Posts Tagged ‘complexity’

Linking Complexity and Indigenous Knowledge

Let me begin by saying that I’m treading on ground that I’m only beginning to explore.  However, I find it fascinating to think about linking cutting edge science with traditional knowledge systems.  In a similar fashion to how ultra-conservative politicians often sounding like left-wingers and hyper-liberals sounding like John Birchers, it’s interesting to explore recent work in complex adaptive systems with very different ways of understanding the world.

Last week in my undergraduate course, Systems Thinking, my TA, Edward Dee, spoke about the Navajo knowledge system in which he was raised, and he began to clarify his own thinking about how many commonalities exist between complex adaptive systems and the Diné concept of hozho or the broader elements of Sa’ah Naagháí Bik’eh Hózh==n. (SNBH), which is often translated as “one’s journey of striving to live a long, harmonious life.”  Edward noted common features of these two world views – in taking a holistic perspective, linking the social and ecological as a single entity, seeing emergent behavior (as in the example of the Red Ant Way in Diné tradition or how individual interactions lead to a collective behavior unpredicted by the individual actions in complexity jargon), and drawing on multiple ways of understanding.

In following up on his class, I came across a blog posting on hozho that clearly explains what I was trying to comprehend in a straightforward layperson’s account.  The website is at, which surprised me as I consider myself a scholar of Resilience Thinking.  The website draws on the academic literature of resilience but does so in the pursuit of “resilient communities” as part of the Post Carbon Institute.  I know very little about this organization at this point, but I did find the post on hozho to be very nice.  Click here to see the article:

Enjoy.  I’ll post more as I learn more about the topic.

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.

More on Institutional Developments from the Great Barrier Reef

A month ago I wrote about research findings on institutional analysis in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.  At the time I noted two interesting developments – one on the efficacy of polycentricity and conflictual findings from the GBR Marine Park.  Basically, the park has a monocentric structure but efficiently uses zoning to achieve some desirable outcomes.  The second interesting research finding is about property rights.  I’ll try to keep this short and to the point for non-academic readers so your eyes don’t glass over immediately.

In essence, most institutional analysts are familiar with the Schlager and Ostrom work on property rights (Schlager, Edella, and Elinor Ostrom. “Property-rights regimes and natural resources: a conceptual analysis.” Land economics (1992): 249-262.).  In this piece, they lay out a conceptual map for bundling of various types of property rights with a goal of showing that ownership is more than a simple binary division.  Their revised table (from a 1996 book chapter) looks like this:


As one moves from the position of entrant to user and eventually to full owner, we see the associated bundles of property rights increasing.  This greatly clarified the issue of property rights as complex bundles of goods.  It expanded our thinking from that of a binary (ownership or not) to a deeper understanding that the concept of ownership comes with nuance.

However, in our current work, we see examples in which such a step-wise progression still oversimplifies the process.  Through the use of fishing rights (individual transferable quotas or ITQs), for instance, we see owners with the rights of access, withdrawal, and alienation (selling of rights) without the rights of management or exclusion.  Likewise we see others – managers – with management and access rights without the rights of withdrawal or alienation.

It’s time to start reexamining the bundles of property rights and look at the innovative ways in which bundles can be packaged and the ramifications of various packages.  This has implications for both scholarship and for practice as we think about new ways to govern.  As expected, the complexity continues to grow.  Very interesting topic for future research.

Systems Thinking Class Activity and Leverage Points

This morning we ran a bit of an experiment in my Systems Thinking class (mostly sophomore level undergrads).  This comes from the Meadows “Systems Playbook” text.  We formed two groups for ease of organizing.  One group of 8 was run by my TA.  I ran another group of 26.  We gave everyone a number and then had them select two other students as the “reference points”.  However, we gave them some stipulations.  First, if their own number was an odd number, they had to select Student Two.  Second, no one was allowed to select any of the three students wearing red shirts (my randomizing process for my group of 26).

We then asked them to move around until they were equidistant from their two reference points.  Before moving we discussed as a group what they thought would happen.  (Perhaps ask yourself the same question before reading ahead).  When they started moving, it took a couple minutes of shuffling around, bumping into each other, getting a tad too close, etc before settling into a stable formation.

Next, we had everyone return to the circle.  We then ran the same experiment except that when I said “stop”  the three Red Shirts  stopped moving while everyone else continued.   When the others settled into a formation, I said “go” and the Red Shirts moved again.  At this point there was a minor amount of shuffling around, but because none of these three could serve as reference points for others, they made very little difference on the rest of the group.

We returned to our original circle and ran this game a third time.  This time I randomly selected 3 people plus Participant 2 (the reference for the odd numbered participants).  When I said “stop”, these four stopped.  Once the formation emerged, I then said “go” to the four that I had stop earlier.  Because of Participant Two’s high leverage, the system had to reorganize substantially before coming to a halt again.

Finally, we ran the first treatment again with one exception.  This time we added a three second delay between when their reference moved and when they responded.  This caused quite a commotion and the delay kept the system from “equilibrating” in a reasonable amount of time.

This little adventure took about 20 minutes.  At that point, we went back to the classroom and discussed leverage points in systems and related it back to that day’s reading and how these concepts manifest themselves in the experiment.

I highly recommend it.

Inauguration Day, Resilience, and American Society

I must admit that I’m feeling very patriotic today.  It’s a bit of a hangover from the Inauguration earlier this week.  Nothing that follows has a blatant right vs. left political agenda, so I apologize in advance for any looking for a fight over that.  I’m sure that there will still be plenty to pick apart.  Again, this isn’t a rigorous scientific study, but I hope that it’s a thoughtful editorial.  For my international friends, it will have a bit of flag-waving.  So be it.

I am fortunate enough to be in the midst of a project on how to enhance the resilience of ecosystem services with other Resilience Alliance Young Scholars.  For those that don’t know, ecosystem services are provisions and services supplied to humankind from ecosystems, generally split into provisioning services (food, wood, etc), regulating services (erosion control, flood mitigation, etc), supporting services (crop pollination, nutrient cycles), and cultural services (recreation, religious use, etc).  In a paper recently published in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources, we identified 7 principles seen as enhancing the resilience of ecosystem services (see Biggs et al. 2012. “Toward Principles for Enhancing the Resilience of Ecosystem Services”, Annual Review of Environment and Resources 37:3.1-28. for the details).  For present purposes, I’ll skip over formal definitions of resilience and, to the chagrin of many of my colleagues, let’s just equate this with sustainability for the moment.  These 7 principles are:

  1. Maintain diversity and redundancy,
  2. Manage connectivity,
  3. Manage slow variables and feedbacks,
  4. Foster an understanding of complex adaptive systems,
  5. Encourage learning and experimentation,
  6. Broaden participation, and
  7. Promote polycentric governance systems.

If you are interested in what these mean in more detail and getting past the jargon, please contact me and/or read the full article.

For now, let’s return to Inauguration Day.  Clearly the (These) United States face a large number of challenges.  Several of these were mentioned in the various speeches, responses, and talking head debates from both sides of the fence.  Without prioritizing, these include a slowly growing economy, climate change, a violent world, a lagging educational system, a gridlocked political system, and so on.  However, if we think about the principles above as mechanisms for sustainability and long-enduring social-ecological systems, I feel enthusiastic about the future of this country.  In particular, the United States, by its design, is built around diversity and having a unique blend of peoples, cultures, and ways of thinking.  Clearly this often creates divides and dissension (see immigration reform).  It also creates opportunities and fosters new ideas.  We have a society, a political system and a private (and third) sector focused on learning and experimenting.  This is the America of innovation and entrepreneurship – in both the private sector and public.  Our society engenders as well as depends upon broad participation.  Putnam’s thoughts on social capital aside, I remain steadfastly optimistic about this as well.  Finally, the Federal system of government, the number of collaborative governance arrangements that I encounter in my regular research, and the vitality of the NGO community nationwide, provides evidence of polycentric governance systems of great breadth and depth.

Granted, there are a great many problems to fix, and the work is never-ending.  The US faces great difficulties, particularly in understanding and responding to complexity (witness the responses to climate change), but I believe these United States are, were, and will remain resilient.