We conceptualize social-ecological systems (SESs) as complex adaptive systems where public policy affects and is affected by the biophysical system in which it is embedded. The study of robustness of SESs combines insights from various disciplines including economics, political science, ecology, and engineering. In this paper we present an approach that can be used to explore the implications for public policy when viewed as a component of a complex adaptive system. Our approach leverages the Institutional Analysis and Development framework to provide a platform for interdisciplinary research that focuses on system-wide outcomes of the policy process beyond just policy change. The main message is that building robustness can create new vulnerabilities. Fail-free policies cannot be developed, and instead of a focus on the "right" policy, we need to think about policy processes that stimulate experimentation, adaptation, and learning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)513-536
Number of pages24
JournalPolicy Studies Journal
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 2013


  • Common-pool resources
  • Institutions
  • Policy processes
  • Public infrastructure
  • Robustness Framework
  • SES Framework
  • Vulnerability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Public Administration
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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