Improving conservation practice with principles and tools from systems thinking and evaluation

Andrew T. Knight, Carly N. Cook, Kent H. Redford, Duan Biggs, Claudia Romero, Alejandro Ortega-Argueta, Cameron D. Norman, Beverly Parsons, Martin Reynolds, Glenda Eoyang, Matt Keene

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

52 Citations (Scopus)


Achieving nature conservation goals require grappling with ‘wicked’ problems. These intractable problems arise from the complexity and dynamism of the social–ecological systems in which they are embedded. To enhance their ability to address these problems, conservation professionals are increasingly looking to the transdisciplines of systems thinking and evaluation, which provide philosophies, theories, methods, tools and approaches that show promise for addressing intractable problems in a variety of other sectors. These transdisciplines come together especially around praxis, i.e., the process by which a theory or idea is enacted, embodied or realized. We present a review and synthesis of the learnings about praxis that have emerged from The Silwood Group, a consortium of conservation professionals, professional evaluators, and complexity and systems thinkers. The Silwood Group believes that for conservation activities to achieve ambitious goals, we should benefit nature without compromising the well-being of people, and that framing a praxis for conservation in the context of social–ecological systems will provide the greatest potential for positive impact. The learnings are presented as four key principles of a ‘praxis for effective conservation’. The four principles are: (1) attend to the whole with humility; (2) engage constructively with the values, cultures, politics, and histories of stakeholders; (3) learn through evaluative, systemic enquiry, and (4) exercise wisdom in judgement and action. We also provide descriptions and references for tools and methods to support such praxis and discuss how the thinking and approaches used by conservation professionals can be transformed to achieve greater effectiveness.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1531-1548
Number of pages18
JournalSustainability Science
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • Complexity
  • Knowing–doing gap
  • Learning
  • Praxis
  • Transdisciplinarity
  • Transformative learning
  • Wicked problems
  • Wisdom

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