Operationalising resilience thinking and requisite simplicities

EDG at the 3rd international Resilience Conference

By investing in the capacity of people to better connect with and manage the GBR, through operations such as ecotourism, the GBR will continue to provide essential ecosystem goods and services. (Photo by Duan Biggs)

By investing in the capacity of people to better connect with and manage the GBR, through operations such as ecotourism, the GBR will continue to provide essential ecosystem goods and services. (Photo by Duan Biggs)

There is a growing emphasis on integrating resilience thinking into conservation planning and decision-making. Framed from a resilience perspective, conservation interventions aim to manage ecosystems to limit the risk of crossing dangerous thresholds into degraded and less desirable ecosystem states. Conservation interventions from a resilience perspective therefore aim to retain ecosystem functions that are important for sustaining biodiversity (eg, number of species and habitats protected). Despite conceptual advances in the literature, challenges remain in the application of resilience to both conservation science and practice.

These challenges motivated us to propose a session at the 3rd International Resilience Conference in Montpellier, France (in May 2014) where we discussed ways in which research can advance the practice of maintaining and creating resilient ecosystems and societies. Our session was run off-site at the Camargue – one of Europe’s most important wetlands (in terms of its history, culture and ecology). During our session we heard presentations from numerous CEED members including Duan Biggs, Angela Guerrero and Morena Mills from the UQ node, and Rachel Standish from the UWA node. Elizabeth Kington from the Wheatbelt NRM group in Western Australia (who works closely with Richard Hobbs and Rachel Standish) presented her views from a practitioner’s perspective.

A central theme through our deliberations is that there are no panaceas or silver bullets for achieving resilience across ecosystems. The task of achieving conservation outcomes is usually highly context specific. This in itself is not a new insight. However, Dirk Roux from South African National Parks (SANParks) shared how their adoption of adaptive management has helped them embrace complexity within important parts of this conservation agency (Roux & Foxcroft 2011). An overview of their learning process can be found in a special issue of the open-access journal Koedoe. A lesson emerging from the SANParks experience is that ‘requisite simplicities’ can help to negotiate complex problems.

A requisite-simplicity approach discards some of the complicating details about a problem to bring a fresh perspective and achieve a more holistic understanding of the key components at play (Stirzaker et al., 2010). In essence, getting to a requisite simplicity means standing back and ignoring details that may shroud the key elements. It enables the generation of a fresh social-ecological perspective that allows critical triggers to be identified. In this way, requisite simplicities require an understanding of ecological thresholds of resilience but are nested within the broader context of social-ecological systems. Importantly, formulating a requisite simplicity does not mean there is a simple answer to a complex problem. Rather, it propose that discarding some detail might reveal new clarity and understanding, enable decisions and actions, and provide opportunities for structured learning. The talks in our session touched upon requisite simplicities and the need to develop them to more successfully operationalize resilience for conservation in a number of ways.

Consider this example. The relationship between the ecological resilience of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) and the social resilience and well-being of people on the adjacent coastline is a hot topic in Australia. Nadine Marshall from CSIRO presented her work on this topic. We could go into considerable detail to understand how socially resilient communities such as those in Cairns are vulnerable to a decline in reef condition that may lead to a drop in tourism. This could get us lost in very complicated ecological and socio-economic surveys and modelling exercises. We may conclude that communities in the GBR should develop alternative income streams to those based on the GBR. This would enable communities to adapt to the declining reef condition, thereby increasing their resilience . However this conclusion may not help us to enhance the conservation and resilience of the reef itself.

Nadine’s suggested requisite simplicity is that we should acknowledge that people are part of the GBR and that the GBR is an important part of the cultural identity, pride, and lifestyle of many Queenslanders. By investing in the capacity of people to better connect with and manage the GBR, the GBR will continue to provide essential goods and services. That is, instead of promoting alternative activities to those based on the reef (and increase social resilience), we could support and promote the focus on the reef and society’s connection to it, and in doing so, increase the resilience of the social-ecological system of the Great Barrier Reef. Applying this fresh perspective means that we would, for example, try and work out how to strengthen the resilience of reef tourism operators to potential downturns in tourism, so that these businesses can stay active on the reef and become involved in its conservation (see Decision Point #66).

Morena Mills presented her PhD research on the application of Eleanor Ostrom’s framework on social-ecological systems to identify social characteristics that influence feasibility of conservation management actions in the Solomon islands (see Decision Point #75). The framework aims to bring a common language to research on social-ecological systems, and through its tiered structure, helps to simplify and standardize such research. Based on previous research and management efforts, Morena created a social-ecological systems framework to describe the Solomon Islands. One of Morena’s conclusions was that it may not be an effective use of resources to conduct detailed social surveys in all the places where conservation plans and actions need to be implemented. Instead, understanding the main drivers of participation in conservation management is crucial. Requisite simplicities for identifying the likelihood and social feasibility of participation is required.

In searching for these requisite simplicities, we need to accept that we will make mistakes and that defining, refining and adapting these simplicities to achieving resilience as part of conservation outcomes will be a process of adaptive learning. What our session concluded was that we need to focus more explicitly on identifying these requisite simplicities, and actively use and adapt them in our research and management actions. In doing so, we re-emphasize the relevance of the now-customary mantra ‘resilience of what, to what, and for whom’. In this way, more progress on operationalizing resilience for conservation may be possible.

More info: Duan Biggs d.biggs@uq.edu.au 


Roux DJ & LC Foxcroft (2011). The development and application of strategic adaptive management within South African National Parks. Koedoe 53(2), Art. #1049, 5 pages. Available at http://www.koedoe.co.za/index.php/koedoe/article/view/1049/1216 

Stirzaker R, H Biggs, D Roux & P Cilliers (2010). Requisite Simplicities to Help Negotiate Complex Problems. Ambio 39: 600-607.

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