Photo: J. Lokrantz/Azote

Adaptive governance

Adaptive governance analyzes the different aspects that build up multilevel governance and how all these aspects help build resilience for the vast challenges that are posed by global change.

Many scholars emphasize the need for new flexible, integrated, holistic forms of governance that can deal with the complexity of social-ecological systems (SES), and their associated services.

Adaptive management, adaptive co-management, ecosystem management, and various forms of formal and informal integrated resource management are all promising approaches in this context. However, these governance modes are in need of further exploration to be able to fully incorporate the dynamics of social-ecological systems. The latter implies much more than stakeholder participation and integrated planning, it implies; being able to deal with both uncertainty and abrupt change; enhance learning of complex SES; promote experimentation and innovation; and supporting cross-scale institutional linkages.

About  adaptive governance
Adaptive governance is an evolving research framework for analyzing the social, institutional, economical and ecological foundations of multilevel governance modes that are successful in building resilience for the vast challenges posed by global change, and coupled complex adaptive SES.

In our work, we integrate insights from a range of disciplines ranging from systems ecology, geography, sociology, complexity theory, and organizational studies, to political science. Our members focus on a number of empirical cases around the world, ranging from coral reef ecosystems in Australia, urban ecosystems in Stockholm, biosphere reserves in South Africa, forest ecosystems in India and Madagascar, to global technical innovations for infectious disease governance.

This diversity is steered by a joint attempt to better understand the social dimension of ecosystem management; the interactions between individuals, organizations, and institutions at multiple levels; the factors for responding to crisis, shaping change and building resilience.

Strategic directions
Adaptive governance includes the following strategic directions for 2008/9:

I. New challenges for adaptive governance
Governance theories are evolving under global environmental change.  Understanding the linkages, feedbacks and connections between SES management and governance are central to this theme.

Challenging questions include:
- What are the important multiscale processes in SES governance that lead to more or less resilient outcomes on the ground?
- What are the tradeoffs between management priorities and SES for long-term sustainable futures and how do these play out over different scales?

The focus of the theme is to examine multiscale adaptive processes that build adaptive capacity in coupled systems. This requires drawing on existing theories of environmental governance, organisational theory, development and collective action theories and empirically examining case studies. Case studies are in progress in Sweden, South Africa, India, Canada, Indonesia and Australia.

We recognise that there are various social and ecological distinctions between developed and developing country contexts thus aim to draw on cases and partnerships from both contexts.

II. Innovations and transformations in SES
The capacity to adapt to and shape change is a central component of resilience of social-ecological systems. When there is high adaptability, actors have the capacity to reorganize the system within desired states in response to changing conditions and surprises. But high adaptability may also be recombined with innovation and novelty to transform a social-ecological system into a new regime.

How do governance arrangements affect the functioning and performance of innovation in — for example - sustainable technology systems, large scale ecosystems such as the Baltic Sea, or agroecosystems in Bali? This sub-theme aims at conducting a set of empirical studies on the capacity to navigate transitions toward ecosystem-based management and governance to further develop the theory of adaptive governance.

The focus is on social-ecological transitions and transformations, the emergence of social-ecological-technical systems, governance for innovations, and the role of agency.

III. Abrupt change and governance
Abrupt surprising changes in social-ecological systems pose serious challenges to the steering capacity of societies. Despite the fact that the world becomes increasingly interconnected by flows of information, trade and technology, human decision making and institution-building remains fragmented, poorly coordinated, and inapt in dealing with the escalating speed of technical and ecological change.

This subtheme focuses on the institutional, technological and socio-political dynamics of crisis and large scale shocks such as epidemics, ecosystem collapse and natural disasters.

We are particularly interested in understanding the possibilities and limits of “early warnings", and the role of institutions in mitigating and facilitating prompt response and recovery to disturbances triggered by a complex set of interacting social-ecological multilevel drivers. The empirical focus ranges from disaster risk reduction in Bangladesh, Mozambique and Mumbai; the evolution of global networks to cope with infectious disease outbreaks; to the social-ecological challenges posed by abrupt change in the Arctic.

Why adaptive governance?

Adaptive governance is an evolving research framework for analyzing the social, institutional, economical and ecological foundations of multilevel governance modes that are successful in building resilience for the vast challenges posed by global change, and coupled complex adaptive SES.


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