A new study looks at how theories of innovation and agency can explain the spread of Marine Spatial Planning, a process where various resource stakeholders finds ways to use the marine resources more sustainably. Photo: N. Kautsky/Azote

Marine Spatial Planning

An ocean of innovation

How theories of innovation and agency can explain the emergence of Marine Spatial Planning

Story highlights

  • Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) can help manage our seas at larger spatial scales and increase the delivery of ecosystem services
  • Analysis of almost 100 academic papers, 50 policy documents and 45 qualitative interviews reveals that MSP is expanding from 2006 onward
  • Ability to spread MSP from local to global scales cannot be attributed to a few ‘heroes’, but rather to a strong informal network with key individuals

What initiatives can manage our seas at larger spatial scales and increase human wellbeing and the delivery of ecosystem services? One answer, according to a growing number of experts, is Marine Spatial Planning (MSP), a process that brings together multiple users to make sure marine resources are used more sustainably.

This idea has emerged and spread quickly during the last decade, offering the potential for ecosystem stewardship at the global level, according to a study by centre researchers Andrew Merrie and Per Olsson.

Their study was published in a recent issue of Marine Policy and highlights the need to address the intersection between technological, social, and ecological systems when studying the spread of MSP and other so-called social-ecological innovations.

"Marine Spatial Planning is innovative because it recognises that the oceans are no longer a free-for-all open access regime but rather a space where human interests and responsibilities and ecosystems interact," Andrew Merrie explains.

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Spreading fast
Previous studies have mostly focused on governance and technological innovation when trying to explain sustainability transitions, with less attention being paid to understanding the emergence and spread of innovative ideas for stewardship of social–ecological systems.

In their study, Merrie and Olsson focused on how theories of innovation and agency might be used to explain the spread and impact of such ideas. Based on an analysis of almost 100 academic papers, 50 policy documents and 45 qualitative interviews their study reveals that the vast majority of the literature and the developments in the field of MSP occurred after the year 2000 with a steady increase from 2006 onwards.

The interviewees were based in the US, Europe and Australia and from International Governmental Organizations, Government Agencies, Non-Governmental Organizations, Research Institutes, and Consultancies.

Cases discussed include a number of sub-national MSP experiments around the world in for instance the Great Barrier Reef, Belgium, and the Irish Sea, and how these and other efforts lead to a shared understanding that fed into the articulation and implementation of MSP at the international level.

More than a few heroes
The study identified a number of key preconditions for the emergence of MSP, including terrestrial land-use and conservation planning, the development of new technologies (e.g. geographic information systems, GIS), and science that can be applied in a marine planning process.

This is not the first time resilience scholars show an interest in shifts in social–ecological systems. Studies of novelty, renewal, and transformations are becoming more and more common. What is new in this study is to use an innovation and agency perspective to understand these dynamics, Merrie and Olsson explain.

One key finding was that the influence and ability to spread knowledge of MSP from local to global scales cannot be attributed to a few ‘heroes’, but rather to a strong informal network with key individuals constantly re-framing the tool in order to overcome obstacles to adoption. This has proven to be a successful strategy.

"Marine Spatial Planning, albeit still in development, is an idea whose time has come. It may be approaching a 'transformative' moment in terms of its prominence and spread, but in the longer term it is important that it continues to build on the idea that humans and nature as an integral whole within which a healthy planet is the premise for economic and social development," Per Olsson explains.

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Published: 2014-05-06


Merrie, A. and Olsson, P. 2014 An innovation and agency perspective on the emergence and spread of Marine Spatial Planning. Marine Policy 44: 366-374

Andre Merrie is a PhD student and a Nippon Foundation Nereus Fellow. His work is focused on the recognition that the capacity to innovate and to scale up innovation is crucial in being able to meet existing governance challenges, steer away from potential critical thresholds in complex social-ecological systems, and open up new trajectories of sustainability.

Per Olsson holds a Ph.D. in natural resource management from Stockholm University and is a researcher and theme leader for Adaptive Governance at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. He leads the Centre's initiative on Innovation and Transformation in Social-Ecological Systems.


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