The Biomass Dialogue: structuring the complex bio-energy issue
How should the sustainability of biomass chains be assessed, evaluated and monitored? Can biomass chains be set-up in such a way that they do not negatively affect, but rather benefit developing countries? What kind of policies should be in place to develop sustainable biomass applications?
These are examples of questions that were discussed in the Biomass Dialogue: a stakeholder dialogue on energy options from biomass in the Netherlands. The Biomass Dialogue took place in 2007-2008, and consisted of a preparation phase in which 75 Dutch stakeholders were interviewed and three workshops in which about 30 stakeholders participated. The Biomass Dialogue was designed according to the Creative Conflict Methodology for stakeholder dialogues, which has been developed at IVM. Central in this methodology is the notion that dealing with complex issues requires a problem structuring process: an open exploration and critical examination of the diversity of ideas, knowledge and viewpoints on the issue. This should lead to an improved understanding of the problem as well as its solutions. In the first step of Creative Conflict Methodology, stakeholders are identified and selected in such a way that they reflect the variety of perspectives in a balanced way. In the second step the perspectives are articulated, and further clarified by and for participants in the dialogue. In the Biomass Dialogue, Q methodology was used for the first two steps. Q methodology is a social scientific method to identify perspectives (or discourses) within a group of people. It also allows for an analysis of stakeholders’ positions with regard to the perspectives. Results of the Q methodology were used to select participants for the Biomass Dialogue, and to structure the dialogue on the basis of the perspectives. The third step of Creative Conflict Methodology concerns the confrontation between divergent knowledge claims, in order to challenge assumptions and to reflect on the similarities and differences between perspectives. In the Biomass Dialogue, specific examples of biomass chains were used to support this step (see figure). The fourth step involves a synthesis. Creative Conflict Methodology does not force participants to reach an agreement or consensus in the synthesis phase, but it rather entails an assessment of the problem that takes the different perspectives into account, and an overview of alternative options for dealing with the problem. In the Biomass Dialogue, synthesis involved an analysis of the diversity of perspectives in relation to the evaluation of sustainability of biomass chains. Furthermore, the dialogue resulted in an overview of future visions on biomass in the Netherlands and the trajectories needed to attain those visions (see the final report: www.vu.nl/ivm; Research projects, Environmental governance, Biomassadialoog).
In the evaluation phase of the Biomass Dialogue, we analyzed if, and how the perspectives of participants changed as a result of taking part in the dialogue. It appeared that the dialogue did have a problem structuring effect: compared to a control group, participants significantly improved their understanding of the diversity of perspectives. Rather than reaching a consensus on a particular perspective, the dialogue resulted in a consensus on the fact that a diversity of perspectives exists. As a result of taking part in the dialogue, participants could use their understanding of the diversity of perspectives to grasp the complexity of the biomass issue.