Famous frontiersman and politician Davy Crockett once remarked, “You may all go to Hell and I will go to Texas,” and apparently, he was onto something. While the impetus for his remark was disenchantment with Tennessee politics in the early 1830s, an increasingly large number of people have followed in his footsteps. According to a recent Census Bureau report, Texas is home to several of the fastest-growing cities in the nation, with much of that growth occurring in a unique ecological region: the central Texas Hill Country, which encompasses some 17 counties in central and south Texas.

The Hill Country is a lovely place, and we are not surprised that people are attracted to it. But unprecedented population increases are also giving rise to significant environmental challenges: The fast pace of development in and between Austin and San Antonio is stressing the region’s natural resources—and regional stakeholders’ capacity to plan and adapt.

The Texas Hill Country

No doubt it was the area’s beauty and proximity to abundant water sources that attracted early settlers including Apaches, Comanches, Spanish missionaries, and German immigrants. Covering approximately 11.3 million acres, the Hill Country’s defining karst topography serves as the foundation for an immense diversity of plants, animals, and subterranean life. Major water systems emerge from the porous limestone landscape, and huge aquifers have formed underneath.

In the past, these rugged characteristics not only made the land difficult to farm but also delayed the expansion of the electric grid into the Hill Country by 30 to 50 years. These factors helped keep population density and human impact relatively low. Today, however, they also make the Hill Country a “high amenity region”—an area that seems to offer the best of both urban and rural life. Every day, it seems, hundreds more people are attracted to this idea and this place. If current demographic projections persist, the region’s population will double to approximately six million people by 2050.

The issue is this: Nearly 90 percent of the Hill Country lies in private, unincorporated areas with little land use regulation. As a result, low-density, unplanned subdivisions, strip malls, and office parks are being built with increasing speed. This means that water demand is increasing substantially, as is development over aquifer recharge zones, which affects water quality and quantity and the habitat of a number of endangered species.

A Need for Social Network Analysis

In a recent study, we found that no fewer than 160 different governmental and non-governmental organizations, state and federal agencies, universities, landowner associations, and NGOs are working to preserve the region’s ecological and cultural characteristics. These stakeholders span 10 different organizational categories, from community-based organizations to land trusts, but the sheer abundance of organizational activity demands that we ask: What is the best way to coordinate and collaborate to achieve the greatest possible impact?

The key may lie in the ability of these organizations to form and sustain a network. As Jennifer Chandler and Kristen Scott Kennedy wrote in SSIR earlier this year, networks can help to build capacity by “leverag[ing] resources and knowledge” from the broader field of organizations and individuals. Leaders throughout the Hill Country understand this potential, and one tool in particular—social network analysis (SNA)—is emerging as a means to help them achieve it.

SNA began in the 1930s and its use in the social sciences has grown exponentially in recent decades. Essentially, it works by examining the patterns or regularities of social interaction and uses network maps to visualize the nature, distribution, and structure of connections between individuals and organizations. SNA is distinct from traditional statistics and data analysis because of its focus on relationships, and the ability to measure the influence of network structure to enhance or inhibit individual and collective action. Applying SNA as a set of methods and analytical concepts helps reveal new insights and clarify complex data. (Deepthi Welaratna offers more detail on this potential in her SSIR article on emerging tools for building collaborative community programs). While SNA is frequently used to answer scientific questions (for example, how does network composition affect the sharing of expert knowledge?), the method is also useful for applied interventions from public health to counterterrorism. Armed with an enhanced understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of a network’s structure, leaders can work more strategically with network participants to identify gaps and opportunities to enhance collaborative efforts.

Applying this tool to conservation challenges, stakeholders in Texas are using SNA to develop the Hill Country Conservation Network (HCCN). They have employed the tool to identify a range of organizations central to local conservation efforts that represent a diversity of organizational types, and to inform the creation of a steering committee. (The chart below provides an overview of the area’s organizations, as mapped through SNA.) HCCN is still in the earliest stages of development, but its leaders clearly aspire to build it with collective impact in mind, incorporating a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and structured processes.

In this network map of organizations in the Hill Country, node size represents how active each organization is in the network. The map is a subset of the organizations that are “core” to the network. (Patrick Bixler, Hill Country Conservation Network)

The initiative’s leaders see their use of SNA so far as prologue. Ultimately, they seek to implement an interactive, crowd-sourced network map that will enhance collaboration, transparency, ownership, and investment in Hill Country conservation. (The Austin Social Innovation Ecosystem Map is an emerging and promising example of this type of platform). Using an adaptive network map, stakeholders will be able to add their information and connect with other organizations. In this way, the HCCN hopes to build network capacity for a sustainable Central Texas region.

Looking Beyond the Hill Country

The ideas of network governance and application of SNA are establishing themselves in many areas of environmental management. Organizers and activists are using network governance to address the complexities of working across jurisdictional and sectoral boundaries to solve environmental problems from the Texas Hill Country to the expansive Northwest Boreal Forest in Alaska and Canada, and beyond.

And while our focus has been on conservation, the potential of SNA to unpack complexity and mitigate the challenges of growth in other fields are also great. From transportation to public health, the increasing complexity of societal challenges necessitates boundary-spanning, collaborative efforts. Network analysis has been used to enhance the coordination between local public health agencies, physicians, insurers, and employers in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Our own work with resource conservation, along with other examples such as these, leads us to believe that SNA will become an increasingly useful tool to tackle a range of challenging societal issues.