Principle four

Foster complex adaptive systems thinking

In order for us to continue to benefit from a range of eco-system services, we need to understand the complex inter-actions and dynamics that exist between actors and ecosystems in a social-ecological system.

Key messages

Although CAS thinking does not directly enhance the resilience of a system, acknowledging that social-ecological systems are based on a complex and unpredictable web of connections and interdependencies is the first step towards management actions that can foster resilience.

Management based on ‘complex adaptive systems thinking’ that appreciates these interactions and the often complex dynamics they create can enhance the resilience of social-ecological systems.

As the complexities of the world around us become more apparent, our understanding of how to behave in it changes accordingly. Researchers across a wide range of disciplines now debate, embrace and advocate complexity thinking as imperative for understanding and dealing with pressing current social-ecological challenges. Nevertheless, fostering a change in people’s frame of reference is much more than just adding to their knowledge base; it implies changing their mindset and behaviour. A complex adaptive systems (CAS) approach means stepping away from reductionist thinking and accepting that within a social-ecological system, several connections are occurring at the same time on different levels. Furthermore, complexity thinking means accepting unpredictability and uncertainty, and acknowledging a multitude of perspectives.To understand a social-ecological system we need to understand how actors within the system think, and how their ‘mental models’ influence the actions that they take. Mental models are cognitive structures upon which reasoning, decision making and behaviour are based. This means gaining insight into how an actor understands a system, how he or she manages it and how he or she reacts to any changes within the system. Today, managers increasingly recognise that there can be no definite formulation or one-size-fits-all solution to a problem. Although there is limited evidence that CAS thinking directly enhances the resilience of a system, there are several examples of how it contributes to it. One example is the Kruger National Park in South Africa. There, management has moved away from strategies to keep ecosystem conditions, such as elephant populations and fire frequencies, at a fixed level and instead allows them to fluctuate between specified boundaries. The use of threshold indicators provides managers with warning signals when a component of the system (e.g. elephant numbers) is approaching a critical point. The overall intention is to reduce human intervention (and investment) and increase the variety of ecosystems and habitat types.

How can we foster CAS thinking?

CAS thinking can be developed, fostered and applied in different ways based on the following guidelines:

Adopt a systems framework. This can help people to organise their thinking and crystallise understanding of inter-dependencies and relationships between humans and their environment.

Expect and account for change and uncertainty. This can be done by employing a structured process such as scenario planning to explore and evaluate alternative development pathways and assess the intended and unintended consequences of different decisions. Collaborative processes that encourage CAS thinking are more likely to foster resilient systems. A variety of systematic, participatory methods can help engage different groups with different interests and knowledge.

Investigate critical thresholds and non-linearities. When a threshold is crossed there are important implications for management of an SES. It is therefore crucial that management purposefully/deliberately considers system boundaries and thresholds.

Match institutions to social-ecological systems processes. This may imply institutional change or restructuring of responsibilities and expertise to move from traditional resource-by-resource management to more integrated SES management.

Recognise barriers to cognitive change. Those benefiting from existing regimes of a system may resist adopting CAS thinking because they fear it may encourage openness to new and surprising elements that might compromise their position.