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A systems thinking approach for eliciting mental models from visual boundary objects in hydropolitical contexts: a case study from the Pilcomayo River Basin

Riveraine S. Walters, University of Idaho Water Resources Program
Erin S. Kenzie, Portland State University System Science Program
Alexander E. Metzger, University of Massachusetts Boston School for the Environment
William Jesse Baltutis, University of Victoria Water Innovation and Global Governance (WIGG) Lab
Kakali B. Chakrabarti, Austin Peay State University, Department of Communication
Shana Lee Hirsch, University of Washington Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering
Bethany K. Laursen , Michigan State University Department of Community Sustainability; Michigan State University Department of Philosophy; Laursen Evaluation & Design, LLC


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Transboundary collaborations related to international freshwater are critical for ensuring equitable, efficient, and sustainable shared access to our planet’s most fundamental resources. Visual artifacts, such as knowledge maps, functioning as boundary objects, are used in hydropolitical contexts to convey understandings and facilitate discussion across scales about challenges and opportunities from multiple perspectives. Such focal points for discussion are valuable in creating shared, socially negotiated priorities and integrating diverse and often disparate cultural perspectives that naturally exist in the context of international transboundary water resources. Visual boundary objects can also represent the collective mental models of the actor countries and transboundary institutions and encompass their perspectives on the complex hydro-social cycles within specific “problem-shed” regions of the shared resources. To investigate and synthesize these multiple concepts, we developed a novel method of eliciting mental models from visual boundary objects in social-ecological contexts by combining content analysis with theoretical frameworks for boundary objects and systems thinking. Using this method, we analyzed visual boundary objects represented in publicly available documents formally related to decision making in the Pilcomayo River Basin in South America. The Pilcomayo River Basin is a unique case for investigating decision making in international collaboration among represented states, given the unique social and biophysical challenges that have plagued the region for over a century. Using our framework, we were able to develop insight into the collective mental models of stakeholders, organizations, and decision-making institutions, related to priorities, vulnerabilities, and adaptation strategies among the various socioeconomic, cultural, political, and biophysical drivers for different regions and scales of the basin.

Key words

boundary objects; hydropolitics; mental models; social-ecological systems; systems thinking

Copyright © 2019 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087