Can nature provide society with the solutions it needs to cope with great challenges such as global climate change and increased occurrence of natural disasters? Nature-based Solutions to Societal Challenges (NbS) is an approach that can support sustainable development and environmental conservation aspirations and is defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as “actions to protect, manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems, which address societal challenges, effectively and adaptively, providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits”.1 Similar to other proposed pathways towards sustainability such as promoting socio-ecological2 wellbeing, rethinking modern lifestyles based on production and consumption,3 reforming governance and political systems4 and challenging capitalism,5 the overshadowing argument for NbS holds that humans and nature cannot be treated separately. This especially holds considering the feedbacks and interdependencies between societal development and nature conservation needs.6 Subsequently, NbS aspires to simultaneously attain local communities wellbeing and biodiversity wellbeing,1 or serves as an economic strategy for growth and development while protecting the underpinning environmental services.7

As NbS gains momentum, it is useful to explore and learn from opportunities, risks and innovations associated with it, in order to inform future implementation to enhance the chances of its success as a sustainability solution. Social learning can be a viable approach in supporting such exploring and learning, given its construct as an iterative process for collective learning that leads to collective understanding and consequently, collective change in behaviours towards desired actions.8

Opportunities for disaster and climate risk management

NbS is relevant to both, urban and rural contexts. In tackling the average temperature rise of Budapest by 1.5 degree Celsius since the 1970s the local authorities have chosen to establish community gardens and ‘pocket parks’ by removing concrete or utilising idle green spaces. Together with regulating the micro-climate, water retention, small-scale food production and reduced air pollution are anticipated benefits in the long term.9 Similarly, NbS has been implemented in rural communities of Burkina Faso to address drought and desertification by restoring vegetation cover and soil through endogenous techniques such as demi lune and Zaï.10 These are farming techniques that require digging of soil in particular ways to maximise soil moisture retention and therefore increase the chances of seedling success.

The solutions can also be applied at different scales. Smaller scale actions such as green roofing for individual buildings in cities can regulate temperature during warm weather. The Medmerry project in the United Kingdom on managed realignment of coastal protection infrastructure for flooding aims to provide greater flood protection for 360 properties, protection of hard infrastructure such as main roads and waste water treatment facilities as well as creation of natural salt marshes and mudflats that serve as biodiversity sanctuaries.11

Furthermore, NbS is promoted as being cost effective, environmentally friendly and low carbon alternatives that provide simultaneous multiple benefits for biodiversity and human wellbeing. Green spaces in cities can improve public health (reduced pollution and mental wellbeing), support biodiversity habitats and provide recreational opportunities for the urban populations.12

Meeting multiple goals for multiple gains

While NbS has increasingly gained recognition in the past four years, it is important that the term is not exploited to the detriment of human wellbeing or biodiversity gains.13 This is central to the definition – to be an NbS, a solution must meet both, biodiversity and human wellbeing goals.1 Restoring slopes with monoculture plantations for slope stability may reduce hazard risks and reduce runoff, however it may not contribute towards reversing the biodiversity loss that may have occurred. Furthermore, the plant species used for restoration may be more susceptible to other factors such as disease outbreak, making the NbS an unviable solution in the longer term. Similarly, if an area under conservation is primarily for protecting vulnerable species and there is no direct or indirect ecosystem service being derived for human populations (for example due to the remote location of the area) then it cannot be regarded as an NbS. Therefore, an accurate interpretation and understanding of NbS as an approach for both, people and biodiversity needs to be widely shared. Moreover, piloting and explorative efforts for NbS need careful planning, execution and importantly, monitoring, due to the inherent complexities and dynamism of ecosystems14 as well as the changing conditions of ecosystems and services due to impacts of climate on nature.15 A certain agricultural species that may be climate resilient and support food security now could fail with future changes in temperature or rainfall patterns. Similarly, restoring vegetation along the coastline for protection from coastal hazards may temporarily stabilise foreshore erosion if sea level rise and changing tidal oscillation patterns are not taken into account.

Leveraging the ‘social beings’ we are

Historically, humans have coped with rapid changes in temperature and precipitation from socially learning amongst themselves and through collective behavior, with the resulting knowledge and experiences passed on through culture and language.16 Dealing with changes in such a way would have allowed societies to seek solutions to a problem by considering different (and even diverging) perspectives as well as through using the collective knowledge of the group. Similarly, while in modern society, the need for specialists and experts is critical in informing a problem-solving process, solutions to wicked sustainability problems requires a diverse group of problem solvers, given the complexity of the problems. Groups of diverse problem solvers can out-perform groups of high ability problem solvers.17

Approaches that include all concerned stakeholders such as social learning can be leveraged in bringing diverse sets of knowledge and skills together for informing the design and implementation of NbS for disasters and climate risks.18 Actors like ecosystem managers, climate change adaptation practitioners and disaster managers need to collectively define the problem, outline the context and identify solutions. Doing so can create shared ownership of NbS.19 Furthermore, social learning can help negate pre-existing perceptions of each other amongst actors. In the case of NbS such perceptions could include fearing the need to make a choice between conservation efforts and development aspirations for a community or country. It may also be related to concerns over NbS being a hidden green agenda that is driven by conservationists. However, as with any such endeavour, it is important to be realistic and aware that conflicts could arise. In facilitating co-development of a project to apply NbS in the form of ecosystem management to floods, droughts, storm waves and wildfire risks management in Southern Cape, South Africa documented preconceived assumptions, embedded terminologies and entrenched thinking amongst the stakeholders as barriers for the process.20 The authors emphasize the need for strong facilitation skills and clear, common understanding of the objectives of the process in order to successfully work at and across the different knowledge boundaries.

Common action for a common cause

A shared understanding of the problem and a collective ownership of the solution can trigger desirable changes in collective behaviour of a group, distinguishing such a response from aggregated individual preference that, at best, will ‘keep all happy’.21 Not only is the resulting solution well informed, there is also recognition and creation of a commonly shared value base for mobilizing action amongst the wide range of stakeholders.22 Mobilizing such action is especially important in the case of disasters and climate risk management, whereby a deeper collective understanding of the problem could support proactive behaviour and actions versus reactive responses after the event has taken place.18

Collective behaviour change and actions can also facilitate ambitious and creative nature based solutions and at scales that demonstrate the gains from cost effectiveness. Scale is a major consideration in cost effectiveness of NbS, for example, when used as natural infrastructure for flood protection, coastal hazard protection or water purification.23 Within its Green City, Clean Waters 25-year plan, Philadelphia aims to enhance the health of the city’s creeks and rivers through sustainable land management actions. With this and installation of rain gardens and storm water planters, the city aims to reduce its pollution and especially sewer overflows during heavy rains by 85%. Investing in such NbS is costing approximately USD$2.4 billion public funds versus an estimated USD$9.6 billion if grey or engineered infrastructure was used.24

Importantly, in collectively defining and acting upon an NbS, there is a higher likelihood that more (rather than less) stakeholders will have roles in execution. Therefore, willingness to act collectively makes space for participatory approaches such as co-management of natural resources amongst stakeholders or institutions. Co-management can enhance abilities to cope with variability and address longer-term adaptive needs, despite the risks and uncertainties involved.25 However, in enabling collective action, stakeholders often need to be able to see the resulting mutual benefits. Therefore, in promoting NbS for disasters and climate risks, it is important that the solution demonstrates a win-win scenario for those involved. In the case of the Medmerry project, the £28 million initiative has involved building of a 7km sea wall, however, constructed 2km inland (instead of building higher sea walls in the original locations along the coastline). This lets the waters further inland yet reduces the risks of flooding and the surrendered land is increasingly becoming a biodiversity habitat for many species.11

Complementing different forms of knowledge to navigate uncertainties

Nature is dynamic, complex and sometimes unpredictable. On the other hand, the increasing magnitudes and frequencies of climate related events, together with climate variability, also bring about additional dimensions of complexity when designing NbS for disaster and climate risks. There are still many unknowns in the science, policy and practice of using nature-based approaches for such risks. Complementing different forms of knowledge is one way to support the development of locally relevant and feasible NbS solutions to disasters as well as climate change. Additionally, deliberations and plural perspectives give us better capacity to adapt to changing contexts and the uncertainties they bring about.14 Through the participatory process of Promoting Local Innovations, the Ecosystems Protecting Infrastructure and Communities (EPIC) project engaged scientific, traditional, experiential and local knowledge to inform NbS for droughts, flash flooding and soil salinization in Senegal. Communities, as experts of their land, together with scientists from the capital as well as international development experts pooled their knowledge and experiences to inform strategies, as described below.

Table 1: NbS Solutions and knowledge sources for informing actions10

In further encouraging the joint use of different forms of knowledge, it would be important to promote knowledge co-production partnerships amongst different actors such as scientists and practitioners. Experiential knowledge can inform scientific knowledge and vice versa, which can further help deal with unknowns. However, there needs to be willingness amongst the different actors to work together in such a way. In fostering collaboration for knowledge and action to operationalise an initiative on NbS for disaster risks, the entrenched way in which scientists exchange and produce knowledge needs to be addressed.20 Specifically, scientists need to consider flexible and adaptive ways to apply their skills to address the issues at hand.

Similar to complementing decision-making through different forms of knowledge, different fields of knowledge need to be combined to identify conservation or ecosystem management actions for human security from disasters and climate change. Therefore, transdisciplinary research is essential in the success of NbS and can be achieved through establishing joint research initiatives amongst different disciplines and faculties (such as development, sustainability studies, climate change, hazard managers and ecologists). This could effectively facilitate knowledge co-production, defined as “the collaborative process of bringing a plurality of knowledge sources and types together to address a defined problem and build an integrated or systems-oriented understanding of that problem”.26

Lack of understanding amongst stakeholders of how nature can help reduce disaster risks inhibits progress on policies that could support proactive risk reduction measures.27 In addition, a lack of focus on reduction of risks and instead prioritisation of emergency response actions also exacerbates reactive behaviour to disasters and climate risks.28 In Barbados, every USD1 invested in protecting the Folkstone Marine national park can reduce USD20 worth of damage caused by a cyclone, according to a study by SwissRe. The study further highlighted that up to 65% of the potential losses can be averted using cost-effective and proactive measures.29


NbS holds the potential to support human and biodiversity wellbeing in the face of disasters as well as the climatic risks we increasingly face today. However, as the term rapidly gains attention and momentum, it is important recognise that such a cross-sectoral approach needs a truly participatory framework. In supporting a participatory approach, the role of social learning can be fully leveraged to source a wide range of knowledge and skills from backgrounds such as ecology, environmental science, hazard risk modelling, disaster risk management, climate change modelling and the adaptation community, in order to create a collective understanding of the problem and define appropriate, co-owned and cost effective NbS responses. This inherently requires for all of us to be willing to step into or even beyond our knowledge boundaries or sectoral confines and join forces, which social learning can help achieve.


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Radhika Murti

Dr. Radhika Murti is the Director, Global Ecosystem Management Programme of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Her research interest is exploring the role of social learning for...


Sarah-Lan Mathez-Stiefel

Dr. Sarah-Lan Mathez-Stiefel is a Senior Research Scientist with the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) at the University of Bern. She focuses on transdisciplinary research for sustainable natural...

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