Fieldnotes from two cities in India: learning about social learning and climate uncertainty

How can urban planners deal with the unpredictable future impacts of climate change? IIED researchers visited two Indian cities to see how a learning-based approach can help.

A partially obstructed drain in Gangtok city, Sikkim (Photo: David Dodman/IIED)

Climate change is making the future uncertain. While scientists can model some impacts, they cannot yet make precise prediction at the local scale and that poses a challenge for city planners and officials in their work. We visited two cities in India where planners are using a 'learning-based approach' to manage this uncertainty to find out how this works in practice.

A learning-based approach can be used to bring a wide range of urban stakeholders together to debate the right approach or plan using all the existing information on climate change and other factors. It allows the group to continue to reflect on new information as it occurs and to make new policies or amend old ones as needed.

This can help to address the planning challenges presented by climate uncertainty, including the long timeframes over which climate change occurs, the uncertain evidence, the multi-sectoral nature of the problem and the differing impacts on women and other marginalised groups.

Cities around the world are already trialling these type of learning approaches. We visited Gangtok in the state of Sikkim, and Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh to understand more how these ideas actually work in practice.

Urban experiences of learning

Decentralised wastewater treatment plant in peri-urban area in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh (Photo: David Dodman/IIED)Gangtok is a small city high in the mountains of Sikkim, where the Municipal Corporation, supported by ICLEI South Asiahas been using a Shared Learning Dialogue to develop a strategy to address the city's climate resilience needs.

During our visit there last month we attended a Shared Learning Dialogue, interviewed key stakeholders and visited one of the wards most affected by climate change. 

Stakeholders in Gangtok identified the drains as one of the major climate-related issues for the city as they overflow, or get blocked after heavy rains or with rubbish, leading to landslides.

Gorakhpur, on the Indian plains close to Nepal, is part of the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network and has run many Shared Learning Dialogues and learning groups with local communities and city planners, supported by the Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group. Together they have looked at disaster management plans for the area and developed a resilience strategy. 

We held focus groups in two wards affected by climate change – one had a problem with flooding and water-logging, the other was a peri-urban area experiencing increased heat and unpredictable rainfall.

Community members explained how the process had helped them make connections with government officials and made them aware of programmes that could help them and also gave them a better sense of their rights. The women in particular talked about the confidence they had gained through taking part in the groups which now allowed them to take up other issues of concern when they needed to. 

Learning about learning

While both cities have made impressive strides towards using a learning-based approach to planning and thinking through the future effects of climate change, it was also clear that this is not an easy task and to fully think through climate uncertainties using a learning approach takes substantial time and effort.

Firstly, urban planning processes are often highly complex before climate change is even considered. There are many actors involved with different priorities. Bringing them together through social learning practices can be a challenging, political process is that is subject to existing power relationships and bureaucratic challenges. 

Reflecting and seeking to change past climate-relevant decisions when new evidence emerges can be difficult, especially where key staff have moved on, or powerful actors support the status quo.

Secondly, social learning is all about stakeholders finding a joint solution by reflecting on their respective knowledge and priorities. Stakeholders could include the most affected residents, urban planners, technical staff from water and sanitation departments and relevant non-governmental organisations, and donor funded programmes. 

The two cities we visited approached this in different ways, focusing more on government officials in Gangtok, and on local community participation in Gorakhpur. 

While both approaches have strengths and weaknesses, there is also much to learn from bringing the two approaches together. One area for future work is to see how learning both within and between different groups can be best supported.

Thirdly, climate change is often a new issue for the people involved. In some cases, to make this manageable, facilitators have introduced it as a certainty, with definite and well understood impacts.

This may be easier in the short-term. But it raises the question of whether the local authority and other actors will be ready if the anticipated changes do not materialise, or if the trend is in fact different from that predicted. 

Looking ahead

A focus group in peri-urban area, Gorakhpur (Photo: David Dodman/IIED)Social learning provides the capacity to respond to sudden or unexpected changes – including from climate change – based on co-created knowledge, new and strengthened relationships and flexible processes that can respond quickly to changes in evidence or context. 

Our visit showed that the foundations for this are being developed in cities, but more attention needs to be given to understanding and supporting the way that relationships are built through social learning rather than just the specific output of the process such as a plan or strategy. 

Gangtok and Gorakhpur have produced city resilience strategies but it is less clear how capacities, networks and understanding have changed among key stakeholders, or how this might support flexible plans and iterative processes needed to respond to an uncertain climatic future.

Susannah Fisher (susannah.fisher@iied.org) is a senior researcher in IIED's Climate Change research groupDavid Dodman (david.dodman@iied.org) is director of IIED's Human Settlements research groupThis visit was part of a broader IIED research project looking at how social learning processes can address climatic uncertainties in planning.