Where to go Now? : Reflections Pt 13

I was surprised and delighted to learn during this year, 2006, that several organizations have recently been established with resilience as one of their primary themes. The most recent is a new Center on Resilience and Sustainability for Social/Ecological Systems in Sweden. It has just been formed by Stockholm University, the Beijer Institute and the Stockholm Environment Institute. It joins three other centers that have been recently established with resilience as their focus– for Centre for Coral Reef Biodiversity in Australia, for Climate Change at the Tyndall Centre, UK and, more loosely, for Parks, Ecosystems and People in South Africa.

All have indicated programs for collaboration among the groups, and other members of the Resilience Alliance itself. That is all a very new acceleration of work on both the theories and practices of resilience. They are extraordinarily appropriate places for launching novel experiments, novel knowledge and novel actions at this time of international turmoil. They provide places that beautifully stimulate novelty and excellence across disciplines in a flexible atmosphere where discussion and debate periodically pace deep deliberative enquiry. The Internet can play a big role that creates an international place for such enquiries and debates. They are outstanding examples of the creation of integrative support for fundamental interdisciplinary study.

I started this paper with a good news report and a bad news one about events I now see locally, nationally and internationally.

Essentially I have learned that at such times I certainly do not try to solve the problems of the rigid or the collapsing system. Instead, I initiate a variety of experiments, mobilize my understanding, develop experiments, models and tests, and wait for an opportunity to emerge that might use the results. In our variety of regional studies that always happened. At that time a menu of possibilities then exist for renewing the system. And we hope that happens globally as well.

No one at this time of deep change should define the profile for the research that will grab the emerging systems in the world. Instead, it is precisely the time to ask what interests you? It is the time where individuals can have the greatest effect.

So, in closing, here is what interests me, one individual, now.

Social Traps: I’d sure like to learn more about different societal traps and why some are irreversible. We guessed at two in the Panarchy book’s third chapter. One was a “poverty trap” where a society flips out of an adaptive cycle at a large political scale in a way that progressively triggers similar collapses at ever-smaller scales. Structure (organizations and institutions) is destroyed in the process, leaving the society finally as independent families separately struggling for survival, having lost their portion of the society’s capital. Learning and self-help is minimal. We also posited a “rigidity trap”, where wealth was great, resilience high and internal connectedness strong. That is the kind of hierarchist trap that freezes the adaptive cycle by ejecting dissidents and minimizing learning. I think of the fundamentalist religions as examples- dangerous examples. I know the healthy state for a society is one where there is a nested set of adaptive cycles; continually testing changed circumstances and adapting to them. But they can slip out of that sustaining state, into traps. Some of those traps are essentially irreversible. We need to learn more about them. We need more examples that demonstrate them. And we need to learn ways that can lead to ways out of them.

Social Adaptive Cycles: I’d also like to discover where and why some social systems- public organizations, private firms, regions, nations, international consortia- are much slower than ecosystems to break creatively and seem so much slower to transform into new structures with new opportunities. That often seemed to be the case for our case studies of regional public and political organizations, at least, where a market does not force change. And for national and international assemblages, think of the anthropological and modern examples- anarchy and the first World War, the Marshall Plan and its incredible success in facilitating recovery in Europe, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, which had mixed results we are still living with. Panarchy, resilience and the connections of memory and revolt between scales provide a new focus for this old question.

Living on the Edge:
I am very interested to see tests that show whether cities, organizations and economies on the edge of social/economic/ecological lumps, have the same features of living on the edge of crisis and opportunity as do animals living on the edge of their body mass lumps. That is where the dynamic nature of panarchies starts to provide insights into constraints and opportunities for changes and transformations that can ride the natural forces.

A Panarchy Game: I would love to see collaboration between those who have developed panarchy thinking and those who are developing certain kinds of games. Will Wright, the creator of SimCity and the Sims, was an early one, and now has efforts that capture abilities to zoom in to the small and out to the large or into the fast and out to the slow [Spore]. These are the games of the “Long Zoom and the Long Now” that are emerging independent of the kind or research that led to Panarchy. But it is driven by the same goals, the same fun, and the same intensity. The two need to be joined for a bump in innovation.

Globalizing Experiments: I’d also like to see more experiments on the Web and the internet, some in conjunction with occasional face to face meetings, some designing new ways to present educational programs, some using novel ways to display complex data or policies simply, some providing new ways to present and explore information, like Goggle Earth, some developing interactive games for regional and global social and ecosystemic designs, some presenting more Blogs, debates and discussions, some that use movies that express dynamic changes in an intelligible manner. We have done some of that- most notably by Garry Peterson for his Young Scholars Dialogues in Ecology and Society and this blog – Resilience Science. We need more.

Self-organization Combining with Evolution: I’d like to support studies that explore how the link between self-organization of entities at different scales in the Panarchy link with natural selection to affect the speed and scale of evolutionary change. I believe that self-organization and natural selection jointly flourish and interact as a new way to view evolution, opening up another fruitful landscape for enquiry and theoretical development. In the sciences of biological evolution, that combination can often be viewed as either an obscure or an excessive representation! But it is suggestive and provocative, and that has particular value at times of deep change. It again opens a new landscape of thought for investigation and action from local, to regional to global scales. That is a big journey from its start, over 40 years ago, when I was immersed in lovely experiments of deep enquiry about praying mantids!

To conclude, I argue that we preeminently need novel integrative work. Specifically, novel work that integrates the economic and social with ecosystemically driven understanding. Multi-scale, searching for the relatively simple features of complex systems. Fundamentally non-linear. A testing of a range of methods and a disbelief in any of them. A wedding of theory, empirical examples and application. An emphasis on a search for generality, which needs cooperative works with others expert in other fields, but ones who share the curiosity and fun of mutual discovery. That is much more valuable, now, in this time of political turbulence and transformation in the world, than new policies and new planning exercises. They are too early, and too dangerous in their reliance on successes that worked for past problems. We now live in too new a world.

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