A Systems Approach to Port Phillip Bay

Port Phillip Bay is capable of providing for the 3.5 million people who dwell on the coast with a diverse and wealthy level of opportunity and exploitable capital. It is the combination of which that gives Port Phillip Bay a reputable identity.

Port Phillip Bay is a complex system, socially, economically and environmentally. It operates on a range of temporal and spatial scales. Critical ecosystem services work in unison with larger scale climate change, whilst trade fluctuates with global exchange rates. For Port Phillip Bay the range of scales presents managers with challenges as processes can occur beyond scales of technical, financial and political means.

Historically the system has been subject to perturbations across a range of scales and origins. Global environmental events such as El Nino have had more local effects of economies and society, which can be linked through the effects of forest fires.   The most recent global event occurred in 2007 with the credit crunch. This has affected the regional economy in many ways through falling revenues and decreased exports. Yet the system has proven itself to be resilient in other ways. It has been able to maintain employment and still attract the levels of tourists it did before the event.

The range of disturbances varies greatly in terms of scale and the impact they may have. It has been shown that social, economic and environmental disturbances can be unpredictable, quick or sustained and can have consequences throughout the system. This is the result of the connectedness of adaptive cycles. Each component is constantly changing and as a disturbance occurs the cycles can absorb it, adapt or collapse. Revolts can cascade through the system leading to systemic changes.

Managers need to be able to assess the range of disturbances that occur and appreciate how cycles are connected. Ignoring all but the focal scale will lead to reduced resilience as disturbances above and below cascade and cause a general system collapse.

The identification of thresholds and alternate stable states is another crucial exercise for managers. Thresholds determine the point where systems shift in identity and offer a different range of capital to exploit. If managers are not made aware of their existence then systems can shift before any meaningful interventions can be made.

Managers need also to be aware that they are but one of a range of stakeholders. Port Phillip Bay is a very large region. With over 3 million people using the system every day, there are going to be a range of opinions and views on how the system should be run and managed. Formal and informal groupings exist in Port Phillip society and government and all of these views need to be reconciled. Joint decision making is necessary for good management and inclusion breeds a culture of understanding a shared aspiration to act, which as a manager is desirable.

The polycentric and multi-scale nature of stakeholders and the overlapping areas of responsibility are both a hindrance and a help. Port Phillip Bay is able to call upon a range of expertise from across society in order to improve management techniques and the understanding of system processes. National government agencies are able to interact with community groups and it is this range of diversity that facilitates a more adaptive management approach. System disturbances have the greatest chance of being identified and dealt with in this manner.

For formal institutions in particular their mandate is governed by sets of laws laying out their responsibilities and remits. Mangers need to be aware of the range and types of legislation, social norms and cultural values that Port Phillip Bay possesses. Managers cannot act if they do not have the correct rights of access or in some cases without societal approval; such is the backlash that could result from an undesired intervention.

A systems approach to Port Phillip Bay will hopefully lead to better management in the future. Through understanding of how a system functions and changes over time, it is hoped that managers realise that they cannot intervene and alter components and relationships in isolation.  By using a systems approach this understanding can be achieved.

Previous: Adaptive Management


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