Category Archives: Adaptation

FailFaire

That people need to learn in order to build a better world is a key idea motivating a lot of resilience projects, and learning requires failures that you can learn from.  In New York Times Stephanie Strom reports on FailFaire, an attempt to encourage learning from failure among the community of technology development professionals.  The article In Twist, Nonprofits Honor Technology’s Failures writes:

At a gathering last month over drinks and finger food, a specialist at the World Bank related the story of how female weavers in a remote Amazonian region of Guyana had against all odds built themselves a thriving global online business selling intricately woven hammocks for $1,000 apiece.

The state phone company had donated a communications center that helped the women find buyers around the world, selling to places like the British Museum. Within short order, though, their husbands pulled the plug, worried that their wives’ sudden increase in income was a threat to the traditional male domination in their society.

Technology’s potential to bring about social good is widely extolled, but its failures, until now, have rarely been discussed by nonprofits who deploy it. The experience in Guyana might never have come to light without FailFaire, a recurring party whose participants revel in revealing technology’s shortcomings.

“We are taking technology embedded with our values and our culture and embedding it in the developing world, which has very different values and cultures,” Soren Gigler, the World Bank specialist, told those at the FailFaire event here in July.

Behind the events is a Manhattan-based nonprofit group, MobileActive, a network of people and organizations trying to improve the lives of the poor through technology. Its members hope light-hearted examinations of failures will turn into learning experiences — and prevent others from making the same mistakes.

“I absolutely think we learn from failure, but getting people to talk about it honestly is not so easy,” said Katrin Verclas, a founder of MobileActive. “So I thought, why not try to start conversations about failure through an evening event with drinks and finger foods in a relaxed, informal atmosphere that would make it seem more like a party than a debriefing.”

On FailFaire’s blog, Ian Thorpe Reflects on Learning from Failure from a Failfaire Attendee:

A few shared lessons emerged which might also seem familiar to us in UNICEF: …

• People – not just technology – and process. Finding the right partners, listening to them and engaging them are critical success factors. A project that works well in one context might be ineffective in others if you don’t have the right partners and you don’t engage and make use of the skills and knowledge of the people you are working with.

• Make sure to pilot and test. Before scaling up a project, or before using it in a critical setting, make sure to have enough time to thoroughly test it and work out the kinks.

• Beware of “zombie” projects. If we are too attached to a “good idea” and have invested a lot of effort we are often unwilling to admit it is a failure and let go of it, and it keeps coming back from the dead, or it limps along unsuccessfully, not fully supported but still consuming valuable resources.

• Failures can lead to future successes. While a particular project might fail it can lead to new innovation and subsequent success. Look out for the learning and for the unexpected successful spin-off opportunities.

Some of these lessons might seem obvious with the benefit of hindsight – but it doesn’t stop them from recurring in development work.

As to the idea behind the event, I’m a strong believer in the value of learning from our mistakes if people would be willing to admit them and share them with others. This is challenging within a large publicly funded organization that places a lot of emphasis on delivering results and holding people accountable for them, but if we don’t do it we are at risk of continually repeating the same mistakes and in keeping alive our zombie projects because no-one wants to admit they are failing.

NASEBERRY and 2-mode network analysis of a dynamic co-management process

A network approach to understand co-management, governance and complex social-ecological systems is becoming part of the toolbox used by researchers in our field, now recently in an article by Marín and Berkes (see below). A bunch of us is trying to form a community of researchers to exchange ideas on how to use network analysis in social-ecological studies and to join our NASEBERRY group, you can mail me (Henrik Ernstson, henrik(at)ecology.su.se).

Andrés Marín and Fikret Berkes uses a 2-mode social network approach in their recent article entitled “Network approach for understanding small-scale fisheries governance“. They make the argument that many studies up until now have focussed on collaborative ties, which might miss how conflicts could drive the structuration of social networks:

[S]tudying only collaborative (or facilitating) relationships may show an incomplete representation of co-management. In the Chilean case, co-management appeared as a dynamic equilibrium between opposing forces: facilitation or collaboration and hindrance or conflict. The existence of conflict and power disputes should not be seen as blocking the functioning of the system but as a driver of change and adaptation [1]

NASEBERRY – A community would be great to have

Within the field of social-ecological network studies, several other studies are on their way in both marine, terrestrial and urban ecosystems. Further, at the upcoming international conference on social network analysis (SUNBELT) there is a special session on network analysis and natural resource management (June 2010), and several of us are participating in a book project led by Örjan Bodin and Christina Prell to further develop this field.

It is clear that several reserach groups are forming at various universities in the world, and at all continents. We hope our NASEBERRY group could be a good forum for many others to exchange exciting ideas. The name originates from “Network Analysis in Social-Ecological Studies” but has further borrowed its name from a long-lived evergreen tree growing in the Caribbean. The group include scholars that strive to advance both social, ecological and social-ecological network analysis in social-ecological studies. If you would like to join, please contact me Henrik Ernstson (henrik(at)ecology.su.se).

Naseberry tree<br />

Stay cool. Stay networked. Stay in the (naseberry)tree!

/Henrik

PS. Marín A, Berkes F. (2010; in press) Network approach for understanding small-scale fisheries governance: The case of the Chilean coastal co-management. Marine Policy. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2010.01.007
[1] With reference to: Armitage et al 2007: Adaptive co-management. Univ Brit Col Press.

Sea level rise estimates rising

There appears to be an increased need to worry about building resilience to sea level rise.

From Stefan Rahmstorf‘s commentary A new view on sea level rise in Nature Reports Climate Change , 44 – 45 (doi:10.1038/climate.2010.29)

Estimates for twenty-first century sea level rise from semi-empirical models2, 8, 16, 17, 18 as compared to the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4)1. For exact definitions of the time periods and emissions scenarios considered, see the original references.

Rob Hopkins and Neil Adger on transition towns and resilience

Rob Hopkins founder of the Transition movement has a long interview with Neil Adger on resilience, peak oil, and climate adaptation on Transition CultureNeil Adger is a professor in Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia and a member of the Resilience Alliance (Neil briefly explains social resilience in a video here).

RH: I was reading a piece of yours yesterday where you wrote “some elements of society are inherently vulnerable, and others are inherently resilient.” What is it that determines the degree to which things are vulnerable or resilient?

NA: First of all both vulnerability and resilience need a referent, so we need to be vulnerable to something, or resilient to something. I think the things that parts of society are vulnerable to are environmental change at the large scale, and the changes in the way the world and society works, which you can capture in the idea of globalisation. Some parts of society are, in effect, vulnerable to the large scale structural changes that are happening around the world – the changes in the flows of capital and labour and the restrictions on those, and the impact that that has on their life and livelihoods.

So if you think about the farming sector, it’s vulnerable to large scale price shocks, and we as consumers are vulnerable to large scale price shocks around the world. Some parts of society are vulnerable to environmental change and in combination are vulnerable to the sorts of things that are going on in terms of economic globalisation around the world. Others are more resilient. But being resilient to the forces of globalisation doesn’t necessarily mean that those parts of society are immune to them or even aren’t integrated into them.

I don’t think you can simply isolate yourself from the globalised world and say, “well, that’ll make us more resilient”. It’ll make us more resilient in some senses, but the world is as it is and I think we just need to deal with the fact that it’s more globally integrated and look on the positive side of that and reap the benefits of it.

Would you not have any truck with the idea that a resilient society is one where local economies are stronger?

I don’t disagree with that. What I’m saying is that local economies, for all sorts of reasons, are actually stronger and likely to be more resilient, because if we go back to the definition, they have more autonomy and room for self organisation and adaptability and change. Hence, I think it’s impossible to isolate a community or society from a globalised world.

Simply looking to give more autonomy to a community is a positive thing, but trying to isolate it from the rest of the world and not realise that we’re globalised and all the rest of it isn’t a sensible thing to do. As I say, there are a lot of benefits to globalisation (not necessarily economic globalisation) such as the flow of information around the world, global solidarity with places in other parts of the world. There are all sorts of up sides to globalisation. I’m sure you’re familiar with all those arguments and you know this on the ground.

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The Crises of Nature, The Nature of Crises

Maybe it’s just part of my personal PCSD (Post Copenhagen Stress Disorder), but it seems like one of the most interesting topics emerging in frontiers of the earth system governance agenda, is that of building global institutions able to deal with not only incremental environmental change (e.g. biodiversity loss, land use change, climate change), but also crises.

Crises events (i.e. unexpected, high uncertainty, cascading dynamics, limited time to act) pose from an institutional point of view, quite different challenges than those normally addressed by the global environmental governance research community. These are related to the need for early warnings, multilevel networked responses, and improvisation. In addition, crises forces us to reconsider the way we look at communication technologies in global environmental governance [e.g. "Pandemic 2.0" in Environment here].

Oran Young’s brief talk from 2008 on adaptiveness and environmental crises, is not about environmental regimes in the conventional sense, but rather about the importance of role plays, simulations, and deliberations around unlikely, but high impact, scenarios:

The Center on International Cooperation (New York University) in addition, just recently launched a report entitled “Confronting the Long-term Crisis – Risk, Resilience and International Order”, that pretty much reiterates the point that debates around global governance are moving towards an agenda that focus not only single global environmental stresses, but also on multiple, interacting social-ecological ones.

This issue was also raised by Brian Walker and colleagues in a policy forum in Science last year.   You can watch an interview with him here.

*  I owe the catchy title to my colleague Fredrik Moberg at Albaeco.

Resilience Engineering

Resilience philosophy is spreading into many areas. Resilience Engineering is a collection of research organizations and laboratories that at least since 2006 is trying to re-define technology, people and risks in the light of resilience thinking. This is how they write about themselves:

The network of participating organizations of the Resilience Engineering Network (R.E.N.)

The term Resilience Engineering represents a new way of thinking about safety. Whereas conventional risk management approaches are based on hindsight and emphasise error tabulation and calculation of failure probabilities, Resilience Engineering looks for ways to enhance the ability of organisations to create processes that are robust yet flexible, to monitor and revise risk models, and to use resources proactively in the face of disruptions or ongoing production and economic pressures. In Resilience Engineering failures do not stand for a breakdown or malfunctioning of normal system functions, but rather represent the converse of the adaptations necessary to cope with the real world complexity. Individuals and organisations must always adjust their performance to the current conditions; and because resources and time are finite it is inevitable that such adjustments are approximate. Success has been ascribed to the ability of groups, individuals, and organisations to anticipate the changing shape of risk before damage occurs; failure is simply the temporary or permanent absence of that.

I acknowledge Keith Tidball in notifying me of this organization.

Transition Towns and Resilience Thinking

straplineThe concept of resilience appears to be really spreading.  One interesting group of people attempting to build resilience in specific communities is the Transition town movement. A global network of communities each of which is attempting to build their resilience to climate change and peak oil while addressing the question:

“for all those aspects of life that this community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how do we significantly increase resilience (to mitigate the effects of Peak Oil) and drastically reduce carbon emissions (to mitigate the effects of Climate Change)?”

Rob Hopkins is co-founder of the Transition Network, which connects together the Transition Town movement.  He recently wrote an article about Resilience Thinking and transition for Resurgence magazine.  The definition of resilience from the RA’s wesbsite  starts his article Why ‘resilience thinking’ is a crucial missing piece of the climate-change jigsaw and why resilience is a more useful concept than sustainability

Resilience; “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change, so as to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks”

In July 2009, UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Miliband unveiled the government’s UK Low Carbon Transition Plan, a bold and powerful statement of intent for a low-carbon economy in the UK. It stated that by 2020 there would be a five-fold increase in wind generation, feed-in tariffs for domestic energy generation, and an unprecedented scheme to retrofit every house in the country for energy efficiency. In view of the extraordinary scale of the challenge presented by climate change, I hesitate to criticise steps in the right direction taken by government. There is, though, a key flaw in the document, which also appears in much of the wider societal thinking about climate change. This flaw is the attempt to address the issue of climate change without also addressing a second, equally important issue: that of resilience.

The term ‘resilience’ is appearing more frequently in discussions about environmental concerns, and it has a strong claim to actually being a more useful concept than that of sustainability. Sustainability and its oxymoronic offspring sustainable development are commonly held to be a sufficient response to the scale of the climate challenge we face: to reduce the inputs at one end of the globalised economic growth model (energy, resources, and so on) while reducing the outputs at the other end (pollution, carbon emissions, etc.). However, responses to climate change that do not also address the imminent, or quite possibly already passed, peak in world oil production do not adequately address the nature of the challenge we face.

Resilience thinking can inspire a degree of creative thinking that might actually take us closer to solutions that will succeed in the longer term. Resilient solutions to climate change might include community-owned energy companies that install renewable energy systems in such a way as to generate revenue to resource the wider relocalisation process; the building of highly energy-efficient homes that use mainly local materials (clay, straw, hemp), thereby stimulating a range of potential local businesses and industries; the installation of a range of urban food production models; and the re-linking of farmers with their local markets. By seeing resilience as a key ingredient of the economic strategies that will enable communities to thrive beyond the current economic turmoil the world is seeing, huge creativity, reskilling and entrepreneurship are unleashed.

The Transition Movement is a rapidly growing, ‘viral’ movement, which began in Ireland and is now under way in thousands of communities around the world. Its fundamental premise is that a response to climate change and peak oil will require action globally, nationally, and at the scale of local government, but it also needs vibrant communities driving the process, making unelectable policies electable, creating the groundswell for practical change at the local level.

It explores the practicalities of building resilience across all aspects of daily life. It catalyses communities to ask, “How are we going to significantly rebuild resilience in response to peak oil and drastically reduce carbon emissions in response to climate change?”

By putting resilience alongside the need to reduce carbon emissions, it is catalysing a broad range of initiatives, from Community Supported Agriculture and garden-share schemes to local food directories and new Farmers’ Markets. Some places, such as Lewes and Totnes, have set up their own energy companies, in order to resource the installation of renewable energy. The Lewes Pound, the local currency that can only be spent in Lewes, recently expanded with the issuing of new £5, £10 and £20 notes. Stroud and Brixton are set to do the same soon.

Tapping into the Collective Intelligence of the Global Environmental Change Community

Adaptiveness and Innovation in Earth System Governance

Adaptiveness and Innovation in Earth System Governance

Am I the only one feeling that the must be better ways to share research insights than just sitting down passively, and listening to a long list of key note speakers at a conference? Just what I thought.

The Stockholm Resilience Centre now launches a web-log as part of a newly started collaboration with the Earth System Governance community and conference participants of the 2009 Amsterdam conference. The blog – which will be updated regularly until December – includes interviews with prominent scholars in the field of earth system science and governance. They will all elaborate different aspects of adaptiveness and innovation in an era of global environmental change. See it as a way to tap into the collective intelligence of different global change research communities.

The first topic is: “What is “Adaptiveness” – Really?” Listen to interviews with Frank Biermann (IVM, Netherlands), Louis Lebel (USER, Thailand) and Melissa Leach (STEPS, United Kingdom) as they explore this important concept with strong connections to resilience theory.

Are Epidemic Early Warnings, Really “Early” Warnings?

kapan-et-al-2006

Information technological innovations seem to have played quite an important role in detecting early warnings of the current “new flu”, “swine flu” or H1N1.  This topic is elaborated in today’s issue of New York Times. Apparently, WHO received the first warning already on April 10th through its web-crawler based monitoring system. This again proves the usefulness of mining unofficial data for monitoring.

One point missing in the debate however, is the fact that other emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) – such as avian influenza (H5N1), Ebola hemorrhagic fever, and West Nile viral encephalitis – emerge not only as the result of changes in host dynamics or in the pathogen. On the contrary, a range of underlying social- ecological changes such as land use change, deforestation and biodiversity loss seem to contribute to the rise of EIDs globally. Durell Kapan and colleagues article on the social-ecological dimensions of avian influenza is a nice synthesis of how land-use change contributes to increases in H5N1.

So, even if ICT innovations such as Google Flu or GPHIN provide the first signals of pending epidemic outbreaks, they are really not designed to capture changes in underlying social-ecological interactions that induce EIDs. For example, if you want to predict novel outbreaks of Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS) in Brazil, you might want to keep an eye on deforestation patterns and increases in sugarcane production. Or if you want to stay ahead of increasing risks of Ebola hemorrhagic fever outbreaks in Central West Africa, you might want to track coastal fish stock decrease in the region. These are known to increase “bush-meat” hunting and hence the risk of Ebola outbreaks.

The question is what to call such a system. If field epidemiologist Nathan Wolfe is doing early warning, maybe this approach should be called ecological “early-early warning”?

Should climate change research be 90 percent social science?

Nature’s Climate Feedback reports that Hans Joachim Schellnhuber in his talk at the Open Meeting of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP) urged social scientists to become more involved in climate change research:

“Speaking as a natural scientist,” he said, “I think 90% of research [on global change] will have to be done by the social scientists.”

…Physicists, he told me at the coffee break, can describe climate threats increasingly vividly and can tell decision-makers that technological solutions are out there. But it’s up to social science, he says, to figure out how we bring about massive economic and social transformation on a tight deadline.

Case in point: feeding solar power from the Sahara where it’s plentiful to Europe where it’s highly in demand, one of Schellnhuber’s favorite ideas. “All the technical problems have been solved,” he says, “but it cannot be done.” We don’t have the legal framework, the transboundary agreements, the international will for this mode of energy delivery.

This is where policy experts, economists, and even anthropologists come in. But, he says, “I don’t think the social science community has grasped the scope of the challenge.” Operating on the basic principle that all groups are different, 95% of social science papers are local case studies, not global-scale work, he says. And indeed, there are an awful lot of case studies among this week’s 800 talks. It remains to be seen whether the picture emerging from the conference will be piecemeal or planet-wide.