I am just reading Complexity Theory for a Sustainable Future, a 2008 book edited by Jon Norberg and Graeme S. Cumming. The chapter I have just finished ‘Diversity and Resilience of Social-Ecological Systems’ is co-authored by Elinor Ostrom, who shared this years Nobel Prize in Economics. So far, it makes for fascinating reading.
The authors provide an account of how complex adaptive systems concepts can be useful when thinking about the dynamics and management of social-ecological systems.
In particular, they argue that sustaining diversity is important for increasing a complex system’s capacity to cope with change, reduces sensitivity to loss of specific elements, and enhances human well-being.
They call for managers (specifically natural resource managers) to focus on two specific kinds of diversity:
- Diversity in the context of local adaptations or locally crafted solutions. They note that too much knowledge sharing, and nationally enforced blueprint solutions or management fashions spread by eager external agencies, can reduce diversity in important ways.
- Diversity in local governance and decision units – essentially, diversity in institutions. Institutions in this sense draw from Ostrom’s previous body of work, and refer to the ‘rules, norms and strategies that agents used in making decisions’. Effective governance is described as the crafting of rules in an effort to improve the incentives, behaviour and outcomes in a situation over time. Central to diversity in governance in ‘adaptive management’, which provides a means for institutional solutions to be tested and exchanged over time. Another approach is to have multiple institutional solutions for any given aim.
But the authors also note that managing diversity is challenging, for a number of reasons.
- The effect of increased diversity is hard to predict, diversity cannot be enhanced without also enhancing many other aspects of the system – you cannot keep all other things constant.
- The argument for diversity is seen to be in continuous conflict with the existing world views that natural and social systems are simple, predictable and can be ‘optimised’.
- Diversity is dynamic, and its sources are often uncertain.
They conclude that when successful, managerial methods for supporting diversity “avoid the trap of letting one solution dominate, and provide a richer experience and knowledge base… diversity in general increase the capacity of social-ecological to tolerate disturbance, learn and change. This capacity will be one of the most crucial assets of societies in the coming times of rapid global change.”
What does this imply for aid agencies, and the predominance of ‘cookie-cutter approaches’ to the design and implementation of programmes? What kinds of diversity could and should be brought into the aid system? And how?