Social-Ecological-Technical Systems

In the next month, I will kick off a new required course designed for ASU’s School of Sustainability’s incoming graduate students.  The course is called “Social-Ecological-Technical Systems”.   This literature based seminar course will guide students in developing an integrated approach/framework for thinking about complex adaptive systems in a sustainability context. While overviews of content, theories and methods from each of the SETS domains (Social, Ecological and Technical Systems) will be presented, the primary focus will be on how to bring these domains together. The goal is to enable students to explore the SETS interfaces (intersections) from an integrated perspective and to equip students to make those linkages in their research and in subsequent elective courses.

Translated into everyday language, we hope to get students thinking in a more holistic manner across a wider range of knowledge domains.  Most of the sustainability problems confronting humanity are not pure social, political, or economic in nature.  Nor are they environmental problems apart from human contribution and influence.  Likewise, the causes of and solutions to these problems are also not exclusively technical.  Rather, they are a conflagration of these three knowledge domains.  While we cannot expect anyone to be a master of all, we do hope to provide a baseline standard and recognition of how various fields inform our study of phenomena of interest and contribute to our understanding of them.  As such, the course will require reading seminal literature on a wide range of topics – biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services, environmental and natural resource economics, industrial ecology, and resilience/robustness and many others.  If you have suggestions for topics that we should be covering or readings that we should do, please let me know.  We have a planned syllabus, but this has great scope and potential as a grand experiment.

Center for Biodiversity Outcomes at Arizona State

This fall, I have the privilege to work with Leah Gerber and others in the newly established Center for Biodiversity Outcomes at ASU.  The formal launch of the Center will happen November 13th and 14th with Georgina Mace delivering a public lecture.

The mission of the Center is to enable the discoveries and solutions needed to conserve and sustainably manage the Earth’s biodiversity in a time of rapid biophysical, institutional, and cultural change.

The recently built website for the center can be found at: http://biodiversity.asu.edu/

 

 

Business and Resilience

It seems that everyday a new article – popular or academic – comes out about Business and Sustainability.  All about supply-chain efficiencies, corporate social responsibility, the corporate role in sustainable development.  Of course, there is at least as much coming out about the problems, deficiencies, contradictions between capitalism and development and the prevailing neoliberal order.  I’ve recently read Dauvergne and Lister’s “Eco-Business: A Big Brand Takeover of Sustainability”, which does a nice job at introducing the arguing sides to each other – the language, the pros/cons of each position, and what seems to be working.  This post isn’t about this.  Rather my intent is to comment on a recent workshop at IBM-Montpellier as part of the Resilience 2014 conference.  Margot Hill Clarvis and Gail Whiteman coordinated an off-site session on Business and Resilience.  Following presentations from IBM on their corporate view of and response to Resilience and from speakers from the Resilience Alliance (Brian Walker) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), we split into parallel sessions.

Margot and I hosted a session titled “Investing in Resilience: Challenges and Opportunities” with a number of industry speakers, including:

  • Dr. David N. Bresch, Director Global Head Sustainability, Swiss Re
  • Dan Dowling, Assistant Director, Sustainability and Climate Change, PwC
  • Linda Freiner, Flood Resilience Program Manager, Group Corporate Responsibility, Zürich Insurance
  • John Fullerton, Founder & President, Capital Institute
  • Prof. Sander van der Leeuw, Arizona State University

From the abstract:  Our concern was that business, and the finance institutions that lend to, invest in, and insure them, are at the heart of many of the drivers and solutions to ecological degradation, resource depletion and social vulnerability. Resilience principles should be at the heart of practical steps to both alleviate these pressures and frame opportunities for more sustainable financing models and investment practices. So far, the majority of dialogue on resilience and investment has focused on a limited set of issues primarily relating to disaster risk resilience. However, there has been very little investigation into these issues within the academic discourses on resilience, and even less dialogue with this practitioner community than other communities (e.g. park rangers, water managers etc). At the same time, the business and investment community are scaling up efforts to transform accounting and valuation practices and strategic priorities in order to facilitate more sustainable investment.

The session aimed to present novel perspectives from a range of practitioners involved in finance (i.e. insurance, accounting, investment) or financing ‘resilience’-based activities in order to provide insights into the challenges and opportunities for integrating resilience into the practical mechanics of enterprise risk and investment evaluation. Panelists gave an overview of how their practical work/research intersects with resilience issues and science, the challenges in the operational application of these frameworks, the expected opportunities and benefits to doing so (focusing on the novel insights it provides) and how best to drive further progress.

As compared with the standard corporate perspective, the financial organizations, particularly the insurance industry seems to value a resilience approach as a means to assess and design preventative approaches (adaptation) rather than ex post responses to disasters or sustainability shortcomings (mitigation).  Unlike many politicians, they see global change and are cognizant about the various potential futures unfolding. This is less about liberal/conservative philosophies and more about preparing and responding to reality in a rapidly changing environment.

Stay tuned for more on business and resilience.

Short Introduction to Resilience Thinking

Courtesy of the wonderful Communications and Marketing people at Stockholm Resilience Centre, the soon-to-be released book by the Resilience Alliance Young Scholars group, Principles for Building Resilience: Sustaining Ecosystem Services in Social-Ecological Systems with Cambridge University Press, has a 20 page brochure that provides a wonderful short course on resilience available in hard copy or free online at: http://www.stockholmresilience.org/21/research/research-news/4-22-2014-applying-resilience-thinking.html

The pamphlet highlights the content of the forthcoming book and provides examples that put the theory into practice.  The book identifies seven principles that are considered crucial for building resilience in social-ecological systems and discusses how these principles can be practically applied. The seven principles are 1) maintain diversity and redundancy, 2) manage connectivity, 3) manage slow variables and feedbacks, 4) foster complex adaptive systems thinking, 5) encourage learning, 6) broaden participation, and 7) promote polycentric governance systems.

Each chapter of the book introduces and defines one of the principles and then proceeds to detail how the principle enhances resilience and the context in which resilience may be compromised.  Importantly, the book chapters go beyond theory to identify how the principles can be operationalized and applied (the application of resilience thinking to real-world situations).  Further the chapters identify gaps in both research and application.  While the chapters are chock full of examples, they also contain longer case studies that draw out the nuances of the chapter.

The hope is that the wonderfully informative brochure will generate enough interest to warrant the purchase of the book.  The book is written in a manner conducive for both experienced resilience scholars looking for a compendium of research findings as well as grad students and scholars new to the field and looking for a guide.  In effect, it is the book that the editors and authors wished was available for them as they started learning the concepts.

Student Project – Maus Haus – on TV

Previously I’ve had a couple posts regarding the student project, Maus Haus that resulted in the building of a micro dwelling.  As part of ASU’s School of Sustainability year-end Open House of Student Projects, the Maus Haus made prime time.  See the link to the video below:

http://www.azfamily.com/good-morning-arizona/Mauhaus-creators–258646611.html

Sustainability, Governance and the Navajo Nation

In the last few weeks I’ve had the wonderful good fortune of working with representatives of the Navajo Nation on governance.  One of the School of Sustainability’s doctoral students, Edward Dee, a member of the Navajo Nation, approached me about a meeting on the proposed Navajo Decentralization Plan and the incorporation of sustainability concepts in their Intra-tribal Consultation Policy.

My starting point drew on my previous work in southern Africa on transboundary conservation and the challenges of interactions between national agencies while simultaneously working between local communities and national governments.  This becomes particularly challenging when land claims and the settlement of indigenous rights are involved.  While limited in the comparisons that are appropriate between the cases, I believe that the Navajo Nation faces similar constraints both between Navajo chapters and between tribal and federal land, particularly when facing transboundary environmental problems such as water conservation, fire management, and biodiversity threats.

In thinking about environmental policy and sustainability, I stress three main points – the need for collaborative, nested, and adaptive institutional arrangements (or rules and operating procedures).  Because sustainability challenges are often ‘wicked’ in that they have no single, right answer (incomplete, inconsistent, and changing requirements) and because they generally involve multiple stakeholder groups, effective governance requires collaboration.  Effective governance requires legitimacy.  Collaboration and broader levels of participation are ways to build legitimacy in rule-making.

Sustainability challenges are also multi-scalar and cross many political boundaries and land use/land tenure borders.  Building on ideas of polycentricity and institutional fit, governance systems should try to manage to the scale of the problem.  As sustainability challenges are often comprised from multiple problems, governance will often need to be nested to address multiple problems at multiple scales.

Finally, sustainability challenges occur in dynamic, complex systems filled with uncertainty and surprise,  nonlinearity and  threshold effects.  As a result, there is no such thing as an optimal set of rules/laws/policies.  Instead, governance arrangements need to be adaptive to deal with the unknown and be able to confront a dynamic environment.

These ideas are obviously quite vague in details.  I look forward to working with representatives from the Navajo Nation on how to operationalize the concepts.

Training students to be solutions-oriented

This semester I’ve had the good fortune to teach both a graduate level Applied Project Management course and an undergraduate policy course with applied group projects with neighboring communities.  In both classes, I have a number of students preparing to graduate.  As is often the case, this time of year is fraught with concerns about grades, graduation, and finding jobs.

At the same time, I’ve had a number of conversations with friends currently working in a number of sectors – the government, NGOs, financial institutions, entrepreneurs, etc.  In nearly every case, everyone discussed the urgency to train students to 1) think critically  and independently, 2) work individually and in groups without guidance, and 3) find solutions to problems.  As readers of my blog know, I have been trying to infuse my classes with real-world experiences and opportunities to directly apply the knowledge that they are learning.

In the next couple weeks, I hope to have the videos of my undergraduate class’ group presentations to their stakeholders.  For this class (Policy and Governance for Sustainable Systems), we had projects in which local municipal governments requested our help in a range of projects.  We ended up working on four projects (with four teams on each project).  They included:

  • the City of Peoria, Arizona and recycling contamination
  • the Town of Gilbert, Arizona and switching to a “Pay as You Throw” solid waste collection
  • the City of Goodyear, Arizona and waste water management
  • the City of Goodyear and the urban heat island.

In the coming weeks, I’ll link the videos and presentations with the problem statements from the municipalities to showcase some of the finer work.

I bring these examples up now because they serve a number of purposes.  First, projects such as these help to develop the skills that our students want and need to succeed in the future.  They are able to work on and build the skills that my friends and colleagues are asking for in the students that they are hoping to hire.  Second, it provides a safe place for the students to practice, try new ideas, get feedback from faculty and engaged stakeholders with less penalty for “failure” than in a job.  Third, and related to the previous point, the students build experience and have projects that they can articulate to future employers and discuss “real” work rather than simply homework.  Fourth, it helps our communities to solve problems that they are facing and gives them access to the latest science at a low cost (just a bit of their time).  Finally, it helps connect the School of Sustainability and ASU more deeply to the local community – building ties at a number of levels.  We have students presenting to city workers (including the mayors),  finding opportunities to speak at city council meetings.  We have government officials meeting with faculty, staff, and students.  Finally, we have connections to our communities and engagement with finding problems to the challenges collectively facing us.

I’ll close by noting that it has been inspirational for me, my students, and the stakeholders – to see challenges being met, problems being solved, and the next generation stepping forward.

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