Principle 4 – Foster complex adaptive systems thinking

Erin L. Bohensky, Louisa S. Evans, John Anderies, Reinette Biggs, Christo Fabricius

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

19 Scopus citations


The social–ecological systems that provide ecosystem services to society can be viewed as complex adaptive systems (CAS), characterized by a high level of interconnectedness, potential for non-linear change, and inherent uncertainty and surprise. This chapter focuses on whether resilience of ecosystem services is enhanced by management based on what we refer to as ‘CAS thinking’, meaning a mental model for interpreting the world that recognizes these CAS properties. We present evidence that CAS thinking has contributed to change in management approaches in the Kruger National Park, Great Barrier Reef, Tisza river basin and Chile among other places. However, attempts to introduce CAS thinking may compromise resilience when complexity is not effectively communicated, when uncomfortable institutional change is required or when CAS thinking is not able to evolve with changing contexts or is not equitably shared. We suggest that CAS thinking can be fostered by the following: adopting a systems framework; tolerating and embracing uncertainty; investigating critical thresholds and non-linearities; acknowledging epistemological pluralism; matching institutions to CAS processes; and recognizing barriers to cognitive change. Key questions for future research on this principle relate to communicating CAS thinking, the role of power, the importance of an organizational level of CAS thinking, and institutional barriers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationPrinciples for Building Resilience
Subtitle of host publicationSustaining Ecosystem Services in Social-Ecological Systems
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages32
ISBN (Electronic)9781316014240
ISBN (Print)9781107082656
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences
  • General Environmental Science


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