Photo: B. Christensen/Azote

Photo: B. Christensen/Azote

Advancing Complex Adaptive Systems and resilience theory

In this stream we want to engage with the concept of complex adaptive systems and complexity science to get a deeper understanding of how it can help us understand and govern social-ecological systems

Social-ecological systems (SES) are complex adaptive systems (CAS). CAS is a class of systems whose macroscopic behavior emerges from self-organized local interactions of their elements, such as actors interacting with ecosystems and with other actors.

Characteristics of CAS are their non-linear, often unexpected behavior, their path-dependency (an event in the past determines the development of the system in the future), and the diversity of their elements which enable adaptation to changing conditions.

In SES the interactions of many diverse actors with ecosystems within given social and biophysical environments determine the development of the system over time. SES, in which people and ecosystems are interdependent and interact dynamically across scales, display many features of CAS. Resilience thinking has advanced approaches and methods of studying SES taking these characteristics into account.

How do we study SES as CAS? What do the CAS features of SES mean for the selection of approaches, theories and methods we use? And how can we communicate complexity and the CAS nature of SES?

We will

i) explore how CAS and resilience thinking can be used to frame research (what research questions? what theories to use?)

ii) assess and further develop CAS methods to study SES

iii) further develop theoretical understanding of CAS and Resilience Thinking, including theories of SES that are based on complexity thinking

iv) develop means to communicate complexity through visualizations and illustrative examples.

The stream will work on different concrete examples of SES phenomena such as sustainable or unsustainable resource governance, regime shifts, transformations, etc. to address these challenges.

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Staff details



Collective action and the risk of ecosystem regime shifts: Insights from a laboratory experiment

Schill, C., T. Lindahl, A.-S. Crépin

2015 - Journal / article

Ecosystems can undergo regime shifts that potentially lead to a substantial decrease in the availability of provisioning ecosystem services. Recent research suggests that the frequency and intensity of regime shifts increase with growing anthropogenic pressure, so understanding the underlying social-ecological dynamics is crucial, particularly in contexts where livelihoods depend heavily on local ecosystem services. In such settings, ecosystem services are often derived from common-pool resources. The limited capacity to predict regime shifts is a major challenge for common-pool resource management, as well as for systematic empirical analysis of individual and group behavior, because of the need for extensive preshift and postshift data. Unsurprisingly, current knowledge is mostly based on theoretical models. We examine behavioral group responses to a latent endogenously driven regime shift in a laboratory experiment. If the group exploited the common-pool resource beyond a certain threshold level, its renewal rate dropped drastically. To determine how the risk of such a latent shift affects resource management and collective action, we compared four experimental treatments in which groups were faced with a latent shift with different probability levels (0.1, 0.5, 0.9, 1.0). Our results suggest that different probability levels do not make people more or less likely to exploit the resource beyond its critical potential threshold. However, when the likelihood of the latent shift is certain or high, people appear more prone to agree initially on a common exploitation strategy, which in turn is a predictor for averting the latent shift. Moreover, risk appears to have a positive effect on collective action, but the magnitude of this effect is influenced by how risk and probabilities are communicated and perceived.

Regime shifts in the Anthropocene: Drivers, risks, and resilience

Rocha, J.C., G.D. Peterson, R. Biggs

2015 - Journal / article

Many ecosystems can experience regime shifts: surprising, large and persistent changes in the function and structure of ecosystems. Assessing whether continued global change will lead to further regime shifts, or has the potential to trigger cascading regime shifts has been a central question in global change policy. Addressing this issue has, however, been hampered by the focus of regime shift research on specific cases and types of regime shifts. To systematically assess the global risk of regime shifts we conducted a comparative analysis of 25 generic types of regime shifts across marine, terrestrial and polar systems; identifying their drivers, and impacts on ecosystem services. Our results show that the drivers of regime shifts are diverse and co-occur strongly, which suggests that continued global change can be expected to synchronously increase the risk of multiple regime shifts. Furthermore, many regime shift drivers are related to climate change and food production, whose links to the continued expansion of human activities makes them difficult to limit. Because many regime shifts can amplify the drivers of other regime shifts, continued global change can also be expected to increase the risk of cascading regime shifts. Nevertheless, the variety of scales at which regime shift drivers operate provides opportunities for reducing the risk of many types of regime shifts by addressing local or regional drivers, even in the absence of rapid reduction of global drivers.


The Arctic Resilience Report

The Arctic Resilience Report is a science-based assessment that aims to better understand the integrated impacts of change in the Arctic. Read more here

Regime shifts database

The Regime Shifts DataBase provides examples of different types of regime shifts that have been documented in social-ecological systems. Read more here

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

Stockholm Resilience Centre
Stockholm University, Kräftriket 2B
Phone: +46 8 674 70 70

Organisation number: 202100-3062
VAT No: SE202100306201