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In the philosophy of Building with Nature it is very important to know how the ecosystem, society and governance work at a location where an intervention is planned. Once the important processes in the these systems are known, they can be used in the design. This creates opportunities to add value to the design, especially because added value for nature will also mean added value for humans (see 'nature valuation').

The Ecomindmap supports the process of 'getting to know the system'. The tool is a process guideline which can be used in the initiation phase of a project, before design alternatives are drawn up. It helps to structure the information on the ecosystem, the 'social system' and the ' governance system' in such a way that the most important relations become clear. Thus one can identify the focus of a project without overlooking processes which can be important to the design.

The tool describes the process and gives guidance on the practical use of some auxiliary instruments.

    General Tool Description

    Context, purpose and results

    In the philosophy of Building with Nature it is very important to know the system in which the intervention is projected (the first design step: understand the system). The ‘system’ involves the physical, ecological, socio-economical and governance setting. In this tool, the analysis of the ecosystem (biotic and abiotic) is discussed and the socio-economic and governance setting are considered briefly. A thorough mapping of the socio-economic system can be done using the stakeholder mapping tool and guidance on the mapping of the governance system can be found on the governance pages on the 'regulatory context'. Knowing what the ecosystem is like and how it functions and responds creates opportunities to improve the design of a project. If the important processes and features of the ecosystem are incorporated in the design, this will add value for nature and society. The added value for nature often has positive effects for humanity as well (see 'nature valuation').

    Ecomindmap is a framework and a process guideline which can be used in each phase of a project and specifically during the first design step in each phase. It helps to structure available information on the ecosystem in such a way that the most important characteristics become clear. The result will be a graphical mindmap which shows the system’s ecological characteristics relevant to the project. Depending on the project phase, this will range between a general outline and a more in-depth system map. Apart from giving insight into the system at hand, the result can also be used for communication purposes, within and outside the project team. The result of applying the tool will be a graphical mindmap which shows the important ecological characteristics of an ecosystem (depending on the project phase this will be from general to more site-specific). The focus of the Ecomindmap should be on the ecosystem characteristics that have a clear link with the project that is under consideration.

    Usage skills

    Using this tool requires generic knowledge about the type of ecosystem involved, as well as information on the system at hand. Someone with relevant ecological expertise will be able to point out the biotic and abiotic elements and processes that are characteristic for this specific ecosystem. The connection with the socio-economic and governance system can be made in a workshop with a group of people with relevant backgrounds. It will be helpful if in this workshop an experienced visualiser participates to graphically present the system and its links (also see tool Visual Thinking).

    BwN interest

    The Ecomindmap tool can help to get an overview of the ecosystem at hand in a BwN-project, even when time is limited. In this way, the project objective can be expanded from purely technical to nature-inclusive, which may create added value for nature and society. Ecomindmap starts from the ecosystem, it is literally the “project environment”. Yet, this does not mean that only the ecosystem is considered, socio-economic aspects are considered as well in the form of ecosystem services and a brief stakeholder mapping. An intervention in the ecosystem can have multiple socio-economical as well as ecological effects. The aim of the tool is to make these effects visible by showing the links between the ecosystem and the socio-economical system, such as the ecosystem services.

    The tool is applicable to all phases of a BwN project. In the initiation phase the level of abstraction will be high and the ecosystem will be described in rather general terms (depending on whether the specific location is already known). In the next phases, one will zoom in to a more detailed level. Then the Ecomindmap becomes a site-specific description of the ecosystem.

    How to Use


    The ecological heart of the framework can best be filled in by an ecologist. To fill in the other parts of the framework a workshop should be organised with different experts. They can discuss on the characteristics and processes to be included. The experts involved should have knowledge on the particular system at hand and have relevant fields of expertise (physics, ecology, socio-economy, governance) (also see ‘usage skills’).

    To apply the tool, Prezi cloud-based presentation software can be used. It enables zooming from a bigger picture into details of the presentation. Prezi can be used for free via the Prezi website. Prezi can be acquired as a desktop programme, but is can also be used by creating an account on the website. On the website of Prezi tutorials can be found on how to use the software. The Ecomindmap framework we developed in Prezi can be opened via this link (when using the framework, please make a copy before changing it). The Ecomindmap framework can also be used in other mindmapping software or on a whiteboard (see also figure 2 for the framework). Prezi has the advantage of an attractive layout and a zoom facility. On the website of Prezi tutorials can be consulted and function as instruction on usage of the software.

    Phased plan process

    The centre of the Ecomindmap framework is based on the Dutch 5S model with one extra component (see figure 1) (STOWA, 1995). The inner circle is the basis for the Ecomindmap. The 5S’s are System conditions, Structures, Species, Substances and Hydrodynamics (Stroming in Dutch). Witteveen+Bos added a sixth component: Maintenance (Schonen/onderhoud in Dutch), since in most ecosystems this is an important component which influences the others.

    The 5S model shows the components and processes of the ecological system (see figure).

    The Ecomindmap tool is applied in six steps, which are explained below.

    Step 1) Focusing on the project

    The user fills in the Ecomindmap for the specific project at hand. If there is a clear problem definition and a well-defined area of interest, they can be used to focus the mapping of the ecosystem. The Ecomindmap is unbiased, in that it does not deal with problems or opportunities, but just shows the current situation. If, for example, the problem is the sand deficit in the Eastern Scheldt (see also this case description), the Ecomindmap should focus on the process of sand distribution and the organisms depending on the intertidal shoals. When important other characteristics or processes are closely linked to these, like in this case the primary production on the shoals, they can be added to the Ecomindmap.

    Step 2) Filling in the ecosystem part

    The framework of the Ecomindmap shown in figure 2 can serve as a template for a new project. In this step, the user fills in the inner circle of the Ecomindmap, the description of the ecosystem with the 5S-model. He/she can use the framework provided in Prezi, or any other mindmapping program, or draw it on paper.

    For each of the components, one should fill in the characteristics that describe the ecosystem best. These can be intact natural characteristics (that need to be protected) or degraded characteristics (that need to be restored). Use only clear words or short sentences, and if possible insert pictures or graphs to make the mindmap more visual and easier to understand. A zoom function – as in Prezi - can help focusing on more detailed characteristics of the system. Elaborated for each of the six components:

    System conditions

    Climate, geology and geomorphology are factors that act on a large scale and set the boundary conditions to the ecosystem behaviour. These factors cannot be changed by humans, except maybe on a long time scale (e.g. climate change).

    Hydrodynamics and hydrology

    The hydrodynamics and hydrology are partly determined by the system conditions, and partly by the ecosystem itself. Ecosystem engineers, for instance, may influence the local flow conditions, or the ground water level. For the biotic community both are important steering factors. Hydrological processes are for example precipitation, seepage and groundwater level fluctuation. Important hydrodynamic parameters are the tidal range, the local flow velocity and the bed shear stress.


    All components of an ecosystem that shape the form of the water body are structures. The substrate gives shape to the ecosystem, a system on rock will mostly be very different from one on a sand bed. A sand bank or shoal is also a structure, as are barriers, dams, guide bunds etc., and biotic elements such as oyster banks and macrophytes.


    Substances are components in the water, such as nutrients, toxins or suspended particulate matter.


    Try to restrict the system description to the key species. Species can be plants and animals, ranging from single-cell algae to vascular plants and from benthos to fish to mammals. The occurrence of species depends on all other components mentioned, as the system conditions, hydrodynamics, hydrology, structures and substances form the living environment for all of them.


    Water managers often take control measures in water bodies to influence one of the above components (except for the system conditions). These measures can for example be dredging (affecting structures), or harvesting of bioproducts, or mowing of plants (affecting species).

    Step 3) Filling in the ecosystem services

    The links between the ecosystem and the socio-economic system are the ecosystem services, categorised as provisioning, regulating, cultural and supporting (TEEB, 2010). They help bringing ecosystem knowledge into the decision making process. This part of the Ecomindmap can best be filled in during a project workshop by people who have different backgrounds. An environmental economist, trained in defining ecosystem services, an ecologist, a technically trained person and a person who know the project site would make a good combination. 
    Note that the governance and society part of the ecomindmap will be filled in in step 4. Specialists in this field would better also attend the step 4 workshop.

    More explanation on the ecosystem services can be found in the tool Nature Valuation.

    Step 4) Filling in the ‘governance and society’ part

    This part of the Ecomindmap needs to be filled in using a workshop setting. This can be the same workshop as where the ecosystem services are defined (step 3). Someone with knowledge on the socio-economic system and governance can help in completing this part of the Ecomindmap.
    Three categories of participant / interest groups are distinguished in this part of the Ecomindmap: stakeholders, decision makers and legislators. In the Ecomindmap, the mapping of the socio-economic system is done in a basic way. Other knowledge and tools are available on the BwN website if you wish to do a more extensive analysis of the socio-economic(link!) and governance system. Only those stakeholders, decision makers en legislators which are most relevant for this problem definition should be added to the Ecomindmap.


    Organizations, networks and individuals that have an interest in the project and/or the project location are called stakeholders. Stakeholders can influence decision making and may play a crucial role in gaining public support for the project.

    Decision makers

    The organizations or individuals who take the crucial decisions in the project or in the project area can be local, regional, national or supranational. In the case of public infrastructure development they will mostly be governmental organizations.


    The legislators set legislative boundaries relevant to the project. Legislation can be local, regional, national or supranational. Legislation, such as that ensuing from the European Framework Directives, can also be a driver of a project. This is the case for many nature restoration projects, for instance.

    Step 5) Making connections

    A very important last step when filling in the Ecomindap is to make connections between the different components. This can best be done in the same workshop as mentioned in step 3 and 4. It is advisable to draw only the arrows representing the most important connections. They need to be identified by the specialists on the different topics. The more arrows (beyond a certain minimum), the more unclear the Ecomindmap becomes. 
    A connector can be accompanied brief explanatory text, or by a ‘+’ or ‘-‘ sign, depending on whether it makes the component it points at increase or decrease. For example: ducks eat water plants. This connection pointing from the ducks to the water plants gets a minus sign.

    Step 6) Discussing the Ecomindmap with project members

    The resulting Ecomindmap gives an overview of the most important ecological characteristics of the ecosystem at the project location, linked to the relevant ecosystem services and the socio-economic characteristics. It shows which ecological factors provide opportunities for the design, fragile ecological characteristics that can be strengthened with the design, for instance, or strong characteristics that can be used to drive natural processes supporting the project realisation. Thus it helps making the project objectives nature-inclusive. 
    The Ecomindmap also shows the opportunities to add objectives and values and it indicates which organizations or individuals should be involved in which phase of the project. Moreover, it helps identifying important gaps in the system knowledge.

    Advice and recommendations

    The Ecomindmap should be seen as an instrument in the first step (‘understanding the system’) in each project phase, and especially in the initiation phase. It creates new ideas and shows opportunities. In most projects a more thorough analysis of the ecosystem and the socio-economic system will be needed in the second instance. This can be done with other tools and knowledge available on the BwN website.

    The tool should be applied by people with relevant expertise for each step, and steps 3 through 6 should be carried out in an expert workshop. Relevant knowledge is needed in order to focus on the most important characteristics and processes. Different backgrounds ensure that the right connections between the system components can be made.

    The resulting Ecomindmap should give a clear overview of the ecological system and its connections to the socio-economic system and the relevant ecosystem services. It does not not need to be complete, selecting the relevant characteristics is what makes it valuable.

    Practical Applications

    The tool has not been used for the BwN pilot experiments, but it has been applied to the Markermeer case Markermeer-IJsselmeer to test its applicability.

    The Markermeer Ecomindmap is shown here in a static pdf format, but the Prezi presentation this link allows navigating through it in a more dynamic way.

    The main issue in the Markermeer is the turbidity of the lake water, due to a variety of reasons. As a result, the light penetration is the lake water is low and vegetation is scarce. As a consequence, primary production is limited and the carrying capacity of the ecosystem is reduced. For example, fish stocks are declining and the area of mussel beds has decreased. This puts the Natura 2000 objectives for water birds, which feed on mussels and fish, at risk.
    Local and regional governments have agreed that future development should lead to an improvement of the ecological quality, integrating nature, landscape, recreation, economical development and safety in such a way that a resilient and self-supporting ecosystem will emerge. In this way, economical development (like housing, recreation or infrastructural development) in the lake area is linked to the turbidity issue.

    At the moment these issues are being investigated in a number of interlinked research projects. For example, the possibilities for a large (approx. 500 ha) constructed marsh / wetland are being investigated. Also the effect of creating more relief in the lake bed on the transport of suspended material, and the possibilities to isolate the sources of this suspended material are subjects of research. See case Markermeer-IJsselmeer for more information. All these ideas on and possible solutions to the turbidity problem eventually need to be embedded in the overall regional planning objective.

    The Ecomindmap is used to visualise all these aspects and the most relevant connections between them in a single diagram. This helps to get an overview of the problem. It also facilitates communication between the different disciplines involved (technical, ecological, economical etc.) and leads to mutual understanding. In this way it stimulates creative thinking about the problem and increases the chances to come up with innovative integral solutions that yield added value.

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