Complexity, Modeling & Natural Resource Management

With the publication of our article on Complexity, Modeling & Natural Resource Management in the Ecology & Society journal, a process that started in 2011 has finally been concluded.  As mentioned in a previous post, I was one of two complexity practitioners who co-authored two academic papers with some of the leading academic thinkers in SA.

This is the lead paper for a special journal series, and finally seeing it published online, with my name in the list of authors is exciting and bittersweet at the same time.  While we were finalising the article, the lead author, Prof Paul Cilliers, who was a world-renowned academic thinker in Complexity passed away suddenly.  Knowing that I was part of one of the last pieces of writing he produced is truly a privilege.

This was one of the first collaborations of its kind (that I’m aware of) where scientists from very different fields (including Philosophy, Biochemistry & Aquatic sciences) co-authored a paper on Complexity with non-academic practitioners.  We really lived one of the key principles we describe in the paper: Harnessing Diversity.

We tried to combine theory with practical case studies, and hopefully, we’ve succeeded in making complexity thinking a little more accessible to non-academic decision-makers in Natural Resource Management.

You can find the full article here

I would love to hear your thoughts!


This paper contends that natural resource management (NRM) issues are, by their very nature, complex and that both scientists and managers in this broad field will benefit from a theoretical understanding of complex systems. It starts off by presenting the core features of a view of complexity that not only deals with the limits to our understanding but also points toward a responsible and motivating position. Everything we do involves explicit or implicit modeling, and as we can never have comprehensive access to any complex system, we need to be aware both of what we leave out as we model and of the implications of the choice of our modeling framework. One vantage point is never sufficient, as complexity necessarily implies that multiple (independent) conceptualizations are needed to engage the system adequately. We use two South African cases as examples of complex systems—restricting the case narratives mainly to the biophysical domain associated with NRM issues—that make the point that even the behavior of the biophysical subsystems themselves are already complex. From the insights into complex systems discussed in the first part of the paper and the lessons emerging from the way these cases have been dealt with in reality, we extract five interrelated generic principles for practicing science and management in complex NRM environments. These principles are then further elucidated using four further South African case studies—organized as two contrasting pairs—and now focusing on the more difficult organizational and social side, comparing the human organizational endeavors in managing such systems.

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