Academic journal article Emergence: Complexity and Organization

Public Decision-Making as Coevolution

Academic journal article Emergence: Complexity and Organization

Public Decision-Making as Coevolution

Article excerpt

The main argument of this article is that common analyses of public decision-making have an anthropocentric focus that lacks explanatory power. An alternative approach is suggested. This approach reframes decision-making as a process of coevolution between decision-makers and the system they attempt to govern. Coevolution can explain the occurrence of unintended, unforeseen and unwanted consequences of decisions. The framework is applied to analyze a case of planning port extensions in Hamburg, Germany, in order to demonstrate the workings of the coevolutionary approach to public decisionmaking processes.


Public decision-making over physical systems often has an anthropocentric perspective. That is: it is (implicitly or explicitly) assumed that the decision-maker is in full control of the physical system. There are no issues with this approach as long as the physical system responds predictably. But often the responses are erratic, badly predictable and, sometimes, unfavorable. In such cases, people tend to blame decision-makers for taking the wrong decision. However, that ignores that decision-making takes place in a capricious world, and that decisions are distorted because of the erratic behavior of systems. In order to analyze the complexity of decision-making, one has to assume a complex systems perspective as the point of departure. Such an analysis should take into account that causation is complex and changeable over time, and it should abandon the anthropocentric perspective for a revolutionary revision.

This article argues that the concept of coevolution helps understanding the erratic nature of decision-making better than more traditional approaches. This idea is clarified through a case study of the extension of the port of Hamburg. The next section introduces this case study. The third section is dedicated to the introduction of the revolutionary framework for decision-making that allows understanding the outcomes of the case. The conclusions are presented in the final section.

Planning Port Extensions

The Elbe provides maritime access to Hamburg in Germany, one of Europe's largest ports and an economic powerhouse. The port authorities (HPA) feel obliged to plan port extensions because this is perceived as the main strategy in order to stay ahead of the competition elsewhere in Europe. Hamburg seeks to increase the capacity among others by planning a new motorway from east to west (see Van Gils et al, 2009). Another proposed measure to increase the port's capacity is to deepen the navigation channel of the Elbe River between the port and the North Sea. This section measures approximately 1 00 kilometers. Large cargo ships are too large to enter the port around the clock because of the shallow depth. They are obliged to wait until the tide is high enough to safeguard the depth under the keel. A deeper Elbe would allow these ships to enter port any time during the day. The Elbe has been deepened several times between 1900 and 2007. After the deepening in 1980, the port authorities and the Senate of Hamburg planned another deepening operation that was to be completed somewhere between 1995 and 2000. The planning process gained momentum during 1996, when this case study starts. Data was collected through interviews and document analysis. Twenty semi-structured in-depth interviews were conducted during summer - fall 2007 in Germany. Document analysis covered over 175 newspaper articles, policy documents and scientific publications published about the case. Newspaper articles were triangulated using multiple sources. A full list of respondents and all articles and documents is published in Gerrits, 2008.

When the planning process starts in 1996, it is hampered by fierce resistance from many stakeholders such as environmental pressure groups and concerned citizens. The port authorities and the Senate are convinced that the deepening will benefit the region tremendously in terms of employment and prosperity. …

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