Systems Theory

Complex system science has arisen through the understanding that components and interactions between them are rarely linear and isolated (Chorley & Kennedy, 1971). Component variations can result in disturbances reverberating across temporal and spatial scales. The outcome of this can be severe system instability or even collapse. Complete knowledge of a system therefore cannot be achieved through studying isolated sections alone. Systems are more than the sum of its parts and thus far societies have proved this by continuing to apply practises that persistently result in degradation.

Societies rely on the philosophy of optimisation and efficiency (Walker & Salt, 2006). Optimisation reduces system to a small group or quantifiable components that is believed to influence the desired outcome. Insignificant mechanisms are ignored. In environmental systems, ecosystem services are often undervalued or discounted (Berkes et al., 2000). Efficiency attempts to streamline the system structure and functions in order to maximise a particular outcome. Interactions and components not judged to be advantageous to the outcome are removed or supressed. This philosophy is commonly applied in order to achieve the maximum sustainable yield for a given component outcome.

This reductionist approach has as its aim to achieve system stability. A maximum outcome yield is acquired when the system functions are at their most efficient and by keeping the components in place. This stability is threatened through failure to recognise that change is nonlinear and at scales above and below the focal level (Gunderson, 2002). Disturbances from emergent behaviour and extrinsic processes can lead to resonating effects that alter the system and create a new system identity. The desirability of the new state can be greatly removed from the previous resulting in the reduction or complete loss of marketable value.

A resilient system is able to sustain itself by maintaining the capacity to avoid or absorb unanticipated disturbances; provide continued value and to return to the ‘normal’ or desired condition. Resilient systems are able to provide value overall after a disturbance, however this may not be in the same form. System recovery is very important and depending on its societal and economic characteristics, will need to achieve this relatively quickly, but the system’s ability to recover at all is the crucial aspect (Walker & Salt, 2006).

The identity of a stable state is a product of the combination of the components and relationships and interactions between them (Walker et al., 2004). The system equilibrium is the current state that the system exists at. If a component or interaction is altered the equilibrium shifts. The identity can either remain the same or it can be changed entirely. Identity changes occur when system cross a threshold. This is the point at which the system can no longer absorb a disturbance and the system reacts by changing the components and relationships between them (May, 1977). Resilience is the distance to the threshold. A resilient system is far from any threshold and is able to absorb the disturbance. The system equilibrium may shift but does not cross over and the identity remains constant.

Figure 2: Example of negative feedback in rivers (Summerfield, 1991)

Crossing a threshold is dangerous and depending on the nature and the distance the system has travelled, it can be difficult or potentially impossible to return. Removing the initial disturbance will not be sufficient and the system will require interventions to begin to move the system back across. Intervention will have to be appropriate as to reverse the system trajectory and not just halt it. System changes can occur through both intrinsic and extrinsic disturbances. Intrinsic alterations occur through emergent behaviour, unforeseen outcomes as a function of system processes, and through feedbacks (Chorley & Kennedy, 1971; Huggett, 1980). Emergent behaviour is by its definition unpredictable and thus resilient systems must have sufficient absorbing capacity. Feedbacks can supress and reinforce behaviour and change. Positive feedback is a result of a disturbance creating system change that seeks to reinforce the effects of the disturbance. Negative feedback supresses the effects of the disturbance or can eliminate it entirely (Figure 2). Negative feedback mechanisms provide the capacity of systems to absorb change and thus increase resilience.

Figure 3: The adaptive cycle showing the four phases (Gunderson, 2002)

Resilience can be categorised as specific and general. Specified resilience is the ability of an individual component to resist a particular disturbance and preventing it from crossing a stated threshold. General resilience is the ability of a system as a whole to resist change (Walker, 2007). A focus on an individual type can come at the expense of the other. It easier to estimate the consequences of maintaining general resilience than it is for not maintaining resilience given their unspecified nature. It is crucial that they are equally assessed.

Systems have a cyclic nature. Gunderson (2002) studied how they behave according to their position within what is termed as the ‘adaptive cycle’. There are four sections and are known as the rapid growth (r), conservation (K), release (Ω) and reorganisation (α) phases. Identifying the systems position has resilience and management consequences.

The r-phase denotes the period of rapid growth as opportunities and resources are exploited.  The system components are weakly connected and innovation and competition dominate. With the system becoming more connected and exploited, opportunities for growth decreases and it moves to resource conservation. Specialisation becomes dominant and variability is actively managed. Efficiency and optimisation are at their peak but come at the cost of flexibility and resilience. K-phases act over much larger spatial and temporal timescales than other phases.

The K-phase ends when a sufficient disturbance occurs that results in system collapse and reorganisation. The longer the K-phase is sustained the smaller the disturbance is needed. It is in late K-phases that subsidies are introduced in order to maintain current practices at the expense of change. More capital has to be expended, than in the earlier on in order to achieve the same outcome. When the costs outweigh the benefits the system fails (Tainter, 1998). The Ω-phase is chaotic as regulations collapse and energy and resources are released. With the system components liberated a process of reorganisation occurs. The α-phase results in novelty, invention and experimentation dominate. The system boundaries and rules reform and as the phase ends a new system identity will be present. It is at this point that resilience is at its greatest. The system has the greatest capacity to reorganise and adapt to disturbances.

The adaptive cycle has two opposing modes; a fore loop (development) and a back loop (release and reorganisation). When a system is undergoing release and reorganisation, it is most susceptible to management intervention. Development loops are far more resistant to management attempts.

Systems are composed and influenced by a hierarchy of adaptive cycles known as ‘panarchy’ Changes at one scale will influence system behaviour and decisions at another. Cross scale effects are often ignored as only the focal system scale is taken into account and is a common failure of environmental management. ‘Remember’ and ‘Revolt’ are the connections between the scales (Figure 4). Revolts occur when a cycle collapses triggering a further collapse on the next level. Fast and small events can overwhelm the slower and larger ones. This is particularly the case for higher levels in late K-phases. Remembrance connections influence renewal by recalling capacity that has been stored in the larger cycles. Examples include knowledge of processes and institutional mechanisms.

Figure 4: Panarchy of Hunter Valley, New South Wales, showing ‘remember’ and ‘revolt’ connections (Evans, 2008)

Applying resilience theory requires that a holistic approach be taken. The term socio-ecological system (SES) integrates sociological, economic and environmental components. There is a recognition that people are not in isolation of the system but a part of it.  A key part of management is the practice of governance.

Governance is the collective involvement of interaction between the stakeholders in a system (Lebel et al., 2006). Issues occur in the deciding what action, if any, should be taken. This stems from the differing values assigned to components and outcomes, which are based on the views of the varying stakeholders. Deliberation is a way of reconciling the opposing views.

Issues arise due to the differing control that some components have on the system and in the influence of individual stakeholders. Some components will yield disproportionate control over a given outcome and therefore may be of greater importance. Stakeholders will also wield differing levels of influence. This could be in the form or land ownership or political or economic capital (Schlager & Ostrom, 1992). There are also restrictions on the stakeholders themselves in the form of legal issues in the form of resource boundaries, sanctions and representation (Ostrom, 1990) Open participation in joint decision making helps to build trust and increases the shared knowledge and desire to act.

With the reconciliation process concluded, there are three viable responses. The first is to decide not to intervene (Gunderson, 2000). This approach monitors the system to see if it is able to return to its normal state. Any benefits the new system could yield are lost in the process of waiting despite the possibility that it may have crossed a significant threshold.

The second approach is to actively manage the system. This could be to move the system across a threshold or to prevent it from reaching one initially. When a disturbance occurs, managers often address only the immediate issues that arise. They alter the system to reverse any degradation and take a specified approach to ensure that component cannot be affected by the disturbance again. This is at the expense of the systems overall resilience. As long as the system identity remains little or no intervention occurs until the next crisis. In this way management becomes reactive and incremental as the system moves from one shock to the next (Anderies et al., 2006). As systems move ever closer towards a threshold, a cautious approach is taken. Detecting strong thresholds long before the system crosses over allows stakeholders to take proactive and less restrained decisions to increase resilience (Lebel et al., 2006).

The third approach is to adapt to the new altered regime and accept that change is inevitable. Sustaining the current benefits of a system cannot be achieved indefinitely. Adaptive management embraces the concept of uncertainty and is able to quickly alter the SES mechanism in order to extract benefits from the new system. Adaptive approaches continually assess and re-evaluate policies as system surprises and changes occur. Adaptation ensures that a greater level of value can be attained from the system over time. The values will change and benefit different stakeholders over time, however unlike other approaches can be sustained.

Adaptive management requires a different institutional framework. Institutions are the laws and customs that societies function within. Formal institutions are the systemised rules such as legislation and governmental agencies. Informal institutions deal with the often unwritten rules and customs that society lives by (Ostrom, 1992). Both are important for adaptive management as they will control how a system can be governed legally, financially and culturally. Society will react differently and often more unpredictably than environment agencies will to a disturbance. The uncertainty requires that managers be flexible when dealing with a crisis and polycentric and multi-layered institutions improve coordination between system knowledge and intervention. Individual groups or organisation cannot comprehend all aspects of a system and increasing the stakeholder interaction facilitates greater understanding and willingness to intervene.

The understanding and application of resilience principals can help sustain the long term benefits that a system can yield. Uncertainty is the critical factor and only by adopting an adaptive management approach can society hope to create a resilient SES.

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Next: The Focal System


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