New publication on Collaboration along the Verde River

With a couple of my former graduate students, Anna Bettis and Gabrielle Blanchette, we have just published a case study on governance and management along the Verde River, through a collaboration of stakeholders known as the Verde Front.  Published in the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, the manuscript is entitled Enabling Regional Collaborative Governance for Sustainable Recreation on Public Lands:  The Verde Front and will be accessible online here shortly.

Here’s a map of the Verde River of Central Arizona:


This project has taken a long time.  As many of you know, publishing case studies is often difficult, as the reviewers often question the generalizability of the study and want to know what’s the big deal.  Here, our focus was on how commonly studied factors for successful collaborations from past studies at local levels scale up to  the regional level. The Verde Front is a collection of groups and projects along the Verde River that partner together to better accomplish their collective goals at a regional level. Among the differences between this regional study and past local studies was the interesting hierarchical structure that the group developed.  Of course, hierarchy is a common approach to increasing scale and complexity and the group needed a facilitative leadership approach that built trust and legitimacy through power brokers within the sub-groups that was encouraged by their experienced facilitators.  The facilitators also spent much of their time on holding dispersed stakeholders accountable.  Through the hierarchical structure, the high levels of accountability, the effort to build social capital and trust, and the expert facilitation, the collective was able to think regionally, beyond the scale of each of their individual projects.

And here’s a photo showing the beauty of this river (courtesy of The Verde Independent):



New Publication on Resilience and Engineering

Recently, I’ve had the good fortune of having a new publication, “Toward General Principles for Resilience Engineering” published in the journal Risk Analysis.  A copy of the article can be found here. This was a lot of fun, working on an interdisciplinary team, primarily comprised of several engineers and led by one of CBIE’s former doctoral students, David Yu, now at Purdue University in their Civil Engineering group.

In this article, we compared the enabling conditions or principles of building resilience from the resilience engineering literature with principles for building resilience in social-ecological systems that were identified in a book that I co-edited and co-authored with some friends from the Resilience Alliance for Cambridge University Press a few years ago.  We wanted to take a broader perspective of resilience for infrastructure-dependent systems that took a more nuanced approach than generally offered in the resilient engineering literature.  Here, when we refer to infrastructure-dependent systems, we simply mean the built infrastructure and how it is used by society.  As an example, think about a dam.  It’s for water storage and power generation.  But it also has tremendous impacts on the ecosystem, provides a number of recreational opportunities, and is dependent on natural systems like the water cycle.  Its functions are resilient to a number of shocks and less resilient to others.  Here’s a photo of Hoover dam to anchor these ideas.


Long ago, when I was being trained as an engineer, we were taught that good design trumped everything else.  But we all know the stories about poor designs winning over better products for a number of reasons – ease of use with less functionality, superior marketing, poor understanding of the problem being solved.  In sustainability, we see this regularly.  For instance, one of my former master’s students, Ryan Delaney, started a company, Carbon Roots, to help improve soil quality in Haiti.  They took a design to make charcoal from crop waste that could then be injected into the ground to improve soil nutrient levels.  In turn, this would improve crop yields.  This was the engineered design.  However, in application, people found that they could make the charcoal and then sell it for cooking fuel – a far more pressing need.  Hence, when we talk about resilience in engineering, we want to talk about the technology and its use – our infrastructure-dependent system.

In our article, we identified the following first principles for infrastructure-dependent systems:

  1. Recognize the importance of system contexts
  2. Foster social capital
  3. Maintain diversity
  4. Manage connectivity
  5. Encourage learning-by-doing
  6. Embrace polycentric control
  7. Address the problem of fit
  8. Manage for complexity

While I don’t have space to go into detailed explanations of these, here is a figure that we use in the manuscript to show the interrelationships between these concepts and how they influence resilience.


A Semi-Charmed Life

I want to describe today how Ecuador has reacted in response to the corona virus and how that has affected us as a family.  The response to covid-19 in Ecuador has been very aggressive and quick-reacting.  When the first cases hit Guayaquil in early March, the government responded promptly.  While there have been many failures and shortcomings, the efforts of this relatively impoverished country have been laudable.  But this essay isn’t about the government response.  Instead, I want to talk about the effects of their response and the mindset of quarantine here, as it seems quite different to what our friends and family are describing in the US, Europe, and many other places.

We have been in quarantine since March 13th, and our kids’ last day of school was the 12th.  Quarantine here has meant that we have curfew from 2 PM – 5 AM, that we can only drive 1 day a week based on our license plate number (with no one driving on Sundays), that all outdoor activity is off limits other than trips for food or other essentials, and that these trips are done by only 1 member of the family.  Trips out require a mask and gloves.  As a result, my kids have been in our apartment for 57 straight days (and counting).

Last weekend, I had a wonderful zoom happy hour with several friends that I grew up with.  Friends were surprised by the rough experience that we confront here in Ecuador.  However, the thing is – it’s not so bad.  I’m not viewing this with rose-tinted glasses.  It isn’t always easy.  We’ve all – parents and kids – had our share of melt-downs and frustrations.  But it’s really not that bad.  Our kids (10 and 7) have zoom class calls most of their weekday mornings and have activities around the apartment to keep them busy and content most of the time.  Lyrna is busy with her photography, and I’m occupied with my work.  And Lyrna and I are both running around trying to keep up with the kids’ school work.  We are blessed that our work continues without any interruption.  We are blessed that we are financially secure.  We are blessed that we are healthy.

With apologies to old 90s alt rock, I labeled this a semi-charmed life.  We are living in a comfortable apartment, but we don’t have a yard.  This wouldn’t be our dream vacation spot (being inside, under quarantine).  And clearly, it’s more restrictive than our friends and family back in the US.  But life is mostly good.  The family has time (loads of it) together.  We have time to read and reflect, watching movies together, and teach the kids how to cook.  We have played games together, made artwork and created crafts (OK – those did not involve me at all), and made all kinds of mini adventures for ourselves.  Again, it’s not perfect, but it’s not that bad.  And I’m also not trying to humble brag about the family, or that anything less means that someone else is failing.

So after the happy hour call with friends, I guess what surprised me most was the complaints and angst (not from my friends on the call) that I see in the news and social media coming out of the US with restrictions far more lenient than here.  Suffering is losing your employment, your business, or your home.  Suffering is struggling with life in ICU.  Suffering is losing a loved one.  I lost a dear uncle this week, though not to covid.  Suffering is NOT from having to wear a mask outside, having to maintain physical distance, or not being able to eat in a restaurant.  Seriously, we often talk about sacrificing for our freedom and for our country, but we’re not willing to make these sacrifices for our neighbors and our community.

I guess to close, I would just say that I’m grateful for what we have, especially our health, meaningful employment, and security.  I hope the same for you and yours.

New Publication on Social-Ecological Tipping Points

There has been an increasing amount of  work on tipping points lately (see my earlier post on our paper reviewing this work).  Researchers have finally begun to put rigor into looking at social tipping points in a similar fashion to the quantitative techniques of biophysical systems.  What I mean is that, while I love reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Tipping Point”, anecdotal discussion of tipping points is often post-hoc hand-waving.

Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Jean-Denis Mathias and several other frequent collaborators to model tipping points in a social-ecological system (see citation below).  In the model, there were potential tipping points in both the social and ecological sections of the model with feedback and interactions across the model.  For those interested in details, we used a common bioeconomic model for the ecosystem and an opinion dynamic model to exhibit potential social tipping points.

We wanted to explore transition pathways – how we get from a current state of the world to a new one while potentially crossing multiple tipping points.  Here’s a diagram that explains this simply (Figure 1 in the article).  We position this simple mathematical model as a means to help us understand a complex, nonlinear world and how to go about making thoughtful educated decisions in such an environment.  The DOI link below will take you to an electronic version of the full text.

Figure 1


Mathias, J. D., Anderies, J. M., Baggio, J., Hodbod, J., Huet, S., Janssen, M. A., … & Schoon, M. (2020). exploring non-linear transition pathways in social-ecological systems. Scientific reports10(1), 1-12.  DOI link

Webinar on Collaboration in Practice

Hi All!

I wanted to share the recording of a webinar by Rebecca Freeth, PhD on collaboration in practice and how to create more effective collaborations.  A link to the recording is available here.


While collaboration strikes most of us as a strategic and sensible way of working, it can also be very challenging. Failing to engage productively with interpersonal challenges can fundamentally undermine the potential of a collaborative project, or even result in its breakdown. This presentation takes as its starting point that collaborative challenges cause discomfort. I will suggest that discomfort keeps us alert to the possibility to build collaborative capacity while collaborating, and explore collaborative capacities worth cultivating. This includes paying attention to power dynamics in collaborative teams. Lastly, I will mention possibilities for collaborating in a time of social distancing and lockdown.


Rebecca is a practitioner and scholar who researches, teaches, facilitates, and writes about collaboration. A fascination with the challenges of realizing meaningful collaboration has been at the heart of her work since coordinating a 200-organisation strong network on violence against women early in her career (1998 – 2001).

In her work with Reos Partners (2009 to date), Rebecca has designed and facilitated long-term collaborative processes between members of civil society, business, academia and government to tackle issues demanding their collective attention and action. These include collaborations in the food system and land reform system in South Africa. From 2016 to 2019, Rebecca took a sabbatical to conduct her doctoral research in the Leverage Points project at Leuphana University, where she studied interdisciplinary collaboration in the field of sustainability. This was followed by a stint at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam Germany as a senior fellow to integrate her learnings from practice and research.

This is the sixth webinar on methodological approaches to studying collaborative governance and management of social-ecological systems as part of the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) working group on collaborative governance.

Handling crises in Ecuador

My family and I moved to Cuenca, Ecuador last June for a year sabbatical.  Over the course of the year, we have had our share of wonderful adventures and travels – to Macchu Pichu, to the Galápagos, to the Amazon, and to other areas around Ecuador.  We have had canopy tours that soar above the treetops; swam with sharks, rays, and sea lions; learned how to work with Ecuadorian bureaucracies to enroll in school; and hiked Incan ruins.

What we hadn’t fully planned for were the unplanned “adventures”.  In October 2019, civil unrest broke out nationwide in this peaceful country, leading to a couple weeks of strikes.  The strike closed the schools, halted supply chains and limited commodity shipments, and stopped all transportation.

Civil unrest (from NY Times)

In December 2019, we had a small volcanic eruption, which made for a few days of difficult breathing. Otherwise, there was no risk and we weren’t threatened by the volcano.


We got past both of these mini-challenges without any issues.  We also weren’t affected by the earthquake last week that hit the coast of Ecuador or earlier ones last fall.

But now we, as everyone in the world, are now confronting a new threat – coronavirus.


Ecuador has been very aggressive in its response.  I think that this is, in part because of the experience with all of the turmoil over the past several months.  A few weeks ago they appointed several regional hospitals as centers for covid-19 – one in our town of Cuenca.  Last Thursday, the 12th, schools stopped for 2 weeks.  This has already been extended.  Welcome to distance learning with videos and assignments coming daily from the school.  The government also started a self-quarantine on the 14th.  They have been increasing the vigilance of this since then.  Now there is a 9 PM – 5 AM curfew.  Non essential trips (food, medicine, employment) are not allowed.  Social gatherings over 50 were stopped on Sunday.  We are not even supposed to walk on the streets or use the parks.  Supply chains still seem to be functioning well.  Even during the Thursday announcements, I went to the store.  They were out of fresh meats and bananas.  There was 10 times the number of people there, but the shelves remained stocked.  My favorite was the “hoarding” behavior that I witnessed – a cart with 5 boxes of Frosted Flakes, several carts with multiple packages of liver, another cart with 7 large tubes of toothpaste.  Interesting.

Yes, these are interesting times indeed.  We are trying to enjoy our time together as a family, keep everyone active in our apartment and avoiding unnecessary social engagement.  We will keep you updated as we deal with the current “normal”.


Webinar on Historical Analysis of Social-Ecological Systems

Hi All!

I wanted to share the recording of a webinar by Professor Hita Unnikrishnan on using historical analysis in the study of natural resource governance and management.  A link to the recording is available here.


One of the biggest gaps in studies of environmental governance is that they often produce what may best be thought of as a snapshot of patterns observed at a given point in time. However, environmental governance regimes are usually path dependent and influenced by events that may have occurred in preceding regimes. Studying historical contexts of environmental governance is thus very important in order to understand the complexities inherent within issues such as the influence of inter and intra community heterogeneities on equitable distribution of resources, varied motivations for communities to engage in coproducing their resources, or the ongoing influence of historical inequities on contemporary landscapes.

However, working with historical data involves navigating through a complex set of challenges that include but are not limited to a) working with data that was not originally created to address the question at hand (for example with maps that originally served as battle plans), b) data that represents specific points of view (for example governmental records that are often silent on everyday experiences or challenges faced by people within a regime), and c) highly subjective data (such as those derived from oral histories). In addition, historical data may be very sparse in certain contexts making its use highly challenging in some areas.  In this webinar I will discuss the use of historical data in studying natural resource governance, the diversity of historical data, limitations and challenges in navigating through temporal data and the ways in which we may combine multiple data sources (such as historical maps, archival records, and oral histories) in order to study historical regimes of environmental governance. I will also illustrate using specific cases from our own work on urban Bangalore, the use of multiple forms of historical data to trace a) social-ecological system change and b) changes in polycentric regime, the role of power in shaping discourses of environmental governance over time, and their influence on the present day.


Hita Unnikrishnan is a Newton International Fellow (funded by the British Academy) at the Urban Institute, The University of Sheffield.  She is also a visiting faculty at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. Her research focuses on examining the politically situated nature of blue and green social-ecological systems transformations in urban areas, highlighting the influence of development and governance trajectories on geophysical, political, and cultural transformations of social-ecological systems, particularly as they relate to the multiple, contested ways in which urban social-ecological resources are perceived and appropriated in cities of the global south. To do this, she deploys a highly diverse and interdisciplinary repertoire of methods that span the range of natural and social sciences including GIS, field ecological methods, analysis of archival documents, oral histories, and textual analysis for context and discourse. Hita has also previously been a recipient of the Prof. Elinor Ostrom Fellowship for Practice and Policy in the Commons for the year 2013.

This is the fifth webinar on methodological approaches to studying collaborative governance and management of social-ecological systems as part of the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) working group on collaborative governance.

Webinar on Institutional Analysis

Hi All!

I wanted to share the recording of a webinar by Professor Abigail York on institutional analysis and the use of mixed methodological approaches and how they can be used to study collaboration.  A link to the recording is available here.


Building upon the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework, this talk surveys complementary mixed methods. Focusing on the bidirectional feedbacks between institutions and the environment, Abby York discusses how she and transdisciplinary teams use a suite of qualitative, quantitative, and modeling approaches to understand when policies and norms change due to environmental or other factors and how institutions, in turn, affect the environment. The talk will use vignettes from several ongoing research projects including on western water use, urbanization in Phoenix, and governance in the face of dramatic sea ice change in the Arctic to motivate the discussion.


Dr Abigail York ( is an Associate Professor of Governance and Public Policy at Arizona State University.  She is fascinated by the ways that people come together to collectively govern resources, York investigates how, when, why, and who is able to manage neighborhoods, cities, forests, water resources, biodiversity hotpots, and agricultural lands sustainably. By focusing on diverse research sites in the present, historic, and ancient contexts within the USA and around the world, she is able to better understand generalizable principles for governance. Funded by National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, York has examined urbanization in the southwest USA, collaborative environmental governance, land use policy adoption, community forestry in Nepal, premodern cities’ public service provisioning throughout the world, land use and environmental injustice in Phoenix, water policy and agricultural livelihoods and transitions in Arizona, and the ability of communities to leverage fracking revenue for more sustainable futures in Appalachia. York deploys diverse methods including econometrics, social network analysis, spatial analysis, surveys, content analysis, and fieldwork; results from this work are integrated into decision-making models, agent-based models, and scenarios.

This is the fourth webinar on methodological approaches to studying collaborative governance and management of social-ecological systems as part of the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) working group on collaborative governance.

Webinar on the co-production of knowledge through dialogue

Hi All!

I wanted to share the recording of a webinar by Ro Hill and Maria Tengö on linking indigenous, local and scientific knowledge through dialogue and how it can be used to study collaboration.  A link to the recording is available here.

Dr Ro Hill leads participatory research into collaborative ecosystem governance and multiple knowledge systems for sustainability, including biodiversity futures, climate change and how indigenous knowledge can inform resilience. She is a senior principal research scientist with Australia’s national science agency CSIRO, and coordinating lead  author of the IPBES Pollination assessment and a member of the IPBES Task Force on Indigenous and Local Knowledge from 2014-2018.

Dr Maria Tengö is a researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC), Stockholm University and senior advisor at SwedBio. She leads the Research Stream on Biosphere Stewardship at the SRC, including investigations of resilience in social-ecological systems, indigenous, local and collaborative governance, and theory/practice for collaborations and partnerships between indigenous, local and scientific knowledge systems.

This is the third webinar on methodological approaches to studying collaborative governance and management of social-ecological systems as part of the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) working group on collaborative governance.

Research happenings in Cuenca

In an earlier post (A Sabbatical in Ecuador), I discussed some early stage research in Cajas National Park.  I’m optimistic that this research will get a boost through partnership with the University of Cuenca.  With researchers there, I am discussing some research collaborations with students interested in studying social-ecological systems and collaboration and conflict with the national park and its neighbors.  This has particular relevance as Cajas National Park is part of a larger Man and Biosphere Reserve (Biosfera Macizo del Cajas – see website here) and the importance of buffer zones and creating the capacity to live sustainably in the broader landscape.  Here’s a map to show the area we are talking about:

Cuadro Datos Biosfera

As a means to build capacity towards this research, I am delivering a presentation tomorrow on resilience and social-ecological systems: