OR ELSE – first plenary meeting on 12th of October 2023

On 12 October 2023, the OR ELSE project hosted its first plenary meeting in Scheveningen. The meeting aimed to bring together experts, stakeholders, researchers and policy makers from the North Sea to discuss challenges and opportunities for ecosystem-based sand extraction in a changing North Sea. With the Scheveningen port at the backdrop – and a trailing hopper in its water – the location brought the topic of the day very much alive.

Martin Baptist (project leader, WUR) kicked off the day with stating the cheerful fact that all OR ELSE researchers (PhDs and PDs) are on board! They introduced themselves personally as well as their research project through content presentations (post-doc researchers) and pitches (PhD students). OR ELSE is very proud to present the following group of work package project and researchers:

group picture or else

The presentations of the work packages provided a profound insight into the research work.

Throughout the day, much information about the consortium, project ideas, approaches and plans were presented and discussed. Henrique Guarneri (postdoc, TU Delft) elaborated on the Development of a Digital Twin for sand extraction, as one of the main outcomes of the research project. Afterwards, Maria Pafi (postdoc, ENP – WUR) dived deeper into the details of ‘Institutional Learning and stakeholder engagement through a Sand Extraction Serious Game’.

The day sparked plenty of engagement and discussion among the OR ELSE stakeholders, having everybody involved in the co-design (co-construction and co-production) processes. The multiple-year research project OR ELSE is not set in stone, hence kicking off the co-design process meant jointly exploring how to include science-policy-society considerations in the development of the OR ELSE project content. A useful workshop format was introduced to guide the exploration. Eliciting the different norms, visions, ideas and concerns that both scientists and stakeholders hold about the North Sea in general, and sand extraction in particular, has been an important first step into the co-design journey.

The first co-design workshop was facilitated by Hilde Toonen, Maria Pafi, Paulan Korenhof, Harald Warmelink, Magali Patrocínio Gonçalves, Henrique Guarneri and related to the goal: Connection, Shared language, Divergence, covering the topic of ‘what is sand extraction’ and ‘how can it be optimized’. If we are to co-create digital tools that will facilitate learning and assist in decision-making about how to manage sand extraction in an ecosystem-based way, then first stage in the co-design process is to reach some common understanding about what is (important about) sand extraction and for whom. Furthermore, one cannot improve a situation without having an idea of what ‘good’ is, so the question about optimization started with

a discussion about how sand extraction is currently done before attempting to find common ground on what we understand to be ‘optimal’ sand extraction, and for whom.

The second co-design workshop – facilitated by the same group of researchers – revolved around the goal of: Divergence and Co-creation, covering the topic of ‘where do we draw the lines of ecosystem-based sand extraction’? The result of the workshop groups was a rudimentary draft of a SWOT-analysis, with the focus on opportunities and threats. One important remark made is that statements made easily become political – a political stance is quickly taken. For OR ELSE, ecology is at the forefront of the project, and scientific research is needed to nourish the political debate and policy-making processes with the right and up-to-date knowledge. We have the common obligation to advise and inform.

Both sessions culminated in a plenary discussion. In ‘fishbowl’ format, which worked very well because it makes the larger group real-time part of the discussion by having the opportunity to question and join. Hence the wisdom of the crowd is well grasped!

The primary stages of the OR ELSE project is a balancing act in which it is important to create space for conversation to allow all voices to be heard without necessarily expecting (or forcing) convergence at this stage. Through the diversity of people that took stage during the plenary discussion, broad support was given to the step-by-step approach of the project to exploring the key question: “What is (important about) sand extraction and how would you optimize it according to your needs, interests and value”

Some important points of interest for the consortium were mentioned during the fishbowl. It was stated that all stakeholder groups are represented and/or heard, as an example: as well the Dutch people living near the coastline. The discussion as well revolved around the availability of research data, which needs to be open source available for all stakeholders and parties.

The challenges and the “race for space” at the North Sea – with sand extraction and suppletion being one of the pressure factors at sea – are currently one of the most challenging issues within the realm of climate action and nature restoration. Fortunately, it was generally felt that a large group of people with the right expertise, knowledge – and passion! – is working on these topics, among others through the important work of the OR ELSE research project.