Components for a Successful Watershed Visioning Process: Building Collaboration along the Iijoki River

The Iijoki River Watershed Vision was created through a multi-stage, multi-stakeholder negotiation process from 2015 to 2018. The lessons learned and experiences gained during this process remain relevant, as watershed visions increasingly attract interest as tools for harmonizing diverse needs and fostering more effective collaboration. The keys to the success of the Iijoki River Watershed Visioning Process have now been compiled into a case study, which was released during Akordi’s  webinar on October 26, 2023.
Publication Link [In Finnish]: Rantala, L., Peltonen, L., Kettunen, A. & Luoma E. (2023). Hyvän vesistövisioprosessin ainekset – miten Iijoella onnistuttiin yhteistyön rakentamisessa. Akordi Oy julkaisuja.

The Iijoki River Vision is the first ever watershed vision to be produced in Finland. The process has garnered national interest, and there has been a desire to learn from its methods. This recently-published document describes why the Iijoki River succeeded in the visioning process, outlines the components of the visioning process, and suggests how the lessons from this process can be applied elsewhere.

Key Components for a Successful Watershed Visioning Process

Engaging the Right Stakeholders. Ensuring commitment from all relevant actors with the necessary resources and a shared interest in the agreed-upon solutions is crucial for the vision’s success. Progress depends on active individuals who understand the need for effective solutions to drive collaboration. Incorporating critical perspectives and fostering an open dialogue between parties is also essential. During the Ijoki visioning process, the content was formulated by an advisory board of regional stakeholders, assisted by an external consultant. The vision has since become a reality, jointly owned and driven by the actors in the region. In addition to the Advisory Board, discussions were held with other actors including residents, environmental organizations, and political decision-makers.

Identifying and Framing the Common Problem. Before formulating solutions, it is crucial to identify a question or problem that is relevant and solvable for all parties involved. Identifying a common problem not only guides the process but also motivates the parties to work together to find solutions. In the context of the Iijoki River, regional stakeholders committed to realizing the vision because they felt empowered to influence issues that are important to them. The broad support of the project enabled a much greater level of impact, and lasting consequences.

Deliberating. The greater the tensions between parties, the more important it is to take time to build trust. The Iijoki project invested plenty of time in allowing parties to get to know each other and rebuild relationships. The two-day meetings provided an unhurried opportunity for parties to build connections and renew interorganizational working practices. Facilitated by the repeated interactions, members of the Advisory Board felt like they were part of a group with a common goal: to produce and implement a watershed vision enhancing the value of the Iijoki River.

Connecting to Reality. Linking discussions to the practical aspects of reality right from the beginning played an important role in motivating and engaging participants. One crucial aspect was the development of an action plan intricately connected to the vision. By implementing and updating this plan, the vision was not only achieved, but also expanded upon.

Addressing Conflicts Head-On. Avoiding conflicts and maintaining an appearance of agreement can lead to the neglect of difficult issues or decisions that may not genuinely have everyone’s approval but are irreversible. In the Iijoki project, challenging topics were not sidestepped; during the council meetings, “putting the cards on the table” was practiced, and, if necessary, a timeout was taken for further discussion. For instance, the discussion about updating the fishery obligations related to Iijoki’s hydroelectric power plants wasn’t ignored or pushed aside: solutions were sought well in advance of the completion of the watershed vision.

Consensus-Based Decision-Making. Striving for consensus is an alternative to traditional majority-based decision-making, and helps ensure that solutions are accepted by all parties. Measuring consensus also provides a better understanding of how much effort is still needed to achieve a shared goal. In the Iijoki project, consensus-based decision-making not only facilitated decision-making, but also identified areas requiring further discussion. As one participant put it, “the Advisory Board doesn’t just impose decisions, they negotiate and build collaboration.”

The Role of the Neutral Third-Party. Assistance from an external party can be crucial for helping parties break deadlock in disputes. A neutral party helps build a functioning platform that is acceptable to all and provides support to build trust and collaborative relationships among parties. In the Iijoki project, the planning of the vision process and facilitation of the Advisory Board were handled by an external entity. The careful staging and customization of the process ensured that the watershed vision could meet the needs of all involved.

Establishing a Permanent Collaborative Platform. The collaborative platform established during the vision process has since played a crucial role in launching new projects. The Iijoki River Agreement, crucial for ensuring the implementation of the vision, was signed by a number of actors who also committed to financial contributions. A coordinator was hired with the funding enabled by the Iijoki agreement. Their responsibilities include coordinating collaboration among regional stakeholders, communicating between parties, and assisting in the planning of projects and securing funding. The Advisory Council committed itself to the implementation of the action plan, and the coordinator’s work has been critical in solidifying collaboration.

The collaboration fostered through the vision process has been pivotal in launching new initiatives. The Iijoki Agreement, underwritten by several stakeholders, secured vital funding for a coordinator who has played a crucial role in consolidating collaboration. The lessons from the Iijoki case offer valuable insights into building successful watershed visions and collaborations, providing a foundation for continued advancement. The webinar recording is available for further exploration.

Webinar Recording [In Finnish]. The webinar, held on October 26, 2023, featured presentations and discussions with experts, providing an in-depth exploration of the Iijoki case and its broader implications.