People walking across the square “Sergels torg” in Stockholm, Sweden. If their location would represent their positions in a social network, the network can be said to be clustered in two coherent subgroups (upper middle and middle right), but where some actors remain outside these subgroups. Since there is no obvious centre of gravity in this presumed network, it does not depend on a central actor (i.e. hub) keeping it together. Photo Credit (Örjan Bodin).

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Environmental governance is not easy.  Challenges are plentiful, as are possibilities to fail. The need for actors to come together and jointly solve environmental problems is consistently voiced. However, is collaboration always the solution? This question is increasingly drawing attention in research and practice.

We investigate collaboration in relation to solving different types of environmental governance challenges. We do so by first acknowledging that not all environmental problems are the same, thus raising the possibility that collaboration that works well for one environmental problem may not necessarily work well for other problems. Secondly, we differentiate between environmental problems that do not involve actors with opposing interests and require difficult trade-offs from ones that do. We call the first coordination, and the second cooperation. Previous studies suggest that collaborative networks that are centred around a few central “hubs” are well suited for coordination. Networks lacking such hubs, i.e. where the social ties are more evenly distributed among the actors, are instead better suited for cooperation.

Recent studies have, however, cast doubts about the relationships between how the networks are constructed, and how well they are suited to solve coordination and cooperation problems. We propose that by accounting for certain aspects of context and agency – namely trust, costs, and risks of losing out in collaborative endeavours – these ambiguities may vanish. Although caution is warranted, our results suggest that a “hub-based” social network, previously thought of as unsuited to solve cooperation problems, can actually be effective in doing so, but only if the involved actors have trust in the collaboration. We argue that our findings have significant implications for how to formulate, design, support and maintain collaborative governance arrangements that are better suited to solve the specific environmental problems that are most important in any given situation.