Puget Sound Science - A Human-Centered Approach

The Nature Conservancy’s Puget Sound conservation efforts have a sharp focus on helping both people and nature thrive, particularly in crowded landscapes where salmon, agriculture, cities and towns are trying to co-exist effectively.

We work closely with the Puget Sound Partnership,  the state agency leading the region’s collective effort to restore and protect Puget Sound, and with the Partnership’s Science Panel, which brings critical expertise to the efforts to implement a comprehensive, science-based plan to restore the Sound.

Ken Currens, a scientist for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and a member of the PSP Science Panel reflects on a workshop the panel held to examine how human-centered design could help shape a more focused research agenda for Puget Sound recovery:

What is the Puget Sound science agenda?  Why do we have it?

Workshop for Puget Sound science.

Workshop for Puget Sound science.

Scientists are a curious lot. Take a lot of them interested in the Puget Sound and over time, and as they probe, test and measure looking for answers to questions they think are fascinating we end up with a wealth of curious and valuable information. As interest in the protecting the Puget Sound grows, however, legislators and decision makers want to know “Do we need a science agenda that specifically supports protecting and restoring the Puget Sound?  What would that look like?” When the Puget Sound Partnership was formed in 2007, that task was assigned to the newly formed Science Panel.

What is design thinking? Design thinking is a way of promoting creative and imaginative solutions that is based on empathizing with potential users of the solution and testing out trial-and-error prototypes.

Barnum Point on Camano Island feeds sediment out into Port Susan Bay and Puget Sound. © Benj Drummond with aerial support from Lighthawk.

When you put the two together, what do you get? When you put these two together, you get a structured way of capturing the curiosity that has always been part of science with a solution that can actually get used. Science has always been part inspiration, part desperation, and a lot of unreported trial and error. The French Nobel laureate Francois Jacob was fond of saying that when scientists report on what they found they revise all this to fit the established scientific narrative of generating a hypothesis, testing it, and drawing a conclusion. This is the most logical way to communicate results simply.  If you are interested in the process of exploring solutions that engage people, however, these reports may not do the job. Scientists will continue to report findings about the Puget Sound as they always have, but design thinking allows us to brainstorm and test innovative solutions for ecosystem recovery that engage people. 

Who are the end users of science?  Why listen to them if you’re looking to accelerate conservation? We are all the end users of science for the Puget Sound. No amount of money or science alone is going to protect and restore the Puget Sound. But, people changing their behavior will. Design the right tools that connect people to what they care about in to the Puget Sound each day and people will change. Design thinking starts with learning what they care about.

How did it go and where do we go from here? Scientists often talk about “systems”, by which they mean the different ways that things that might appear more or less related are connected. The Puget Sound is a huge, messy, complicated system of people, where they live, and things that grow there. Focusing on new, innovative scientific solutions that change people’s behaviors so that it benefits parts of the system that are most connected to many other parts means that those changes will reverberate though many other parts of the Puget Sound. For example, innovative ways to improve waste water treatment (which is good for people) could also reduce nitrogen washed into the Puget Sound leading to decreases in the large algal blooms and mats of jellyfish (which boaters and swimmers do not like) and encouraging more zooplankton for salmon (which fishers and restaurants like).

Banner photo © Paul Joseph Brown, with aerial support from Lighthawk.