Complexity theory for a sustainable future

New centre book on complexity theory for sustainability

Photo: S. Zeff/Azote
Jon Norberg is researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and assistant professor of systems ecology at Stockholm University. He has co-edited the new book “Complexity Theory for a Sustainable Future" together with Associate Professor Graeme Cumming from the University of Cape Town.

The book, which is the result of a Formas-funded Centre of Excellence project and the Resilience Alliance, deals with resilience and sustainability of social-ecological systems. It is published by Columbia University Press and includes nine chapters focusing on different aspects of complexity theory, and how it can be applied to interactions between ecosystems and society to solve some of today's most pressing environmental issues.

- Our hope is that theoreticians, managers and policymakers will find the book useful in its attempt to turn complex adaptive systems theory into practical approaches for solving problems of natural resource management and climate change, Jon Norberg says.

The book features scholars such as the father of resilience theory Buzz Holling, renowned ecologist Steve Carpenter, and leading political scientist Elinor Ostrom, who is also a board member of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Other Centre-associated contributors to the book include: Örjan Bodin, Carl Folke, Thomas Hahn, Per Olsson, Garry Peterson, Lisen Schultz and Brian Walker.

A shift in thinking and perspective
Central concepts in the new book are Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), Self-organization and Resilience. A CAS can be everything from an economy or an ecosystem to our immune system. Such systems are often very hard to predict as they are constantly adapting to their environments, meaning that a small change in operating conditions or agent strategies can be compounded into an entirely different behaviour at the system level. Integrated systems of people and nature, so-called social-ecological systems, also fall into this category.

Being complex and adaptive, they are far from being machines that you can take apart and investigate the pieces to understand the whole, Jon Norberg explains:

- Understanding and predicting complex system behaviour is becoming increasingly important as we realise that much of the unpredictable behaviour observed in everything from the financial markets to the global climate system is a function of the complex adaptive systems we are living and operating in.
 
Self-organization is an important feature of any CAS. It means that the large-scale system properties and patterns (e.g. collapse of fish stocks or booms and busts in stock prices) that emerge from the interactions among components (e.g. marine food webs and fishermen or individual investors in the market) feedback to influence the subsequent development of those interactions.

- Understanding the capacity of any system to self-organize is crucial for its sustainability over time. We build on insights from economics, physics, biology and the social sciences to provide a clearer understanding of the conditions required for systems self-organization, Jon Norberg says.

Self-organized sustainability the goal
Previous focus on “command and control" strategies have often focused on short sighted gains at the cost of long term sustainability not uncommonly resulting in unwanted and unexpected side effects such as cheating for fishing quotas or loss of ecological and genetic diversity. Evaluating and striving for sustainability requires a shift in thinking: to create the conditions for self-organized sustainability.

- This could, in this sense, be seen as the ultimate goal of governance, Jon Norberg explains.

- A world-view of nature and society as rather static and predictable systems must be replaced by a view which emphasizes continuous change and uncertainty. This dynamic view is a prerequisite for better management of complex adaptive ecosystems, so that they can continue to supply the goods and services human society relies upon.

Book info

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More information about the book "Complexity Theory for a Sustainable Future" can be found at the Columbia University Press.

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Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

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