Her research focuses on regime shifts — large, abrupt, long-lasting changes in the dynamics of coupled social-ecological systems that can have dramatic impacts on human economies and societies. Biggs aims to contribute practical scientific theory, methods and insights that can improve society's ability to anticipate high-impact tipping points, and build resilience to undesirable changes. Her core research activities focus on the following key areas:
- Developing a Regime Shifts Database to provide a high-quality synthesis of different types of regime shifts that have been documented in social-ecological systems, their impacts on ecosystem services, and management options.
- Developing methods for assessing which areas on Earth are most vulnerable to particular regime shifts, using GIS and remote sensing methods.
- Examining the economic trade-offs associated with balancing the risk of potential regime shifts against the benefits of ecosystem exploitation, in collaboration with researchers at the Beijer Institute for Ecological Economics.
Biggs also initiated and co-leads the Southern African Program on Ecosystem change and Society, a network of leading social-ecological researchers working in southern Africa to develop new theory and tools and grow capacity in the SES field, and one of the core case studies within the ICSU Program on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS).
Biggs completed her PhD studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2008. Her thesis Uncertainty, learning and innovation in ecosystem managemen included the use of Hierarchical Bayesian Models to show how uncertainties about the nature of ecological relationships may be highlighted by integrating results from multiple studies.
Another aspect of her dissertation work focused on the question of whether regime shifts can be detected (through approaches such as increasing variance) with sufficient lead time to change management in ways that avert undesirable regime shifts.
She also investigated, using social science methodologies, factors that encourage innovation and transformation in ecosystem management based on case studies in South Africa, Wisconsin and Sweden.
Prior to her PhD studies, Biggs spent four years at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria, South Africa, working on the Southern African Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.
She was particularly involved in the scenario planning aspects of the assessment, as well as issues of cross-scale links. Her Masters thesis, which was tied to the Millennium Assessment, involved the development of a new policy-relevant indicator for assessing biodiversity condition, namely the Biodiversity Intactness Index (BII), published in Nature in 2005.
Biggs has authored or co-authored over 30 scientific articles and 20 book chapters.
Research news | 2018-11-03
How social-ecological systems research can transform sustainable development to match the challenges of the Anthropocene
Research news | 2018-09-02
Increase in woody plants are increasingly affecting the African savannahs, reducing grazing for cattle and affecting mobility
Research news | 2018-01-29
New paper frames the responsibility of being a human in the Anthropocene
Research news | 2017-06-15
How an ongoing project aims to develop positive visions of the Anthropocene for southern Africa and beyond
2019 - Journal / article
The United Nations’ Agenda 2030 marks significant progress towards sustainable development by making explicit the intention to integrate previously separate social, economic and environmental agendas. Despite this intention, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which were adopted to implement the agenda, are fragmented in their formulation and largely sectoral. We contend that while the design of the SDG monitoring is base...
2018 - Journal / article
The study of social-ecological systems (SES) has been significantly shaped by insights from research on complex adaptive systems (CAS). We offer a brief overview of the conceptual integration of CAS research and its implications for the advancement of SES studies and methods. We propose a conceptual typology of six organizing principles of CAS based on a comparison of leading scholars’ classifications of CAS features and prope...
2018 - Journal / article
There are growing concerns that increasing global environmental pressures could lead to the exceedance of critical ecological thresholds that could trigger long-lasting regime shifts that will affect the structure and function of ecosystems and the broader social-ecological systems in which they are embedded. Biological invasions are a major driver of global change, and a number of invasive species alter key ecological feedbac...
2018 - Book chapter
The rapid urbanization associated with the Anthropocene provides an imperative for humans to think diff erently about the future. The “seeds” approach describes how niche experiments can, over time, coalesce to shift the dominant regime onto a more sustainable trajectory. Urban transformations are complex phenomena; the seeds approach is a tool that can help us understand how transformations occur and how to nudge them towards...