All posts by Victor Galaz

Relaunch of Adaptiveness and Innovation Blog

Yes, we are relaunching! For a couple of months in 2009, the Stockholm Resilience Centre hosted a small conference blog for the Amsterdam 2009 Conference on Earth System Governance. We posted a number of phone and Skype-interviews with prominent scholars in the field of earth system science and governance, with the ambition to explore the role of governance, institutions, networks and organizations in building adaptive capacity, and supporting innovation in an era of global environmental change.

After a quite successful experimental phase, we now move into the relaunch phase. That means: more blogposts, more authors, and (hopefully) a larger audience. The writing team now consists of an interesting mix of scientists ranging from resilience science, development studies, and network theory, to transition and innovation research. See the blog here, and meet the new team here.

This short animated interview with myself, pretty much summarizes what we intend to do with this digital platform. Enjoy!

STEPS Book Launch: Science and Innovation for Development

The STEPS Centre (Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability, UK) just recently launched a book entitled “Science and Innovation for Development”. The STEPS Centre blog reports:

A large part of the book consists of reviews of different technologies relating to development. The reviews use the Millenium Development Goals as a starting point, and focus on agriculture, environment and health (with an unsurprising emphasis on scientific/technical aspects, given the authors’ backgrounds).

You can download individual chapters, or the whole book, here.

Special Issue Online: The Politics of Resilience

Does “resilience thinking” offer novel insights for social scientists such as political scientists, international relation scholars, lawyers and policy analysis experts? Or is it just a another ecological concept with little or no relevance for the social sciences? The topic is one of the most contested ones, as indicated by the popularity of a previous review of Hornborg’s critique of resilience theory posted a while ago. Here is another take on the issue.

In February 2009, we gathered a prominent group of social scientists in Stockholm, for a workshop to elaborate the implications of resilience theory for political science, law, and international relations. We also wanted to discuss its possible implications for critical global challenges such as environmental migration. Where lies the concepts strengths and weaknesses? Is it at all fruitful to talk about “social resilience”? And how do we get a better grip of the politics of learning, flexibility and multilevel governance in complex systems?

The result of these discussions are now available online in the special issue “Governance, Complexity and Resilience” for the journal Global Environmental Change. While the volume as a whole is still in production, a few of the articles are available online already. Just to give you a preview of its contents:

Dr. Koko Warner from the Institute for Environment and Human Security, examines the range of multiscale drivers that trigger environmentally induced migration, and elaborates a range of political and institutional implications. In her contribution, resilience thinking contributes to a wider understanding of the multilevel governance challenges facing policy-makers and a suite of organizations, in trying to deal with underlying social-ecological dynamics. The article is available here.

Prof. Jonas Ebbesson, law scholar from Stockholm University associated to the Stockholm Resilience Centre, elaborates the role of law in steering social-ecological systems. One interesting argument in the paper, is that while law often is viewed as static, and too rigid to rapidly changing circumstances, some aspects of legal thinking and the implementation of law also support aspects of resilience, such as openness and broad participation to cope with complexities and common risk. The article is available here.

Prof. Melissa Leach and colleagues from the STEPS Centre (UK), make a very timely contribution by looking closer at the politics of global epidemic preparedness and response. In their article, Leach and colleagues argue that resilience is inherently a matter of social framing by actors, especially when problems (such as emerging infectious disease) are driven by complex underlying social-ecological factors in contested social settings. The article is available here.

You can also find contributions from Prof. Susan Owens on the politics of learning [here], as well as from Prof. Oran Young and others at the journal’s webpage in the next few weeks.

In all, we hope that this volume is able to push the boundaries of resilience theory and thinking into new empirical and theoretical terrain. We look forward to hear what you think.

Satellites, Google and the Politics of CO2-Monitoring

As the international climate negotiations move into a more intense phase, one additional issue seems to contribute to the deadlock: CO2-monitoring. According to the New York Times (14th December 2009), China “is refusing to accept any kind of international monitoring of its emissions levels”. As a result, the United States is insisting that “without a stringent verification of China’s actions, it cannot support any deal”.

Obviously, any failure to agree on appropriate monitoring mechanisms during COP-15, is likely to have serious repercussions not only for the post-Kyoto agreement in general, but also for the effectiveness of carbon markets, and other reduction mechanisms such as REDD. Luckily, there seems to be a few reasons for optimism, at least in the longer perspective.

Tom Downing at Stockholm Environment Institute-Oxford reports via Twitter, on an initiative launched in collaboration with Internet giant Google, the Carnegie Institute for Science, and Imazon. As Google reports through its official blog, it is now possible to not only view deforestation in Google Earth, but also analyze raw satellite data and “extract extract meaningful information about the world’s forests, such as locations and measurements of deforestation or even regeneration of a forest”.

Orbiting Carbon Observatory

Orbiting Carbon Observatory

What’s more, additional improvements of satellite data seem to be in the pipeline. Despite the failed launch attempt of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) plummeting into the ocean near Antarctica in end of February 2009, there seems to be wide agreement that a new satellite could drastically change the CO2 monitoring game. Hence not only would it be possible to track and analyze deforestation, but also measure its true CO2 impacts, in addition to the emissions from “large local sources, such as cities and power plants”.

On a similar optimistic note, Wired Science reports that a team of U.S. Geological Survey scientists have developed a web service that combines seismic data about an earthquake, with Tweets from the popular microblogging service’s users.


Quaketweets (from Wired Science)

This sort of collaborations between science, and the massive data and technology capacities of major ICT actors, can drastically improve the sort of monitoring systems needed to underpin international environmental agreements.

The question is of course: who will be the first to design similar systems to track surprising ecosystem change in for example marine ecosystems, agricultural landscapes, or urban ecological contexts?

You say “transitions”, I say “transformation”…

The need to support transitions, or transformations, towards sustainability has become one of the hottest topics amongst sustainability scientists the last years. A range of theoretical approaches deal with different aspects of transformational system change, including scholars of “transition management” and “resilience theory”. These communities have worked separately for decades, but seem too be converging. But, what is the difference between “transitions” and “transformations”? Really?

Listen to Dr. Derk Loorbach from the Dutch Research Institute for Transitions (Drift, Erasmus University Rotterdam), as he explores what he sees as the main similarities and differences between the two schools. Listen also to Dr. Per Olsson at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (Stockholm University), as he responds to Derk’s observations at the Adaptiveness and Innovation in Earth System Governance Blog.

Interview with Dr Derk Loorbach [external link]. What is “transition management”, and how is that different from “transformations”? And which policy interventions support transitions?

Interview with Per Olsson by Eric Paglia at Think Globally Radio. What is a “transformation” in a social-ecological system? How is it different from “transition management” approaches? And how can transformations be supported?

Why You Don’t Need an iPhone

Old School Cell PhoneWired Science reported on a project  a while ago, based on innovative ecological crowd-sourcing in New York. The idea was quite simple. “Participants in the NYC Cricket Crawl will go out between dusk and midnight to record cricket calls for one minute, and then immediately send their results and location to the scientists by cellphone. The researchers are hoping to find evidence that the Common True Katydid, once plentiful in New York City but now rare, is still thriving in some regions of the city.” Quite innovative approach if you ask me, and the results are now up on their website.

But actually, many of the most innovative uses of information and communication technologies does not at all require fancy (and expensive) mobile technologies such as sound-recording iPhones. The Economist‘s September issue features the role of simple cell-phones in emerging markets. The most interesting examples are from Kerala (India) and Niger. In the first case, the spread of cellphones seems to have increased fishermen’s profit by 8%. The reason was that fishermen ”could call several markets while still at sea before deciding where to sell”. In Niger, increased mobile-phone coverage seems to have reduced price variation for grain, between local markets. As the Economist reports ”during a spike in food prices in 2005 grain was 4,5 % cheaper in markets with mobile coverage”. You can find a beautiful documentary of the societal impacts of increased use of mobile phones in Africa here.

A range of additional example of smart uses of quite simple communication technologies, such as SMS-messages and e-mail-lists – can be found in the health community. The moderated e-mail list ProMED has become a fundamental tool for rapid dissemination of information during health contingencies. Bangladesh as an additional example, is conducting active Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza surveillance through an Short Message Service (SMS) gateway to collect data and report on disease and death in poultry. Since October 2008, 21 HPAI outbreaks out of a total of 35 have been detected through this active surveillance programme.

Simple technologies, big impacts. Even in an era of rapid information technological change, less is more.

On Innovation

80's icon McGyver, probably the most well-known innovator ever.

80's icon McGyver, probably the most well-known innovator. Ever.

Why is everybody suddenly talking about innovation? For example, only 4 articles on the topics “sustainability” and “innovation” where published in 1997. Ten years later, the figure is 100 (Source: Social Science Citation Index). But what is ‘innovation’ really, and why does it matter? In this recent blog post, you can listen to Resilience Alliance member Frances Westley, as she explores the role of social innovation. You can also listen to Rebecca Hanlin (Open University, UK) as she elaborates the need for innovations in health. Political scientist Jan-Peter Voss (CTS, Berlin) explains in a Skype-interview, how innovations cascade across levels in governance. Enjoy!

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.

Machine Fetishism, Money and Resilience Theory

Here comes the “resilience backlash”. After some considerable praising of resilience theory the last years – for example by Fast Company, Foreign Policy, and the Volvo Environment Award – human ecologist Alf Hornborg from Lund (Sweden), elaborates some harsh criticism in a forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Comparative Sociology. Although the article is almost impossible to summarize in a brief way – as it includes topics ranging from unequal exchange in the world system, “machine fetishism”, to the limitations of organizational learning – this quote captures the main criticism:

“In order to remain within acceptable discursive territory, politicians and researchers alike are expected to assume a profoundly critical stance vis-à-vis current patterns of consumption, transports, and energy use, yet continue to offer pathways to sustainability that do not seem too uncomfortable or provocative. This explains why the rallying-cry of the early 21st century is not ‘revolution’ (as in the early 20th century), but ‘resilience’.”

The key argument running throughout the paper is related to one of the weak spots of resilience theory: asymmetrical distribution of resources and power in social systems.

As a social scientist, I share Hornborg’s concern that resilience theory has been poor in elaborating the power dynamics of social-ecological change. On the other hand, Hornborg misses a range of issues that provide a much more balanced picture of what resilience is intended – and not intended – to do. Here are four quick points:

1. We know it

Yes Alf, “power” – however we choose to define it – has been problematic to integrate within the framework of social-ecological systems. On the other hand, resilience scholars are well aware of the problem, and some attempts have been made already. Elinor Ostrom – one of the most influential social science thinkers in the resilience community, but not at all mentioned in Hornborg’s article – has written extensively on the role of local collective action, institutions, and good governance. Her work does not explicitly deal with “power” as I assume that Hornborg would define it, but it does unpack the features of collective decision-making, how centralized policies often fail to deliver sustainable results, as well as the need for multilevel, nested institutions to deal with rapid market change and stresses. The wording might be different, but the main message is the same: communities and ecosystems are under severe pressure from globalized markets, and the impacts tend to affect the poorest the most. So, no disagreement there I assume.

2. We are getting there

There is a wide spread notion that resilience theory is advanced by ecologists trying to apply ecological theory on social systems (e.g. Hornborg pp. 253). This is not the case. In fact, there are a range of interesting attempts to integrate insights from complex systems theory, with social theory and ecology. Stephan Barthel’s work on social-ecological memory, as well as Henrik Ernstson’s work on the dynamics of power in social networks in urban ecology, are two great examples of how social theory is being integrated with resilience insights. Personally, I’m coordinating the collaboration with the Earth System Governance Project – an international research network that explores the role of agency, accountability, access, allocation, and adaptiveness in global environmental governance. Topics here include the possible creation of a “World Environment Organization”; the severe “trust-gap” between developed and developing countries in climate negotiations: and the international systems inability to create a legal framework to strengthen the security of environmentally induced migrants (e.g. “climate refugees”). It doesn’t get more political than this.

3. Resilience is not a theory about everything…

But sure, resilience scholars could maybe do more. On the other hand, there is a trade-off here. “Resilience” is – just like any other scientific theory – not a theory about everything. In my view, it is a theory of change in complex social-ecological systems, and a way to understand a range of novel institutional and political challenges.

4. … but it provides a range of interesting insights

And to wrap up: I’m not sure whether the suggestion that “the only way of achieving ‘sustainability’ would be by transforming the very idea and institution of money itself” (Hornborg pp. 257), is the way to go. It might be a matter of problem framings and political taste really, but I prefer the combination of practical, but disruptive social-ecological innovations that enhance human security in an ecological literate way. Might sound like an impossibility, but Chris Reij’s work in Niger and Burkina Faso, Elin Enfors’ and Line Gordon’s work on small-scale water innovations in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the World Resources Institute  report “Roots of Resilience”, comes to mind.

The social sciences doubtlessly have a critical role to play for resilience thinking. But I’m not sure whether Hornborg really elaborates this role in an interesting, constructive and creative way.

Are Epidemic Early Warnings, Really “Early” Warnings?


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”?