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The University of Southampton
Sustainability Science

Complex Social-Ecological Systems

This research group engages in research that can provide insight and understanding of complex social-ecological systems in order to improve the scientific basis for sustainable development.

Global environmental change is by nature a temporal phenomenon: elements of natural and human systems respond sequentially as key features of the social, economic, climate and ecological systems evolve.  The trajectory of such change is often difficult to predict because the interaction of a range of elements results in complex behaviour of the system as a whole: oscillations, changes of state and tipping points, and other non-linear responses.  These responses determine to some extent the status of qualities that are perceived to be desirable, such as ‘resilience' and ‘sustainability'.  In addition, societal responses may be governed by cultural and/or economic constraints that lead to ‘maladaptive' responses-or they may allow effective adaptive change.

Current Complex social-ecological systems research projects

Improved understanding of real world social-ecological systems is seen by many as one of the major challenges facing management of food supply, biodiversity and other ecosystem services across the world. Complexity theory - including variants like resilience theory - has pointed to the importance of utilizing mathematical concepts and models to better understand the nonlinear, emergent effects in such systems that lead to unpredictable changes such as critical transitions. Our aim is to take stock of how complexity theory may be applied to the real world situations. For more information please see the linking theory and reality webpages.

WUN group

The current project involves the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) group that met in Winchester in July 2011 to discuss the subject "Adapting to Climate Change: Ecosystem Services and People".

The group includes researchers and practitioners in different spheres who have shown an interest in how their particular systems of interest might be understood in terms of complexity, for example: LEDC subsistence village communities; extensive dryland farming systems; natural resource/natural areas management in biodiverse landscapes, and water resource management.

The workshop tackled these issues with the aim of creating a position paper and also of developing possible ideas for research proposals. The list below contains some more specific questions related to complexity approaches that you might wish to consider.


Perfect Storms

Other activities have considered the theoretical needs for coping with multi-decadal convergence of major global variables, like population, food and energy demands, and climate change: labelled a Perfect Storm by Sir John Beddington, UK Chief Scientist. The group has brought a number of ideas together in a recent publication in Environment Management (Dearing et al 2012).

Nosy Hara, Madagascar
Migrant Fisherman
Nakuru, Kenya
Gioboto Garbage Slum

Our societies are an integrated part of the biosphere and dependent upon functioning ecosystems. That is why we need to manage ecosystems so that we can handle the future's challenges and maintain our capacity to evolve in a positive way.

If we are to achieve our dream of sustainability, the time to act at scale is now, given the inertia in the socioeconomic system, and that the adverse effects of climate change and loss of biodiversity cannot be reversed for centuries or are irreversible (e.g., species loss). Failure to act will impoverish current and future generations.

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