sustainableI 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?

Join the conversation! 6 Comments

  1. Hi Ben

    I think we need to be careful about “privileging” diversity.

    1. Diversity does not guarantee stability in ecosystems. What we dont see when we see complex forest ecosystems (for example) is the complex forest systems that have not survived. We are only seeing the sample that did survive. Survivorship bias.

    2. Each newly introduced species into Australia is in theory adding to the diversity of biological life in that continent. But we know that in practice some new species can wreak havoc, such as cats killing off many small marsupials, and lead to a net loss in species diversity. Other species, like introduced fruit trees, seemed to have created a net increase in diversity.

    I suspect what matters more for system stability is not the gross number of species present in an ecosystem but the structure of the relationships between them. For example, extreme specialisation works in stable environments, but is risky when environments become more changeable. In those circumstances it is generalists who have better chances. If there is radical climate change it may be the hunter/gatherers/gardeners in Papua that will have better survival chances than accountants in Melboune.

    Another dimension is how “tightly coupled” all the parts of the system are. In boom times people (and companies) take on more debt, thus tying themselves more closely to others, and reducing their own capacity to act independently. Shocks to one part of the system e.g. from a bankruptcy, move through the wider economic system that much further as a result.

    regards, rick

  2. Intrigued by the idea that too much knowledge sharing is harmful. I can see how too much enforced blueprint solutions can be problematic as this can stifle innovation and thinking for yourself which then makes people and societies less resiliant to change.

    Interesting whether the act of knowledge sharing itself reduces diversity of opinion and action. I would think that knowledge sharing between societies could increase diversity as long as outside ideas don’t crowd out domestic knowledge, and if they are adapted to local conditions – but maybe some degree of crowding out (and thus loss of diversity) is inevitable.

  3. Following Ian’s comments, on where information sharing can counter-productive…

    I have been told that software makers trying to track down the cause of a bug in their software deliberately set up a number of isolated teams to work on the problem, not one larger team. With one larger team there is too much tendency for the thinking of the members to converge on one or two possible causes of the problem, and ignore other possibilities that are equally valuable. Running seperate but isolate teams helps preserve diversity of thinking, about possible solutions.

  4. […] and where anxiety can sit in the room.Elsewhere in the Blogosphere about Diversity and ResilienceIs diversity the key to resilience in complex social-ecological systems? by Ben Ramalingam commenting on the book Complexity Theory for a Sustainable FutureSocial […]

  5. […] Is diversity the key to resilience in complex social-ecological systems? by Ben Ramalingam commenting on the book Complexity Theory for a Sustainable Future […]


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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Public Policy, Reports and Studies, Resilience, Strategy