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Seven Policy-Relevant Principles for Resilient Ecosystem Services


Seven has often been regarded as a magical number. Just think of the Seven Wonders of the World, the seven seas, the seven ages of man, and the number of days of the week. Now a recent article in Annual Review of Environment and Resources adds seven policy-relevant principles for enhancing resilience of ecosystem services to the list.

All authors of the article are members of the Resilience Alliance Young Scientists (RAYS) network, and a number of centre researchers have been involved, including lead authors Oonsie Biggs and Maja Schlüter, as well as Tim Daw and Lisen Schultz.

The article identifies what it takes to strengthen the resilience of ecosystem services that underpin human well-being — that is, to maintain the capacity of social-ecological systems to continue delivering a desired set of ecosystem services in the face of disturbance and change.
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"Although a definitive set of principles for enhancing the resilience of social-ecological systems and the ecosystem services they produce does not yet exist, our review suggests that there is sufficient knowledge to come up with a preliminary list of principles to provide practical guidance," Oonsie Biggs says.

Principles to be refined
In the study, resilience of ecosystem services is defined as the capacity of social-ecological systems to sustain a desired set of ecosystem services in the face of disturbance and on-going change.

By reviewing literature, the young resilience scholars have identified the following seven general principles for enhancing the resilience of desired ecosystem services:

1. Maintain diversity and redundancy
2. Manage connectivity
3. Manage slow variables and feedbacks
4. Foster and understanding of social-ecological systems as complex adaptive systems
5. Encourage learning and experimentation
6. Broaden participation
7. Promote polycentric governance systems.

The authors are, however, carefully stating that these principles should not be viewed as universally beneficial.

"They all require a nuanced understanding of how, when, and where they apply, as well as how they interact with or depend on other principles", co-author Maja Schlüter explains.

Ostrom was right
The review supports the conclusions of political scientist and Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom that there is no panacea for environmental governance. They also make clear that they do not present a definitive set of principles, but rather hope that their attempt will stimulate further discussion and refinement.

The first principle, maintenance of diversity, is important to provide options for responding to disturbance and change. Above all, a combination of response diversity and functional redundancy is central in maintaining resilient ecosystem services. It is also crucial to consider that very high levels of diversity or redundancy tend can be more of a cost than a benefit, since increasing complexity and inefficiency tends to reduce capacity for adaptation to slower, ongoing change.

Connections between, and trade-offs amongst diversity, redundancy and resilience as a field of future research, as well as impacts of social and economic diversity and redundancy, are less well understood.
In management of connectivity (principle 2) the effect on resilience depends on the linkages between nodes. It may also play an important part in providing new information and building trust in social networks. Sometimes, connectivity can also be too high, and lead to for instance the spreading of a local disturbance throughout the system, or in a social setting, lead to knowledge becoming overly homogenized.

In terms of managing slow variables and feedbacks (3), stabilizing feedbacks in a system can help maintain a particular social-ecological regime and associated ecosystem services in the face of external stresses such as climate change.

The fourth principle, to foster an understanding of SES as complex adaptive systems (CAS) may increase the resilience of ecosystem services by emphasizing the need for and importance of integrated approaches, continual learning and pervasiveness of uncertainty that comes with managing SES.

Promoting polycentricity is the last and seventh principle. It is described as an overarching principle that can provide a governance structure that enables the other key principles, especially learning and experimentation (5), participation (6), modularity (2) and redundancy (1). Coordinating units in governance, negotiating trade-offs between users as well as social capital and trust are essential for polycentric arrangements.

Highly interdependent
In practice the principles often co-occur and are highly interdependent.

"Applying any one principle in isolation will rarely lead to enhanced resilience of ecosystem services. For instance, polycentric governance and effective learning both depend on the social capital and trust developed through participation", Biggs says.
She stresses the importance of understanding how the principles can be applied in collaboration with key stakeholders and the need to develop better measures to evaluate success.
"A better understanding of how to operationalize and apply the principles in different contexts is needed, particularly understanding how the principles can be applied in collaboration with key stakeholders, and developing better measures to evaluate success," Biggs and her colleagues conclude.

Image: O. Henriksson/Azote