The Netherlands has taken steps to involve stakeholders in the planning of multi-use offshore wind farms. Photo: © T.W. van Urk /

A different COP – Communities of Practice – encourages offshore cooperation

The development of offshore wind farms has gained momentum in the EU but to accelerate deployment the challenge of conflicting interests within marine areas needs to be addressed. A new study examines the potential of so-called Communities of Practice (COPs).

The conflict of interest challenge can be addressed by creating synergies through combining different activities such as wind farms, nature conservation and aquaculture. Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) is seen as the mechanism for allocating access to marine space by different and often conflicting users within ecologically sustainable boundaries. But on its own, MSP seems to fall short of organising multi-use in practice, as the participation process often leaves much to be desired. Flaws in the process can take the form of limited consultation meetings dominated by active or influential stakeholders, which lack inclusiveness or are set up post-political decision-making.

A new study has looked at the potential of so-called Communities of Practice (COPs). COPs are defined as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly”. COPs are informal, self-organising and based on trust, and hence differ from other organisational structures such as Marine Spatial Planning. A case study of the Dutch Community of Practice North Sea (COPNS) examines the potential contribution of COPs as an instrument for stimulating multi-use by balancing multiple interests and initiating pilots and learning.

Multi-use of marine space is often seen as a “technological fix” to a resource allocation problem. From this perspective, the issue can be addressed through a planning process such as organising efficient and combined use of space. In practice, regulatory and socio-economic hurdles, as well as technical challenges, can pose challenges to the implementation of multi-use. Overcoming such obstacles requires cooperation between the parties involved, not only to negotiate resource use but also to collectively work towards shared definitions of issues and resolve these together. This implies that multi-use development is not a technocratic but a social process.

In MSP processes, stakeholder participation is associated with the objective of legitimising management measures and policy decisions rather than jointly working towards salient solutions for (multi-use) resource use allocation. The latter requires active and inclusive cooperation. In this process, collaborative or social learning plays a key role. Social learning is defined as “a process that can be encouraged by lifting barriers to communication and by encouraging interaction between the parties involved in policy issues. The core idea is that parties can learn from each other by more open and responsive communication”.

The Dutch part of the North Sea is one of the busiest marine areas in the EU. The government is planning large-scale offshore wind farms development as part of its climate change strategy, with a potential space requirement of 17–26% of its waters by 2050. The country must also comply with objectives from EU nature conservation regulations and seeks to develop the potential of seafood production. The government’s North Sea 2030 strategy aims to find a balance between these objectives. While the government, seafood producers, energy companies and environmental Non-Governmental Organisations are willing to cooperate in realising multi-use offshore wind farms, most offshore wind farms are still monofunctional. The COPNS has been set up to share knowledge and experiences in relation to innovations and multi-use pilots. The government is actively providing support to the COPNS to develop more adaptive policies within the framework of its North Sea 2030 strategy.

At the first of eight COPNS meetings the government made clear that “the COP evolves around pilots that experiment with multi-use and investigate the conditions that are necessary to make these pilots work. The objective is to share experiences, discuss potential solutions to barriers, and work together on resolving issues”. When the COPNS had run for a year, the work was evaluated through a questionnaire. Most of the respondents valued the meetings as good (51%) or excellent (12%), while 20% scored the meetings as satisfactory. More importantly, 92% of the respondents felt that the meetings met their needs very well (32%) or well (59%).

The case study suggests that Communities of Practice can play a positive role as a tool for encouraging a culture of cooperation around marine multi-use between stakeholders in an informal setting. Through decoupling of policy and practice, Communities of Practice create a positive learning environment where participants can focus on practical challenges, gaining experience, and developing working relationships. Indirectly, in due time, COPs may play a positive role in conflict resolution around resource use as they encourage relationship building and cooperation.

Emlia Samuelsson

Source Combining offshore wind farms, nature conservation and seafood: Lessons from a Dutch community of practice by Nathalie A. Steins, et al.  Marine Policy, Volume 126, 2021,


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