The use of shared infrastructure to direct natural processes for the benefit of humans has been a central feature of human social organization for millennia. Today, more than ever, people interact with one another and the environment through shared human-made infrastructure (the Internet, transportation, the energy grid, etc.). However, there has been relatively little work on how the design characteristics of shared infrastructure affect the dynamics of social-ecological systems (SESs) and the capacity of groups to solve social dilemmas associated with its provision. Developing such understanding is especially important in the context of global change where design criteria must consider how specific aspects of infrastructure affect the capacity of SESs to maintain vital functions in the face of shocks. Using small-scale irrigated agriculture (the most ancient and ubiquitous example of public infrastructure systems) as a model system, we show that two design features related to scale and the structure of benefit flows can induce fundamental changes in qualitative behavior, i.e., regime shifts. By relating the required maintenance threshold (a design feature related to infrastructure scale) to the incentives facing users under different regimes, our work also provides some general guidance on determinants of robustness of SESs under globalization-related stresses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)13207-13212
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number43
StatePublished - Oct 27 2015


  • Infrastructure
  • Irrigation
  • Resilience
  • Robustness
  • Social-ecological system

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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