Back in the mists of internet time in the mid 1990s, one of the key problems in trying to set up new web services for coastal managers was simply explaining them. The problem was that there were very few similar services to compare them to.
Of course, this is much easier now. I would be able to talk about what other web services do, what they look like and how they interact with users. For example:
‘Imagine a web system that combines Google Docs, Facebook, YouTube and Flikr’.
This is because these web services are now very much part life in the developed world, and increasingly in developing countries. In other words, these web services are socially embedded.
So it’s easy to explain to most people what a particular type of car looks like, even if they have never seen that model before. This is because the starting point (Imagine a car…) is already socially embedded.
The trouble with explaining potential coastal climate change impacts in 2010, for me, is similar to explaining web services 15 years ago. The concept of chronic impacts outside of long-term natural variation is both difficult to explain and difficult to visualize.
I often try to explain this by using analogies such as: “Remember when that storm came in and removed sand from the beach, but then the beach came back again after the storm? Climate change is a bit like that, but with the sand not coming back’.
The risk is that these analogies can get stretched too far. For example, “It’s like a car, but with no wheels, engine, or anywhere to sit.”
Stretching the analogy becomes counter productive.
When it doesn’t work, we most often want to use visualization tools and show computer-generated pictures and animations of potential impacts.
Turns out, what I’ve been trying to do stretching the car analogy, is the difference between an ‘analogy’ and a ‘literal similarity’.
Those that market new products and services to us know this difference very well. In essence, it’s the “Conceptual distance between the base and the target of the comparison” (Houssiet al, 2005). Interestingly, this study suggests that the greater this conceptual distance, the more effective the ability to sell the benefits of a new product. Maybe this means that we shouldn’t worry about stretching the analogies (like my disappearing beach example) and rather go way out there with a completely different set of analogies. For example: ‘It’s like when your pet goes out one night and never comes home.’
This perhaps leads me to think that there is mileage (pardon the car pun) in exploring notions of socially constructed meaning – in the sense that for climate change adaptation to be effective, it must be socially embedded.
I’m not pushing the line of the social constructivists here, rather making the point that this issue is something coastal managers need to collectively explore.
This was one of the recurring themes of last week’s Climate Adaptation Futures Conference on the need for ‘Climate Change Conversations’ to develop a shared understanding of the challenges ahead. In doing so, we’ll need to be able to develop effective mental models and good clear analogies for engaging with communities regarding coastal climate change impacts.
Perhaps then we will be able to be clear when a car is not a car.