Complexity in social-ecological systems
CSIRO scientists are seeking to understand the interdependencies between people and the Earth’s ecosystems - a key component in determining pathways for long-term ecological and societal resilience and the sustainability of the earth’s resources.
22 January 2008 | Updated 14 October 2011
CSIRO scientists are developing and using new analytical techniques in Complex Systems Science (CSS) to reshape our understanding of the way social-ecological systems function, including phenomena like societal and environmental resilience and collapse.
This important research is being undertaken at the interface between:
What are complex social-ecological systems and what is Complex Systems Science?
Social-ecological systems involve the interaction between humans and the bio-physical world.
These are also examples of complex systems - large aggregations of many smaller interacting parts.
Two properties set a complex system apart from one that is merely complicated:
Emergence is the appearance of behaviour that could not be anticipated from knowledge of the parts of the system alone.
Much of the unpredictable behaviour observed in real world situations is a function of the complex systems operating around us.
Farm viability is an emergent property of a complex network of social, environmental and economic interactions.
Booms and busts in stock prices are emergent features of the interactions between individual investors in the market.
Complicated artefacts like motor cars or power plants also have emergent features in this sense so a further property is needed to distinguish complex systems.
This is self-organisation.
This means that there is no external controller or planner engineering the appearance of these emergent features. They appear spontaneously.
Further examples of complex emergent behaviour in social-ecological systems include:
The challenge of understanding and predicting complex system behaviour has risen in importance with the realisation that much of the unpredictable behaviour observed in real world situations is a function of the complex systems operating around us.
To improve our understanding of complex system behaviour, scientists have developed mathematical techniques based on computer models of these systems, to help think about them in new ways.
These models are revealing and explaining a range of emergent system behaviours and providing a deeper understanding of entire systems and their responses, with often surprising and unexpected results.
CSIRO social-ecological complex systems scientists are exploring topics including:
the impact of social, economic and environmental factors on resilience and sustainability of farming systems at both farm and regional scales and under alternative land management practices
the role of friendship, family and affiliation networks in the adoption of innovative ideas, technologies and sustainable management practices
the relationship between trust networks among farmers, natural resource heterogeneity, social capital and the environmental condition of the land
incorporating human decision making behaviour into climate change models
trust networks between fishermen, how these impact upon fishing stocks and how they can be used by marine researchers in the design of marine protected areas
optimising renewable energy production markets for both profitability and sustainability
modelling the national electricity market with realistic behaviour of the players in the market.
Find out about the CSIRO Centre for Complex Systems Science.