Reflections from the Wednesday Stewardship theme plenary III: “Governing complex systems for biosphere stewardship”

Apparently, I’ve walked into the third talk in a series on governing complex adaptive systems. Oops, I have been shopping away in all the different departments of the conference, so the depth of this talk may fly over my head a little, but I’m eager to take on the challenge.

The quest for this session is ‘how to govern complex systems for biosphere stewardship’, with two brave guides; Emily Boyd from the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies in Sweden and Örjan Bodin from the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Lisen Schultz, also from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, acted as a discussant to help us follow their tracks.

Emily Boyd started with a little walk around adaptive-governance-land. Nowadays, state and non-state actors are working with multi-level governance because they have realized that there are important links across scales. So, scientists should keep generating more knowledge that feeds into adaptive processes at different governance levels, which will help dealing with change, disturbance and uncertainty.

However, when we think about governing accelerating and disruptive future changes, something is missing. Boyd invited us down into the deep, dark governance caves to discover a new way of thinking about the timeframe of adaptive governance; through anticipatory governance. There are probabilistic uncertainties that when taken into account could change current collaborative arrangements. Anticipatory governance thus should take place under noteworthy or disruptive transformative future change such as forest fires, floods and so on. This is a tricky question of information disclosure of some perhaps uncomfortable scientific findings. It certainly is a little spooky down here. However, if that results into an anticipatory governance structure that helps the effectiveness of the response when the event occurs, and ultimately decreases the damage, losses and resources needed to cope with the event, then shouldn’t we start thinking about how we can feed this kind of information into organizational structures?

Boyd is determined science should start focusing on how in real-world examples of institutional arrangements for anticipatory governance accountability was secured, responsibility ascribed, liability determined or compensation ensured and what lessons have been learned from these cases. Perhaps we can find a range of these practical examples and understand how we can trigger activities to trigger resilience in advance?

Boyd then flashed a light on the questions researchers should pose from a collaborative perspective; “What changes in regard to effectiveness and characteristics of collaboration networks once we take into account anticipation of futures?”, as well as “How does collaboration change in its characteristics or form when alarming futures are factored in?”, and lastly, “How do predictions, expectations or beliefs about the future change the nature of collaboration?”.

At this point, Boyd passed the torch to Örjan Bodin. Within adaptive governance, we know that collaboration is key, but we don’t know quite well enough why collaboration is not always successful. Bodin is focusing on understanding the processes and structures of collaboration networks. The network structure ultimately determines the effectiveness for reacting to problems through problem solving for different tasks, social learning, power (in)balances and innovation (leading to transformation).

An important rock carving lies ahead of us: social networks can be both the independent or dependent variable; actors create networks, but networks also shape actors by constraining them and offering opportunities. A network can thus be the explanation to an outcome, but it can also be an outcome in itself, explained by the processes that gave rise to its existence.

Next up, we climbed back up and delve into the forest. Because nature and all her ecological structures shape the collective action problem, the social and the ecological should fit together. Bodin is thus working to create a model in which the social, the ecological and the coupled social-ecological dimensions to networks are combined. With a combined model, you can start to bring in theory to optimize the strength of the collaboration.

We passed by a little pond where two fishermen were fishing the day away. If these two were targeting the same species, it would be best if they were communicating to avoid depletion of the species as well as to ensure their economic livelihoods. The success of specific network configurations is thus clearly dependent on the social-ecological situation at stake.

Bodin left us with a few promises of what we can expect if we were to join him on his next quests. Overall, he is using social-ecological network perspectives and revisiting the question of what makes collaboration more or less effective by putting them in a social-ecological context. Moreover, he is looking to see if “classic” collective action problems and social-ecological fit interact, if they interact at all. I’ll be happy to pack my backpack again.

Your Resilience2017 correspondent:

Elke Markey is a former Master’s student from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, where she earned a degree in Social-Ecological Resilience for Sustainable Development. Her roots lie in political science and in Belgium, where she gained another Master’s degree in Comparative and International Politics from KU Leuven University. To complete these endeavours, she packed her backpack for field work on forest governance in the Amazon region as well as on food systems in South Africa.


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