2016 COMPLEX SYSTEMS SUMMER SCHOOL June 12- July 8, 2016 – Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA

The Complex Systems Summer School offers an intensive four week introduction to complex behavior in mathematical, physical, living, and social systems for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in the sciences and social sciences. The school is for participants who seek background and hands-on experience to help them prepare to conduct interdisciplinary research in areas related to complex systems.

More details available at http://santafe.edu/education/schools/complex-systems-summer-schools/2016-program-info/

Graduate students navigating social-ecological research: insights from the Long-Term Ecological Research Network

Very insightful and helpful paper for graduating students navigating social-ecological systems research, from a graduate student perspective! Hot off the press here: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol21/iss1/art7/

BY: Sydne Record , Paige F. B. Ferguson , Elise Benveniste , Rose A. Graves , Vera W. Pfeiffer , Michele Romolini,  Christie E. Yorke, Ben Beardmore 

Abstract: Interdisciplinary, collaborative research capable of capturing the feedbacks between biophysical and social systems can improve the capacity for sustainable environmental decision making. Networks of researchers provide unique opportunities to foster social-ecological inquiry. Although insights into interdisciplinary research have been discussed elsewhere, they rarely address the role of networks and often come from the perspectives of more senior scientists. We have provided graduate student perspectives on interdisciplinary degree paths from within the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network. Focusing on data from a survey of graduate students in the LTER Network and four self-identified successful graduate student research experiences, we examined the importance of funding, pedagogy, research design and development, communication, networking, and culture and attitude to students pursuing social-ecological research. Through sharing insights from successful graduate student approaches to social-ecological research within the LTER Network, we hope to facilitate dialogue between students, faculty, and networks to improve training for interdisciplinary scientists.


Invasive narratives

By Simon West

As inter-disciplinary scientists, how do we tell ‘catchy’ narratives about environmental change that stimulate policy action while also opening up for complex understandings?

A new paper in the journal Environmental Humanitieswritten with colleagues from the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory in Stockholm and the University of Cape Town, South Africa, explores this question in relation to so-called ‘invasive alien species.’

ABSTRACT Environmental narratives have become an increasingly important area of study in the environmental humanities. Rob Nixon has drawn attention to the difficulties of representing the complex processes of environmental change that inflict ‘slow violence’ on vulnerable human (and non-human) populations. Nixon argues that a lack of “arresting stories, images and symbols” reduces the visibility of gradual problems such as biodiversity loss, climate change and chemical pollution in cultural imaginations and on political agendas. We agree with Nixon that addressing this representational imbalance is an important mission for the environmental humanities. However, we argue that another aspect of the same imbalance, or representational bias, suggests the inverse of this is also needed—to unpack the ways that complicated and multifaceted environmental phenomena can be reduced to fast, simple, evocative, invasive narratives that percolate through science, legislation, policy and civic action, and to examine how these narratives can drown out rather than open up possibilities for novel social-ecological engagements. In this article we demonstrate the idea of invasive narratives through a case study of the ‘invasive alien species’ (IAS) narrative in South Africa. We suggest that IAS reduces complex webs of ecological, biological, economic, and cultural relations to a simple ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ battle between easily discernible ‘natural’ and ‘non- natural’ identities. We argue that this narrative obstructs the options available to citizens, land managers and policy-makers and prevents a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics and implications of biodiversity change, in South Africa and beyond.


Full paper available here.

How do we do what we do?

Place yourselves in uncomfortable situations. Such was the advice of Debra Roberts, one of the keynote speakers at the recent PECS conference in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Although I was inspired by her ideas, the conference also provided comfort, and I really appreciated the safe spaces where “young” scholars openly discussed how we do interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research.

How can young researchers do novel sustainability science that bridges different disciplines and engages societal actors in a meaningful way? How can we do this while still operating within conventional institutions and time constraints?

All of these questions were raised by early career scholars at the first conference organized by the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS), which took place between the 3rd and 5th of November. It gathered about 250 participants interested in the social-ecological dynamics of the Anthropocene and transitions towards sustainable stewardship. Instead of just presenting our research results, we could share the challenges we face and the strategies we have developed to deal with them.

At a SAPECS (the South African branch of PECS) learning event before the conference, Christo Fabricius facilitated a discussion with about 30 young scholars around how to engage stakeholders in a meaningful way in our research. A recurrent theme was the need to have time to connect with people outside academia, build relationships and build trust. Time to actually listen to the needs of communities. But the emphasis on time also brought up a challenge: how, during a PhD, can we find time to both engage in a meaningful way with stakeholders and write high-quality scientific papers?

During one of the coffee breaks, Karen Esler shared some of her experience on this topic with Jessica Cockburn:

As Karen mentions, one strategy to deal with this tension is to make transdisciplinary research a team effort and not an individual endeavour. Your own PhD research can be part of a bigger project that is already established, where some of that time-consuming trust-building has already been done. Another strategy is to connect with partners outside the university that can facilitate the participatory process.

From this discussion I’m more hopeful that there are ways to work this out in the current system. However, in the longer-term, I still think there is a need to question the major incentive for researchers to allocate most of their time to producing scientific publications.

At the “young” scholars session during the conference, organized by Jessica Cockburn, Vanessa Masterson, Odirilwe Selomane and Marika Haeggman, we had a chance to further reflect on our competencies and identity as place-based social-ecological systems researchers.

One of the participants, Megan Davies, highlighted the difference between going into a familiar vs. an unfamiliar context to do research. Megan and I  both do transdisciplinary research with a municipality in our vicinity, in South Africa and Sweden respectively. This facilitates our understanding of the system, the power dynamics and the culture, and could also decrease the time needed for trust-building and stakeholder mapping. On the other hand, researchers working in a familiar context could have more pre-assumptions, and it could be difficult to be critical when research “subjects” are also friends and collaborators.

For panelists Joana Carlos Bezerra and presenter Shauna Mahajan, doing research in communities far from home raised other issues, such as not speaking the language, having to use translators, and relying on key individuals to access a community. One of the presenters, Johan Enqvist, reflected on whether “objectivity” in this type of research is actually more about reflecting and questioning our values and assumptions. By being critical, for example, and exploring the potential adverse effects of initiatives that we think are good.


The ethical dilemmas we face in conducting transdisciplinary and place-based research was another important discussion point. By transdisciplinary research I refer to approaches that include multiple scientific disciplines (interdisciplinarity) and include the active input of practitioners from outside academia. Vanessa Masterson shared an interesting insight from her work in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, where she faced a dilemma in providing honest (critical) feedback to the community, which might jeopardize the relationship of trust she built with them during her research. How do we meet the expectations of the local communities we work with? Another panelist, Tom Chaigneau, proposed that instead of disseminating our findings, which are often complex, we could throw a party for the research participants!

For sure, there are no solutions that will fit all cases. Nevertheless, sharing our different experiences certainly provided new ideas and encouraged us to reflect on our roles as researchers. In the end, I think it is this reflection that will help us become better researchers. Here, I think this website has an important role to play. However, to strengthen and develop this reflectiveness and understanding of how to conduct inter- and transdisciplinary research, we also need to build institutional capacity. We need training for scholars early on in their PhDs, and we also need to create spaces and institutional cultures that encourage reflection.

New Paper: The power problematic: exploring the uncertain terrains of political ecology and the resilience framework

Authors: Micah Ingalls and Richard Stedman

Our colleagues from the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University, have just published their paper in Ecology and Society! The paper tackles the gaps between the resilience framework and political ecology with a focus on the power problematic.  Happy reading!

Follow this link to the full paper:


ABSTRACT. Significant and growing concerns relating to global social and environmental conditions and processes have raised deep questions relating to the ability of traditional governance regimes to manage for the complexities of social-ecological systems. The resilience framework provides a more dynamic approach to system analysis and management, emphasizing nonlinearity, feedbacks, and multiscalar engagement along the social-ecological nexus. In recent years, however, a number of scholars and practitioners have noted various insufficiencies in the formulation of the resilience framework, including its lack of engagement with the dimensions of power within social-ecological systems, which blunt the analytical potential of resilience and run the risk of undermining resilience based management objectives. In this analysis, we engage with this power problematic by drawing on key insights from the scholarly tradition of political ecology, suggesting that a more appreciative, thorough going engagement between resilience scholarship and political ecology may allow not only a deeper treatment of power within the resilience framework but also address several important critiques of political ecology itself. We explore the shared intellectual spaces of these traditions and suggest some ways in which a critical engagement between resilience and political ecology on the subject of power better informs our understanding of socio-political dynamics within complex systems. In closing, we train the critical light backward on political ecology to suggest that an appreciative engagement with the resilience framework may assist by reasserting a more serious treatment of ecology within political ecological analyses and support the formulation of more elegant, politically tractable counter narratives to address global environmental crises.

Key Words: political ecology; power; resilience; social-ecological systems

Measuring and assessing resilience: broadening understanding through multiple disciplinary perspectives

Allyson E Quinlan, Marta Berbés-BlázquezL. Jamila Haider and Garry D. Peterson


  1. Increased interest in managing resilience has led to efforts to develop standardized tools for assessments and quantitative measures. Resilience, however, as a property of complex adaptive systems, does not lend itself easily to measurement. Whereas assessment approaches tend to focus on deepening understanding of system dynamics, resilience measurement aims to capture and quantify resilience in a rigorous and repeatable way.
  2. We discuss the strengths, limitations and trade-offs involved in both assessing and measuring resilience, as well as the relationship between the two. We use a range of disciplinary perspectives to draw lessons on distilling complex concepts into useful metrics.
  3. Measuring and monitoring a narrow set of indicators or reducing resilience to a single unit of measurement may block the deeper understanding of system dynamics needed to apply resilience thinking and inform management actions.
  4. Synthesis and applications. Resilience assessment and measurement can be complementary. In both cases it is important that: (i) the approach aligns with how resilience is being defined, (ii) the application suits the specific context and (iii) understanding of system dynamics is increased. Ongoing efforts to measure resilience would benefit from the integration of key principles that have been identified for building resilience.

Read the paper here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1365-2664.12550/abstract

Or Access full pdf through research gate here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283703867_Measuring_and_assessing_resilience_Broadening_understanding_through_multiple_disciplinary_perspectives

Mapping social–ecological systems: Identifying ‘green-loop’ and ‘red-loop’ dynamics based on characteristic bundles of ecosystem service use

PhD student Maike Hamann’s (Stockholm Resilience Centre and CSIR, South Africa) exciting new publication!

Find the full paper here: http://www.sciencedirect.com.ezp.sub.su.se/science/article/pii/S0959378015300157


We present an approach to identify and map social–ecological systems based on the direct use of ecosystem services by households. This approach builds on the premise that characteristic bundles of ecosystem service use represent integrated expressions of different underlying social–ecological systems.

We test the approach in South Africa using national census data on the direct use of six provisioning services (freshwater from a natural source, firewood for cooking, firewood for heating, natural building materials, animal production, and crop production) at two different scales.

Based on a cluster analysis, we identify three distinct ecosystem service bundles that represent social–ecological systems characterized by low, medium and high levels of direct ecosystem service use among households. We argue that these correspond to ‘green-loop’, ‘transition’ and ‘red-loop’ systems as defined by Cumming et al. (2014).

When mapped, these systems form coherent spatial units that differ from systems identified by additive combinations of separate social and biophysical datasets, the most common method of mapping social–ecological systems to date.

The distribution of the systems we identified is mainly determined by social factors, such as household income, gender of the household head, and land tenure, and only partly determined by the supply of natural resources.

An understanding of the location and characteristic resource use dynamics of different social–ecological systems allows for policies to be better targeted at the particular sustainability challenges faced in different areas.

The practicalities of engaging with society in social-ecological research

Just before the first ever Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) conference this past November in Stellenbosch, SAPECS organised a pre-conference learning event for early career social-ecological systems researchers at STIAS; coordinated and facilitated by Christo Fabricius from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU). The topic of the event was “Participatory Action Research in Social-Ecological Systems”, and the focus was particularly on discussing the principles and practice of doing this research.

game play outside bigger website

Role playing game. Picture by My Sellberg

The format for the day was three 15 minute food-for-thought presentations, each followed by an hour of dialogues and discussions in break-out groups, with a role-playing game between the morning and afternoon sessions. First Maria Tengö, who works at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, presented on the importance and usefulness of multiple evidence and the role of these evidences in participatory action research. This was followed by Dirk Roux from South African National Parks presenting and stressing the need to create space that enables authentic engagement, so called ‘third spaces’. Franck de Saint Simon was invited as a practitioner to share his experiences and insights on engagement; he told stories about engagement processes for various projects in West Africa and stressed the importance of first understanding the context in which you are working.

game play outside web

Break discussions.  Picture by My Sellberg

The role playing game simulated a public participation meeting in a remote rural area, with ‘researchers’, ‘consultants’, ‘officials’, ‘a politician’ and ‘rural communities’ discussing the pros and cons of building a large dam. Role players came to realize that ‘the community’ consists of diverse interest groups and that there are no simple solutions to society’s challenges.  The discussions, which were loosely based on the ‘Knowledge Café’ approach, revolved around the challenges facing early career researchers related to time management, ethics, expectations created in the engagement process, stakeholder fatigue and the role of feedback to participants to build trust and credibility in research projects. Feedback and active listening motivated participants to respond truthfully without merely giving the ‘right’ answers that researchers want to hear.

The group discussed changes needed in our attitudes and approaches in order to improve outcomes of participatory research, and made practical suggestions such as funder flexibility, embedding students within long term process-based projects, the value of pilot studies to determine mutual interest between researchers and society, and clarity and honesty about intent. The event created space for lively discussions and possibilities to link up with other existing initiatives. The feedback received from participants was extremely positive, with many commenting on the value of pre-conference get-togethers to form new and lasting connections.

For some reflections on the event, check out this blog post by one of the participating PhD students from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, My Sellberg, or watch this YouTube video featuring Prof Karen Esler from Stellenbosch University and PhD student Jessica Cockburn from Rhodes University discussing the tensions of engaging in a meaningful way with stakeholders while also producing high-quality scientific papers.

The organising committee was made up of Christo Fabricius, Karen Esler, Linda Luvuno, Odirilwe Selomane, Vanessa Masterson, and Lisa Heider. The event was partly funded by SwedBio. We thank everyone for their support in making this another successful SAPECS learning event and look forward to more fun learning activities in the future!
This post was originally posted on the SAPECS website.

Beyond Divides: Prospects for Synergy Between Resilience and Pathways Approaches to Sustainability

In the context of rapid social, ecological and technological change,there is rising global demand from private, public and civic interests for trans-disciplinary sustainability research. This demand is fuelled by an increasing recognition that transitions toward sustainability require new modes of knowledge production that incorporate social and natural sciences and the humanities.

The STEPS Centre’s ‘pathways approach’ and the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s (SRC) ‘resilience approach’ are two distinct trans-disciplinary frameworks for understanding and responding to sustainability challenges. However, the varieties of trans-disciplinarity pursued by the SRC and STEPS each have distinct origins and implications. Therefore, by selecting either the ‘resilience’ or ‘pathways’ approach, or indeed any distinct approach to sustainability, the researcher must contend with a range of foundational ontological and epistemological commitments that profoundly affect the definition of problems, generation of knowledge and prescriptions for action. What does an (un)sustainable world look like? How might we ‘know’ and research (un)sustainability? How should sustainability researchers position themselves in relation to civil society, policy, business and academic communities?

In this paper we explore how resilience and pathways address these questions, identifying points of overlap and friction with the aim of generating new research questions and illuminating areas of potential synergy.

Read the full article, written by a group of young SES scholars, here.