Managing Complexity

21st October, 2013

Richard Sheane

This year’s Biosymposium at the University of Oxford Biodiversity Institute was on the topic of ‘Biodiversity Resilience’. The conference provided a fascinating glimpse into the latest research on how socio-ecological systems bounce back from disturbance and avoid ‘tipping points’.

This developing field of science should be of interest to the business world on two levels: firstly supply chains ultimately depend on the continued functioning of ecological systems for the provision of renewable raw materials. Secondly – I believe that the identification of key principles and characteristics of resilient ecosystems should provide insights to the managers of man-made supply chain ‘ecosystems’. Something my colleague Tom refers to as ‘commercial-ecological systems’.

Fisheries and forests are two commercial-ecological systems that are harvested by man – often unsustainably. Unsurprisingly they were the topic of many presentations at the biosymposium.

Philipp Neubauer, a fisheries scientist from New Zealand, started off his talk by explaining that the most common question he is asked by policy makers is “how bad is it really?” His stark response was “very bad”: most places in the oceans are highly or very highly impacted (Halpern 2008), with hotspots around the China Sea and Northern Europe. He likened modern industrialised trawling to the worst of modern industrial agriculture: immense scale, crudely delivered.

But there was some good news: His research into measuring the resilience of fish populations to over-exploitation has found that fish stocks and communities are surprisingly resilient if fished responsibly. However there is a need for policy to enable this (and I would argue voluntary certification programmes). One of his key messages was that fisheries management needs to be robust and responsive to changes in dynamic life histories of fish populations. In short: age matters.

Another sensitive habitat where commercial supply chains intersect most notably with ‘natural’ ecosystems is forests. Lydia Cole of the University of Oxford has been examining the fundamental question: how fast can they recover from disturbance? To establish this she has used long time series data stretching back thousands of years. Her work has suggested it takes much longer than previously thought: more than 200 years (although this is highly variable between regions). Most interestingly, she identified that Asian forests have the slowest recovery rate – a concern given that this is a key area for palm and timber-driven deforestation. The sensitivity of Asian ecosystems was identified independently by three speakers– and given the region’s likely exposure to a significant growth in population and resource consumption, this suggests it should be the focus of global sustainability efforts for the foreseeable future.

For Cole, understanding past disturbances is important for identifying future management and describing what characteristics make forests more resilient. The variable that seemed to be of most importance was the frequency of disturbance: more events per 1000 years means that recovery rate increases. Her theory is that for resilience to build up in tropical forests you need frequent events to inform the “ecological memory” and enable ecosystem adaptation.

Finally, Ehsan Dulloo of Biodiversity International explored resilience in agrobiodiversity. His work has focused on the resilience benefits accrued from having genetic diversity in crops. For Dulloo, genetic diversity increases the ability for food systems to adapt and transform in face of global changes and shocks. In short, it increases optionality. A characteristic promoted by other researchers (e.g. Nassim Taleb in Antifragile). Dulloo sees genetic diversity as an alternative approach to genetic modification: Local drought and salt resilient varieties have evolved in situ so can we deploy them to other places experiencing increases in these key environmental variables?

These few examples exemplify well what resilience science has to offer the business world: insights into how to manage complex systems. This is essentially the challenge facing us and is substantially different to the dominant scientific approaches in ‘sustainability’, which I think has become obsessed with ever more complex ways of measuring and apportioning impacts (e.g. life cycle assessment). We will return to this topic in future posts.

This developing field of science should be of interest to the business world on two levels: firstly supply chains ultimately depend on the continued functioning of ecological systems for the provision of renewable raw materials. Secondly – I believe that the identification of key principles and characteristics of resilient ecosystems should provide insights to the managers of man-made supply chain ‘ecosystems’.