Transformations in Complex Social-Ecological Systems

Society and the environment are complex entwined systems. Developing a more cohesive understanding of the combined and complex manifestation of social, ecological and economic change across rural landscapes and communities is part of an evolving "integrated systems" research program at the Institute. This emerging area of IRF research program development, Landscape Mosaics, aims to contribute more seamless synthesis of research integrated policy analysis for integrated natural resource management, resource governance, and landscape design (clearly inclusive of human communities, land-use, industries and infrastructure).

Over time, the adaptive capacities of nature might provide resilience. While social systems have the same capabilities, they tend to be so recalcitrant to change, that crisis point is reached before resource users can collectively respond to the collapse of surrounding ecological systems. Landscapes are the major theatre of interactions where alteration occurs, precipitated by multiple scales of economic, social and environmental change. Such regional landscape effects are critical to natural resource and social sustainability. The institutions contributing pressures and responses consequently shape future landscapes further, influencing how social systems, resource users, governments and, policy makers perceive those landscapes and their future. Over time, the cycles of complex social-ecological systems also reach crossroads which might be either, crisis points at which future options are no longer available or, turning points where opportunities arise when it is easier to alter course towards more ecologically sustainable resource use, communities, institutions and policies. Development of this project to better understand opportunities for transformations of social-ecological systems towards resilient and robust sustainability suggests a model for research to understand, identify and strategically use such potential moments for decisive and innovative re-direction (Brunckhorst 2004, 2005). Practical applications might then be derived to plot new courses towards more sustainable futures.

Completed in 2011

IRF in-house project

Contact: The Institute for Rural Futures