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. Dr 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.
Dr 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).
Dr 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, Dr 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.
Dr Biggs has authored or co-authored over 30 scientific articles and 20 book chapters.
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
General news | 2017-06-07
From 8-10 May 2017, a colloquium on resilience and development co-hosted by the GRAID programme took place in Johannesburg, South Africa
2018 - Journal / article
Essential services such as electricity are critical to human well-being and the functioning of modern society. These services are produced by complex adaptive socio-technical systems and emerge from the interplay of technical infrastructure with people and governing institutions. Ongoing global changes such as urbanization and increasing prevalence of extreme weather events are generating much interest in strategies for buildi...
2018 - Journal / article
The unique challenges posed by the Anthropocene require creative ways of engaging with the future and bringing about transformative change. Envisioning positive futures is a first step in creating a shared understanding and commitment that enables radical transformations toward sustainability in a world defined by complexity, diversity, and uncertainty. However, to create a transformative space in which truly unknowable futur...
2018 - Journal / article
African savannas are increasingly affected by woody encroachment, an increase in the density of woody plants. Woody encroachment often occurs unexpectedly, is difficult to reverse, and has significant economic, cultural and ecological implications. The process of woody encroachment represents a so-called regime shift that results from feedback loops that link vegetation and variables such as fire, grazing and water availabilit...
2017 - Journal / article
Wide agreement exists that the “Anthropocene” demands new forms of engagement and responses to achieve sustainability, but different fields suggest quite different approaches. In this communication, we set out four perspectives that we argue have fundamentally different framings of the “problem” of the Anthropocene, and consequently point to very different responses to achieving sustainability. These four fields include: the e...