RESILIENCE PRACTICE

How to deal with complexity

A new study demonstrates how engage with complexity, according to a framework of six features of complex adaptive systems. Photo: J. Heard/Unsplash

Resilience guides, particularly those used in the development field, often lack a theoretical grounding in how to engage with shocks and disturbances. A new study addresses the problem

Story highlights

  • There is heightened interest in developing ways to better deal with shocks and disturbances without compromising human well-being
  • Study synthesizes lessons from how twelve cases of social-ecological resilience practice are engaging with complexity
  • It provides a theoretically-grounded resource for managers, decision-makers, and researchers on how to engage with complexity

LIVING IN A COMPLEX WORLD: Imagine working for a local development agency in South Africa. While looking to strengthen water and food security you also have to take into account historic inequalities and the legacy of apartheid. Then add climate change to the equation. As you try to help guide adaptation efforts, both on the ground and through engaging with national and international policymaking, things are getting complex.

In the face of this, there is heightened interest in developing ways to better deal with shocks and disturbances without compromising human well-being. Experts call it “managing for resilience”.

But resilience guides, particularly those used in the development field, often lack a theoretical grounding in how to engage with complexity.

Bank with examples

To address this, a new study led by centre researcher My Sellberg, with Katja Malmborg, Garry Peterson and a team of international researchers synthesizes lessons from how twelve cases of social-ecological resilience practice are engaging with complexity.

The study was published in Ecology and Society.

We provide practitioners with a set of tools to better capture and engage with the complexity of the contexts they are working within.

My Sellberg, lead author

Sellberg and her colleagues provide managers, decision-makers, and researchers a resource bank with examples where one can gain new ideas and new entry points to search for more in-depth guidance on a specific tool or approach.

The cases include rural villages in Tajikistan, a Swedish municipality, Australian catchment management authorities, a Canadian coastal fishery, and the Arctic Council.

They assess how these cases engage with complexity, according to a framework of six features of complex adaptive systems.

“Our results revealed two main ways of engaging with complexity: capturing and making sense of the complexity of a social-ecological system (system complexity) and embodying complexity into the participatory process (process complexity)”, say the authors.

Operationalizing complexity. The cases of resilience practice operationalized complexity both through tools and concepts to better understand and capture the complexity of a social-ecological system (“system complexity”), and through designing a participatory process that embodied different features of complex adaptive systems (“process complexity”).

Deeper reflection

The study offers a set of strategies to address process complexity, such as facilitating dialogue, building networks, and designing a flexible and iterative process and showing how complexity can be embedded into the resilience assessment process.

“The framework and related identified strategies are useful for a deeper and more systematic reflection on different aspects of complexity - both of social-ecological systems and of the collective learning process and your own role in it,” conclude the authors.

Link to publication

Published: 2021-11-03