Reflections from the Monday theme plenary session “Frontiers of SES research (Theories and Methods)”

Marten Scheffer (pictured) from Wageningen University, Netherlands, has a way with words and pictures to convey a message that makes everyone grin and chuckle. “We live in fantastic times, don’t we? Or do we live in the worst of times? Kids are eating chicken nuggets, in the evening after work we go to the shop around the corner and buy packaged food, … We don’t feel the connection to the biosphere anymore. We know we have problems like overfishing, droughts, wetlands being drained… However, what makes people change their attitude or behavior? What can tip humanity into more sustainable ways of doing things? When you are interested in these kinds of things, we are living in the perfect times for solving this question!”

Scheffer sees many opportunities, he is for example thinking of migration, as a perfect opportunity for exchange of knowledge. At the same time, we have internet, data generators, satellites, … Researchers and humanity as a whole (not that researchers are no humans) needs to drastically rethink their role! However, let’s not forget that you should keep your eyes open the questions around the corner, asked by a kid in the supermarket. Get in touch with artists, work with everyone, keep your mind a bit ‘loose’ and get off the beaten track.

Simon Levin from Princeton University, US, then went on to discuss some grand challenges of systems thinking. One such challenge is that sustainability must focus on macroscopic features, while recognizing that control of those rests at lower levels of organization. From molecules, to bird flocks, to humans., … The phenomena we look at lie on different scales, but in scientists’ studies, the focus is usually on a single scale. This applies for social-ecological systems as well. Individual decisions create larger patterns, think of election results, through which a group identity takes over and influences and suppresses individuality into political polarization between left and right while there are actually so many in-betweens.

Another grand challenge is how we can find pathways to governance in multi-scale commons. Referring to the morning talk by Katrina Krown, he reiterates that a new empathic model is desirable. However, what we see is increasing polarization. How should we deal with this in terms of the commons? As professors Hardin and Ostrom have laid out, there is a role for the government to play, but bottom-up cooperation is also needed. We thus need a combination of individual adaptation and cooperative solutions, think of insurances, social norms and public attitudes, laws, religions and so on.

Some other systems thinking challenges are: how to develop a statistical mechanism of ecological communities, socio-economic systems and of the biosphere and its coupling with human systems. We should model the emergence of patterns, on multiple scales and develop indicators of impending critical transitions between states.

(If you happen to read this Prof. Levin, my sincerest apologies for not completely grasping where you were going, but I have to thank you for giving me the most beautiful daydreams of bird flocks.)

Finally, Claudia Pahl-Wostl University of Osnabrück, Germany, dived into the complexity of human environmental interactions. She asked how we can capture the many facets of these interactions, how they influence societal learning at multiple levels, and how an improved understanding can be used to facilitate transformative change towards more sustainability.

Part of the solution lies in shared frameworks, according to Pahl-Wostl. This is to make sure we are not looking at different parts of the same elephant. Frameworks should thus be open, and allow for integration of diverse perspectives whilst offering sufficient guidance to allow comparative analysis. “We should not constrain creativity, but foster innovation, improvement and methodological pluralism.” Because everyone does research with their own methods, we should be thinking about how we can combine these in an integrative framework. So that ultimately, we can move our research from merely discourse to real action, and see which laws, practices and entrenched believes should be changed in the transformation towards sustainability.

One important question from the audience (that will reappear over and over throughout the conference I know now) was this; ‘isn’t there a shift needed in the way academics works for finding agency?’ Marten Scheffer was glad to answer: “The whole funding system is a waste of time. Proposals are artificial, they are not how science work.” He was pushing for a different idea; wisdom of the crowds’ money division, where a voting system for who is doing the best research is the deciding factor. You get money because people know what you are doing.” Levin thought the creation of interdisciplinary spaces where someone else works on the funding, while researchers can focus on doing the actual research.

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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