Linking evidence and operation in ecosystem service-based decision support tools

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Environment


There is an increasing demand from policy that conservation and sensitive management of our landscape should not be restricted to areas designated for their conservation value, but should extend to the broader landscape as well. There is also an increasing expectation from society that development and infrastructure projects should be undertaken in such a way that not only minimises their environmental impact but where possible enhances the wider landscape and the benefits and services that we obtain from it, such as flood prevention, the provision of clean water, carbon storage and recreation. Those organisations and businesses responsible for managing large areas of the landscape therefore need the appropriate information to help them achieve these goals.

There is an increasing body of evidence concerning how landscape management affects landscape benefits and services. This evidence has helped to inform the development of a wide range of computer models that can be used to quantify the different services that a particular landscape provides, and to predict the likely impacts of landscape change on these services. However, many of these models are heavily research-focused, require specialist knowledge to operate and interpret, and are not accessible to general users.

In this project, using two existing ecosystem service decision-support models as test-beds for the approach, we will develop a web-based tool that will allow users of the models to examine and evaluate the evidence base underlying the predictions of the models. This evidence tool will use a process that is well-established as industry standard in other areas of application, including engineering and transport safety, but has not previously been applied in environmental management. The tool will allow users of these ecosystem service models to understand and track the evidence underpinning model predictions for the first time.

There are potential applications of this evidence tool across a wide range of sectors, including energy, water and transport, and the construction industry, as well as for nature conservation. Our group of formal partners in the project attests to this, and includes an industry regulator, an energy supply company, a construction firm, a landscape management partnership and a Wildlife Trust, as well as Defra, the Welsh Government, Natural Resources Wales and Natural England.

Planned Impact

The project will directly address a recognised need among our partner organisations and the wider user community for greater clarity surrounding the management of landscapes to promote multiple ecosystem services for the benefit of society. The principal output from the project, the evidence tool to support ecosystem services decision-support models, will present those responsible for landscape management decisions with a new and interactive way of examining and understanding the evidence relating to ecosystem services, and allow them to track pathways between model outcomes and the underlying evidence. This is not possible currently, resulting in confusion and uncertainty about how to manage landscapes appropriately for these wider benefits. The evidence tool has the potential to contribute to both economic development and societal well-being, through its potential application in environmental planning and environmental assessment tools.

Some of the specific benefits and outcomes of the project highlighted by our partners in their letters of support include: more evidence-based decision making at a strategic level to enhance the delivery of multiple ecosystem services; more effective management to deliver Government policy objectives; practical use of the evidence tool to inform management decisions in partnership initiatives on the ground; better informed evaluations of the wider environmental benefits and risks associated with development opportunities; greater understanding of the environmental impacts of infrastructure development; opportunities to enhance existing guidelines for best practice in Environmental Impact Assessment and Strategic Environmental Assessments; and identification of benefits to local communities that could be enhanced alongside new developments in the built environment.

Some benefits for stakeholders will become effective in a relatively short time, such as the use of the tool in landscape-level environmental conservation partnership initiatives. Benefits to other sectors, such as transport and energy, will take longer to have an impact, and will likely require further development of the evidence tool within the context of those specific sectors. This is recognised by the relevant partners and they have committed to be involved with the project from the outset. Indeed, several of these partners have specifically expressed a desire to be closely involved in the development of the project in a more interactive way than just participating in the formal workshops. We will work closely with these stakeholders to identify further opportunities to extend the evidence tool for use in these different sectors from the outset of the project.


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Description We have developed interactive software that allows a user to evaluate the assumptions of an ecosystem service decision model by tracking the assumptions and related evidence back to specific papers in the scientific literature. This has been developed for two ecosystem service decision models - our own ESI-SIT model and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology/University of Wellington LUCI model.
Exploitation Route The methodology will be applicable to other ecosystem service models but also in other fields. We are currently applying it in a BBSRC-funded project for which we are developing a 'virtual laboratory' for decision-makers, to understand the spread of infectious diseases through the plant and animal trade and the effectiveness of different decision options in containing disease. We are also applying it within a commissioned project for Defra on the plant health risk register.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

Description Our findings have been used by Natural England to make decisions about management of protected sites for biodiversity and the enhancement of ecosystem services. They have also been used by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, to inform landscape-level management and to serve as an educational tool to promote understanding about landscape-level conservation.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Environment
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Use by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact The decision support tool we produced has been used by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust as an educational tool and to inform decisions about landscape-level conservation.
Description Defra commissioned project
Amount £15,000 (GBP)
Organisation Department For Environment, Food And Rural Affairs (DEFRA) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2017 
End 03/2017
Description NERC Innovation Green Infrastructure programme
Amount £9,653 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/M021505/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2016 
End 06/2017
Description Simomics collaboration 
Organisation Sim Omics
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution We are providing knowledge and understanding of ecosystem services.
Collaborator Contribution Simomics is providing expertise on goal structured notation and providing associated Artoo software.
Impact We are developing an evidence tracking tool for ecosystem service decision models, which will be available on the web once it is completed.
Start Year 2015
Description User workshops for evidence tracking tool development 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Two workshops, each attended by 5-10 stakeholders, were held to focus on the development of an evidence tracking tool for use to inform the interpretation of ecosystem service decision models.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015,2016