Video describing the ESPA funded project Participatory Modelling of Wellbeing Tradeoffs in Coastal Kenya (P-Mowtick) which looks at the tradeoffs in wellbeing with regards to a fisheries system on the Kenyan coast. See more at:


Learning to deal with trade-offs

Scientists, communities and actors connected to the Mombasa fisheries system join forces to support the most vulnerable in a rapidly changing environment

Story highlights

  • A co-designed process with practices derived from systems thinking, dialogue, participatory modelling and scenarios were applied, increased the understanding of systemic interdependences and how trade-offs emerge in social-ecological system
  • Co-creation of narrative scenarios and a “toy-model” of the social-ecological system allowed stakeholders to externalize their mental models, to have dialogue and developed shared understanding
  • Co-production of knowledge might lead to development of trust and relationships that could form basis for organizational and institutional change.

Worldwide, communities are depending on functioning ecosystems to sustain livelihoods and quality of life.

Management of these social-ecological systems might improve the ecological status and the wellbeing of many but there might be undesired consequences for some. Such trade-offs often hit the most vulnerable and least visible in society. The consequence is often a negative spiral of continuing poverty.

This became evident in a study of a fishing community close to the rapidly growing city of Mombasa in Kenya.

In the study, which was recently published in Ecology and Society, centre researchers Diego Galafassi and Tim Daw together with colleagues from Kenya, UK and France explored how trade-offs can be made visible in interventions and policy-making processes to avoid harm of some groups.

Different effects of change

The researchers used a participatory approach to get insights from different perspectives on who are winning and who are losing out when the community is affected by for instance changes in tourism or climate change. This approach is crucial as different people see wins and losses differently but also because trade-offs might be hidden, downplayed or intentionally ignored.

Diego Galafassi gives an example:

“Some might advocate strongly for a certain intervention, for example offshore fishing or banning the use of certain fishing gears, and believe it to be a solution. But establishing deeper conversations about these assumptions help reveal how they may affect different people in different ways.”

Community of Nyali beach and scientists during one of the dialogues. Other encounters included interactions between scientists and decision-makers. Photo: D. Galafassi

Understanding more together

Co-production of knowledge is increasingly acknowledged as a key strategy to deal with complex sustainability challenges. This kind of knowledge generation process can integrate understanding, create new personal and professional networks, build trust and better understanding of another’s views, values and beliefs.

Through two workshops, the scientific team designed a process of engagement with local experts, community leaders, policy-makers from the local government and members of NGOs to explore the linkages between ecosystems and well-being particularly of vulnerable groups.

The first workshop mapped important aspects, actors, drivers and relations to create a holistic and shared understanding of the social-ecological system. They also discussed how larger drivers of change for instance political unrest and climate change would affect the future.

In the second workshop, which took place six months after, they developed two ways to explore trade-offs in a dynamic way: a toy-model and narrative scenarios. The “toy-model” summarized the key aspects of the system, the ecological dynamics and their effects on the well-being of different groups. This helped participants to explore how the well-being of the locals would be affected by changes in population, economy and tourism.

Policy designed without considering trade-offs is more likely to fail because of conflicts, or to cause harm to vulnerable people

Diego Galafassi, lead-author

Toy-model interface: The user can interact with the following parameters: Population, Governance, Economy, Tourism and visualise how they affect fishing effort which in turn changes the ecological status and affect five different stakeholder groups. Model is available at

This exercise was followed up by a more fluid exploration where four narratives of alternative plausible futures were discussed. Using these stories, participants analysed how various groups of people would fare under different circumstances.

A common ground to move forward

Follow-up interviews with participants showed their increased appreciation of their own assumptions about how the system works.

One of the participants said, “[…] playing with the toy-model helped me understand better [trade-offs]; more so when I was trying to optimize for beach seiners and how this was correlated to other jobs”.

Another participant acknowledged that “if we were to get rid of the small fish then the women would lose whilst the other traders may gain from the available larger fish.”

Realizing that most interventions engender various kinds of trade-offs can be easily seen as gloomy news, however Galafassi asserts: "You might get the impression that everything is so complex that it is impossible to tackle challenges. But I would hope that our work points to the hopeful possibilities that exist when we engage in a nuanced conversation about these complex situations. Shared understandings can be empowering and help to move towards more integrated solutions."


The study builds on traditions of action research, whole systems thinking and participatory science. Methods from systems thinking, participatory modelling and scenarios were applied to engage scientists, communities and decision-makers in a dialogue about trade-offs in a social-ecological system in Kenya. To analyse the outcomes of this iterative process surveys were conducted before and after each meeting, ‘participant observation’ during each encounter and two rounds of in-depth interviews with participants were conducted to illuminate perceived changes in understandings and practice.

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Published: 2017-02-06


Galafassi, D., T. Daw, L. Munyi, K. Brown, C. Barnaud, and I. Fazey. 2017. Learning about social-ecological trade-offs. Ecology and Society 22(1):2.

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Diego Galafassi is a PhD student at the centre. His research explores practices that support knowledge integration for transformations

Tim Daw studies the interaction between ecological and social aspects of coastal systems and how these contribute to human wellbeing and development


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