issue. An individual, a group, or an organization can be representative of a stakeholder within a collaborative process:

  • Community members
  • Government representatives (local, state, and federal)
  • Scientists and researchers
  • Businesses
  • Organizations (civic or environmental)

This means that all of which, an individual, group, or organization can actively participate in the process of collaboration. A stakeholder can also be an individual who represents a community, or a community as a whole that lives and deals with a sustainable challenge. In some occurrences, limited stakeholder involvement in a collaborative process can prove insufficient, which brings the concept of community engagement into consideration. Community engagement is exactly how it sounds; when a community based issue arises, the individuals who live and deal with the problem on a day to day basis are a valuable resource and valuable part in the development of a beneficial solution. The level on which community engagement may occur is also subject to variation, due to the different categories of engagement:

  • Informing
  • Consulting
  • Involving
  • Collaborating
  • Empowering

Beginning with informing, the lowest level of engagement, the community receives only information regarding the plan of action and its implementation. Next, consulting represents the level of community engagement that incorporates the feedback of individuals on data analysis and solution development. This level allows for the feedback of community members to be involved and influence decision making. The next level on the community engagement spectrum is involving. This level encompasses the involvement of community members at each stage of the collaborative process, ensuring that all concerns and ideas are taken into consideration. Collaborating represents the next level of community involvement. In this level of engagement, the involvement of the community at every step in the collaborative process is ensured. Lastly, the concept of empowering represents the final level of community engagement. Under the empowering category, the community and its members are given complete control over the decision-making process. Although not all collaborative processes require community-wide engagement, some form of community representation is always incorporated when dealing with complex sustainable challenges. All in all, collaborative methods are applicable across various scales, disciplines, and even different procedures. Although the flexibility of a collaborative process can prove to be beneficial, the process is often challenged and halted as a result of various difficulties in its execution.

The overall focus of this case involves the debate regarding the federal lands of Oregon, and how it incorporates collaboration at a small scale. Although the process did involve various stakeholders, the issue at hand was no large scale collaborative effort. These lands in Oregon are occupied by a wildlife refuge and numerous ranches, but a majority of the land is owned by the federal government. As the federal government owns nearly 75% of the land, the debate regarding proper land use began. The stakeholders who were involved in the process included; the ranchers, environmental conservationists, and the federal government who owned or lived on a portion of Oregon’s federal lands. Each of the respective parties involved, sat down with one another in a combined effort to devise an equitable solution to decide upon the best usage of land. As this process was representative of collaboration, each stakeholder had an equal say in the matter of how the federal lands would be equitably devised. In part of this process, numerous scheduled meetings were held in order to discuss each possible outcome for the land usage, and what that meant for each stakeholder involved. As a result of this committee-like collaborative effort, this small scale collaboration between the various stakeholders developed into a lasting partnership. This partnership is referred to as the High Desert Partnership, and the main focus of this organization is to incorporate collaborative efforts to solve regional issues.


Figure 2: A case study displaying the ability for small scale collaboration to make a significant change.


Collaborative Challenges

Context Variability

While collaboration has had positive outcomes in solution development, there are some factors that can create a challenge. To start, collaboration is fairly time consuming. It does not work well when trying to create a quick solution to a problem because it takes time for the different opinions and ideas to be presented from each of the stakeholders. This results a lengthier period of time to listen, share, and create ideas, rather than being told how the problem will be solved from that start, such as in a top-down structured environment. In a top-down structured work environment, a leading figure usually has preexisting ideas, time schedule, and set processes to advance towards a solution. In this case, there are no standard inequalities amongst stakeholders and researchers, which means that there is an equal distribution of input allowing everyone to be acknowledged. A mediator is favorable to prevent this. In top-down environments, employees or researchers are told what role they play in the solution, when there is no set role there seemingly is a lack of identity from those involved. Some members of the group might work better with a set list of instructions to follow as it directs them in the role that they will provide in finding solutions.


A group-think can be referred to as the phenomenon that occurs when members place too much emphasis on the agreement with one another to ease the process of collaboration. Therefore, a lack of debate and critical-independent thinking causes the group to become complacent. A group-think often occurs when participants of a group have similar disciplines, backgrounds, and interests. As a result, the exclusion of variability as a concept occurs, which often eliminates opposing ideas and viewpoints. Aside from various challenges and setbacks that may occur within a collaborative process, the use of collaboration provides an equal counterpart of benefits that allow for a successful and equitable outcome.


Overall, the process of collaboration is representative of a combined effort, in which each party involved has equal say and equal involvement in the matter. The level on which collaboration may occur is subject to variation from case to case, due to the differing complexity of the issue at hand. In addition, the process in which collaboration can be carried out is also subject to variation due to the fact that most, if not all, sustainable challenges are context, time, and place specific. Like most methods of solution development, collaboration incorporates both challenges and benefits in part of the process to attain a beneficial outcome. All in all, the use of collaborative methods play a fundamental role in the field of sustainability science, because complex issues require a fitting solution.


Comprehension Questions

  1. How does the process of a horizontal structure differ from the process of a top-down structure?
  2. Does collaboration differ from cooperation?
  3. When outlining the problem to address in a collaborative process, should the issue beclearly defined?
  4. Why is community engagement not always applicable to collaborative methods?
  5. Is the concept of a group think truly a negative aspect of collaboration?


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