Informing coastal management adaptation planning and decision making for climate change using an interactive risk-based vulnerability assessment tool.
Funding:  NOAA Sectoral Application Research Program - SARP
Project Date Range:

Project Summary

This project consisted of refining and testing a participatory mediated modeling process to inform scenario-building and planning for coastal management.
We are calling this the Vulnerability and Consequence Adaptation Planning Scenarios (VCAPS) process. Central to this process is a computer-based diagramming tool that allows users to represent information about pathways that link hazards, impacts, vulnerabilities, and management actions. Participants create influence diagrams that represent vulnerability and consequence scenarios. The computer-based diagramming tool that is used in the process we call the VCAPS tool. The tool is used to mediate the scenario building.

Our goal was to examine the support VCAPS can offer climate change adaptation planning by local decision makers from coastal communities. Our two objectives were to:

  1. Apply VCAPS using a mediated modeling approach in communities who were engaging with coastal management planning and climate change risks.
  2. Evaluate the practicality and usefulness of VCAPS for planning by local decision makers. 

We found that the VCAPS process supported planning by local officials by:

  • Gathering and summarizing information, knowledge, and experience that exists within a community.
  • Stimulating thinking and conversation about how to manage consequences.
  • Highlighting multi-hazards approach, timing, and flexibility.
  • Identifiying issues or data needs that people may want to explore further.

The VCAPS process uses participatory modeling techniques and the conceptual frameworks of causal structure of hazards and vulnerability (see below for further discussion of the conceptual underpinnings of VCAPS). The VCAPS tool promotes structured and efficient dialogue among a diverse group of individuals. The VCAPS diagramming tool enables a facilitator to summarize discussions visually, in real-time, as described in a presentation about facilitating this kind of process and presentation about creating diagrams. This promotes reaching efficient closure on different group discussion points. It highlights vulnerabilities and management interventions that can be taken to adapt to or mitigate consequences. It also creates a record of a shared understanding of the local adaptation issue. A 2 page overview is available.
We implemented VCAPS in three communities in South and North Carolina during 2010-2011:

  • Sullivan’s Island, SC,
  • McClellanville, SC,
  • Plymouth, NC. 

We have also used VCAPS in Orange Beach, AL and as part of other funded projects from MIT Sea Grant and the NOAA Climate Program.
The VCAPS process
The basic steps involved in implementing a VCAPS process included:

  • Review background materials about the community, including existing hazards, hazard mitigation and climate adaptation strategies, etc.
  • Contact key informants to identify participants and logistics, and then schedule workshops and invite participants.
  • Conduct 2-4 facilitated meetings (aka diagramming sessions). The first meeting includes an introduction to VCAPS, presentation about locally relevant climate stressors, primer on VCAPS building blocks, and interactive diagramming time. Subsequent meetings include interactive diagramming time, reflections and wrap-up (e.g., next steps).
  • Conduct follow-up participant interviews to gather feedback about the process and outcomes.
  • Compile information developed during the facilitated meetings into a lessons learned document, which also includes the diagrams representing scenarios of climate change impacts and adaptation strategies.

In response to the feedback we received from local officials in these communities we adapted the initial process design for implementing VCAPS. In the proposal we had articulated a series of three workshops, some of which would be a full day, and spread over 5-6 months. However, for example, the participants from Sullivan’s Island were quick to tell us that full day meetings would be impossible because of town staff schedules and the fact that others on town commissions had other day jobs. They asked us not to schedule meetings in the evenings or on weekends. They also preferred to do something that was more compact in time, rather than the 5-6 month process we had proposed. Similar feedback was given to us by the local officials in McClellanville and Plymouth.
Creating VCAPS diagrams
We use a software package to create diagrams linking climate stressors, outcomes, consequences, information about vulnerabilities (i.e., contextual factors), and management actions about particular issues or management concerns (e.g., stormwater management, wastewater management, coastal infrastructure).  We call these elements the building blocks of VCAPS. To create the diagrams we use the open source program, Visual Understanding Environment (VUE), and several steps, which are described in a guide.
The diagramming process is elaborated in our VCAPS User Guide. In general, we start simple, and gradually make the diagram more complex. With the meeting participants a management concern or issue (e.g., stormwater management) and climate stressor (e.g., more severe storm events) are selected to focus on. Through a facilitated discussion, participants are then asked to identify specific outcomes and consequences that can emerge from the climate stressor, contextual factors that influence the severity or likelihood of outcomes and consequences, and actions that can be taken to mitigate or adapt (by either public agencies or private parties). Completing a diagram can take 2-4 hours, depending on the level of complexity that group participants pursue.
In a VCAPS process the diagrams help in three specific ways:

  1. The diagrams made with the program can serve as a library of what the community knows about the unique and special ways that it is vulnerable and resilient to different kinds of climate stressors. The diagrams can be used to summarize a tremendous amount of experience and knowledge in one place. They can be used to review the adequacy of knowledge. Gaps in knowledge or planning should be easy to spot. The community can then come up with a plan for filling in those gaps, if they are important.
  2. The diagrams help participants identify actions that can be taken by the community to prevent or mitigate consequences, or to adapt to them. They can give a clear understanding of where, what and how the community is already acting to address problems. Communities can also use the diagrams to realize potential future actions. This makes transparent to people in different departments how they are working in a coordinated way to protect the town. As action-planning strategies, the diagrams are also helpful because they clarify where and when action is being taken. 
  3. Communities may also use the diagrams as part of outreach and education activities. Community residents might want to better understand what the town is (or is not) doing to protect their property or safety and why (or why not). The diagrams can serve as useful visual aids to help explain decisions to residents. Transparency can help to build the support necessary for taking action, including the raising and spending of funds.

The benefits of group diagramming have been explored elsewhere. In their review of 80 studies that used diagramming techniques for data analysis, Umoquit, Tso, Burchett, and Dobrow (2011. A multidisciplinary systematic review of the use of diagrams as a means of collecting data from research subjects: application, benefits and recommendations, BMC Medical Research Methodology 11:11-21)reported that benefits included helping participants recall, self-reflect, and verbally organize their thoughts. Many of the studies reviewed noted that the diagramming approach supports their ability to obtain unique and unsolicited data. Some of the drawbacks identified include participant difficulty with the diagramming task and time needed for analysis. The VCAPS process can address these issues, as researchers assist in the diagramming and the diagram itself is the analytical product.
What we learned about VCAPS from the three case studies
Our experiences suggest that the VCAPS process is a useful and practical approach for local decision makers in coastal management and climate change planning. We evaluated the practicality and usefulness of the VCAPS process in two ways: 1) by gathering feedback from participants in the workshops and 2) by gathering feedback from participants in outreach workshops.
We found VCAPS useful for:

  • facilitating individual learning,
  • facilitating group deliberation and learning,
  • improving understanding of factors that affect vulnerability and adaptation planning in local contexts, and
  • facilitating and informing coastal management and climate change adaptation planning.

Examples of individual and group learning included new or deeper understandings that:

  • potential impacts will be multi-faceted, and include public and occupational health, property damage, financial costs to town, economic loss to businesses, damage to critical infrastructure, and nuisance,
  • there are opportunities for no/low regret strategies and co-benefits,
  • there are opportunities for “upstream” preventative mitigation and adaptation strategies and “downstream” coping and adjustment actions by both public agencies and private parties,
  • management strategies can have unintended consequences, and
  • there can be tradeoffs among adaptation options.

These outcomes were promoted by:

  • Gathering and summarizing information, knowledge, and experience that exists within a community.
  • Highlighting multi-hazards approach, timing, and flexibility.
  • Identifying issues or data needs that people may want to explore further.
  • Using a conceptual framework structured thinking and discussions (i.e., integration of causal model of hazards and vulnerability).
  • Self-generated scenarios, as opposed to having “outside experts” explain potential impacts and adaptation or mitigation strategies.
  • Presentation of locally relevant climate change science to inform discussions.
  • Real-time diagramming that supported understanding and sharing of information.

Here are some of the things that participants told us:

  • “VCAPS provides the structure that allows for a focused discussion.”
  • “This is good because you pull global issues into a local context.”
  • “Laundry lists are useless [and VCAPS avoids creating them].”
  • “Helps show how the problems we have now might get worse.”
  • “Surprising how much agreement we found.”
  • “For 4 hours, this is a respectable amount of work, another 4 hours and we’d have a finished action plan.”
  • “I am enthralled with the idea of doing another session.”
  • “It was an opportunity to get everybody together and get information out on the table in a format that was easily digestible. Now the chart is obviously very complex. But working through the chart one step at a time, one issue at a time, one idea at a time and one possible solution at a time was advantageous to everybody there. ”
  • “Even though we did not focus the discussion on climate change, we ended up addressing all the key issues that are relevant to planning for it.”

Here is an example of the feedback we received from participants in outreach and training workshops with local and regional planners, extension agents, and others:
“I think having this visual way of capturing a conversation, beyond simply catching notes on flip charts, is very helpful. I think it will help people keep on track a bit more because people can see where their comments get "binned." When you use a more linear, flip chart approach, it's hard to get people to stay focused on what is a consequence, which is an outcome etc. This helps people in the room see which is what and essentially provides a visual training for everyone to make sure everyone in the room is using the same vocabulary. This is often times the biggest challenge in any structured dialogue! One limitation is one that we discussed at the workshop; there isn't a built-in way to prioritize the next steps for action. I see this as a tool that is used in the beginning of a conversation, but there then has to be more work to transfer this into any sort of action or implementation plan. But…I can also see how the VCAPS products can easily lend themselves to some sort of prioritization process and ultimately to a plan of some sort.”
In addition, participants from the three case studies told us:

  • That the scenario diagrams could be effective at convincing local residents and county/state/federal officials of the need to address climate related hazards. 
  • They were able to identify a number of actions that were already being taken or possible no regret or low regret climate adaptation strategies; this left them feeling more empowered to implement actions rather then feeling overwhelmed or lacking in control. 
  • They benefited from a process that encouraged long range thinking; while they often talked about more near-term planning needs we were struck by how existing management “silos” created barriers to climate change adaptation planning. 
  • Of their strong interest in using the outcomes of VCAPS to develop an action plan for their towns and/or they wanted the action plan to help them advocate for various actions and policies with county, state, or federal authorities.

While we found that the VCAPS process places relatively little demand on the time or resources of local officials, few local officials wanted to use VCAPS on their own. They wanted the support of outside facilitators, extension agents, or academics to conduct the process. They did not indicate a desire to learn how to use the diagramming program (VUE). Once VUE is learned, however, development of diagrams is efficient; in our cases a useful diagram about a particular management concern or issue took 2-4 hours of meeting time. Project staff worked additional hours to check and “clean-up” diagrams in between meetings; this took about 2-3 hours additional work. Project staff also wrote summary reports, which were then provided to the participants for feedback. 
We also learned that the results of a VCAPS process are unlikely to be used unless the process is closely tied to an on-going planning activity or decision process and explicit attention is given to integrating the information emerging from VCAPS with the planning or decision. That is why in another project funded by MIT Sea Grant we are integrating the use of VCAPS into routine updates of hazard mitigation plans by coastal communities.
Outreach and training
We presented our work at the following conferences and meetings:

  • The 8th Annual Water Resources Conference, April 7, 2011 in Amherst, Massachusetts (no travel cost to project).
  • The Sixth Symposium on Policy and Socio-economic Research, held as part of the AMS 91st Annual Meeting, 23-27 January 2011 in Seattle, WA.
  • The 2011 Land Grant and Sea Grant National Water Conference, Washington DC, 31 January - 1 February 2011. We were invited to provide a poster presentation about the project (no travel cost to project).
  • The 2011 State of the Sounds Symposium, Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program, New Bern, NC, November 17, 2011.
  • MIT Sea Grant, Cambridge, MA, 8 February, 2012, invited presentation.
  • NOAA in the Carolinas meeting, Charleston, SC, March 15, 2012, invited presentation.

We conducted training workshops on VCAPS at the following:

  • Gulf of Mexico Climate Outreach Community of Practice workshop on June 1-2, 2011 in Biloxi, Mississippi. We introduced VCAPS to approximately 100 participants, including an exercise in using the diagramming process. 
  • Coastal Zone 2011 meeting, Chicago, IL 17 July 2011, entitled Helping Coastal Communities Strategize Adaptations to Climate Change: How to Implement a Structured Dialogue Using an Interactive Diagramming Program.
  • Social Coast Forum, Charleston, SC. 15-16 February, 2012. February, 2012. We participated in a Tool and Job Aid Demonstration Roundtable to illustrate the use of VCAPS, entitled Helping Coastal Communities Adapt to Climate Change Using the Vulnerability and Consequences Adaptation Planning Scenarios (VCAPS) Process.
  • Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium webinar, March 1st, 2012. 
  • Climate Adaptation Training for Local Governments in Southeastern Massachusetts Workshop, Waquoit, MA, 24-26, April, 2012
  • Southeast and Caribbean Climate Outreach Community of Practice meeting, Jacksonville, FL, June 12-14, 2012.



Read more about the theoretical background of this project.

Conceptual underpinnings of VCAPS
The conceptual underpinnings of VCAPS are: participatory modeling, causal structure of hazards, and vulnerability in coupled human-environment systems.
The VCAPS process is, at its core, a participatory modeling exercise. In the VCAPS process stakeholders and decision makers document causal linkages between climate stressors and downstream consequences. We organize these efforts using concepts and understandings of the causal pathways that link stressors and consequences and by using concepts of vulnerability in coupled human-environment systems. The idea of vulnerability helps to reveal the dynamic way that coupled human-environmental systems respond to exposures and the reasons that individuals and groups may experience consequences differently.

Participatory modeling
Participatory modeling (Mendoza & Pradbu, 2006, 2005), also known as mediated modeling (van den Belt 2004), cooperative modeling (Cockerill et al., 2006), group model building (Rouwette et al., 2002), or computer-mediated collaborative decision-making (Cockerill et al., 2008) is a way of bringing stakeholders together to turn complex system concepts into useful decision-making tools. Humans tend to understand complex systems by simplifying them in mental models (Morgan et al., 2001), and mediated modeling methodologies exploit this tendency to facilitate bringing scientists and stakeholders together to enhance system understanding by organizing group interactions around building models (van den Belt, 2004).

When applied, mediated modeling must be adapted to particular places and problems. There is not a “one-size fits all” approach. The key is to tap into individuals’ intuitive understandings of the system and how it dynamically functions and then to integrate different stakeholder perspectives into a single model. Scientists are integral participants in mediated modeling, serving as both facilitators for integrating multiple stakeholder perspectives and as consultants on relevant scientific information (van den Belt, 2004). As a result, the collaborative bottom-up process of creating a computer-based model through a carefully designed and well-managed mediated modeling exercise can promote group learning and consensus building, ground the model in both stakeholders’ reality and the best available science, and enhance the likelihood that the model will remain useful in decision-making (Costanza and Ruth, 1998, Größler, 2007, Cockerill et al., 2008, Tidwell and van den Brink, 2008). Although unsuccessful mediated modeling has been documented in the literature (Größler, 2007), there are numerous cases where mediated modeling was very successful (Otto and Struben, 2004, Cockerill et al., 2006, Tidwell and van den Brink, 2008, Metcalf et al., 2010).

According to van den Belt (2004), mediated modeling’s success is rooted in several advantages. It is a powerful tool in encouraging group learning and increasing shared understanding. It also assists participants in developing a consensus on the structure and function of the system in question. Additionally, the final model serves as a foundation for decision analysis and policymaking. In mediated modeling participants feel ownership of the resulting recommendations or decisions, which helps the participants move forward on decisions and actions (Luna-Reyes et al., 2006). Building this sense of ownership is vital to addressing concerns of resource managers, and they are more likely to use climate-related decision tools when they understand their structure and believe that the tools are relevant (Rayner et al., 2005, Dow and Carbone, 2007, Yarnal et al., 2006, Tribbia and Moser, 2008).
The causal structure of hazards
The second conceptual piece of VCAPS is the causal taxonomy of hazards and hazard management. We focus attention on cause-effect relationships (both positive and negative), and suggest relevant indicators that can be used in assessments (e.g., vulnerability and adaptation assessments). Conceptual frameworks for understanding risk and vulnerability can be most useful when they (e.g., Turner et al. 2003): direct attention to the human-environment system; identify complexities, interconnectedness, and iterativeness of components; shed light on nested temporal and spatial scales of the problem; draw attention to potential dynamics within the human-environment system that give rise to new hazards and the continuation of stresses and perturbations; facilitate the identification of critical interactions in the human-environment system that suggest opportunities for response; support both quantitative and qualitative data and methods for assessment; and assist in the development of indicators, measures, and models for implementation.

In our case these benefits are achieved by using a conceptual model of the causal structure of environmental risks and hazards, which depicts threats and consequences as a causal sequence resulting from a stream of choices and activities (Kates et al. 1985). This particular framework has been applied to many human-environment challenges, such as nuclear waste disposal, coastal flooding, and sewage sludge disposal (Kates et al. 1985, Clark et al. 1998, Webler et al. 1995). A simple causal chain is represented as a flowchart of boxes with arrows showing how one thing causes another. The main building blocks of the causal chain in VCAPS are described in a separate document, and they represent the fundamental ideas of the original causal model theory of hazards. The chain starts with a concern or stressor on the left side. At the end of the diagram, on the far right side, are consequences we seek to avoid, for example, loss of life, economic costs, decline in fish populations, and so on. To avoid these consequences, hazard managers seek to interfere by blocking intermediary outcomes in the causal chain. While there are strong benefits associated with blocking the causal chain early on, there can also be significant costs to doing this. For instance, economic loss from coastal storms can be mitigated by reinforcing or raising coastal infrastructure. However, these can be costly and controversial. Likewise, allocating too many hazard management resources at the far right side of the diagram is also problematic. Reimbursing people for economic damages may not adequately compensate people for all the losses they experienced. In conclusion, a good hazard management strategy includes actions at multiple points in the causal chain (Webler et al. 1995).

Vulnerability in coupled human-environment system
The third conceptual component is vulnerability (Turner et al. 2003). Scholarship on vulnerability has developed rapidly over the last quarter century (Dow 1992, Kasperson et al. 2005, Turner et al. 2003). We view vulnerability as the “differential susceptibility to loss from a given insult” (Kasperson et al. 2001: 24) and we agree with many other scholars who define it according to three dimensions: exposure to a hazard, sensitivity to harm from the exposure, and resilience to plan for or cope with the harm (exposure information is implicit to the original causal model). There are many things in the physical or social environment that help shape the form or extent of a climate stressor, outcome, or consequence. They can be anything that makes a climate stressor, outcome, or consequence bigger, smaller, better, worse, or simply different. That is, they mediate the causal relationships between these different elements in the causal chain. In VCAPS we refer to vulnerabilities, features of the system that mediate causal linkages, as contextual factors.

Integrating vulnerability into the causal chain of hazards improves the ability to characterize and manage impacts in two ways. First, it clarifies that different entities are affected differently by the same exposure. For example, summer tourism businesses have a low susceptibility to harm from a coastal storm in winter, but retail businesses that serve the permanent population are susceptible anytime during the year. Second, it adds the notion of adaptive response (which includes coping, prevention, avoidance, adaptation or, very broadly, resilience). Adaptive responses are taken by the affected entities before or during the hazard event intended to mitigate harm. For example, people evacuate town before the storm hits, or they build their homes to withstand expected levels of wind stress.
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Capped outlet pipe
Sewer caps are a site for infiltration during storms