Category Robustness

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Journal Articles

Beyond tipping points: exploring non-linear transition pathways of social-ecological systems

Matthias, J.D., J.M. Anderies, J. Baggio, J. Hodbod, S. Huet, M.A. Janssen, M. Milkoreit and M.L. Schoon

2020 Scientific Reports 10, 4136.


Tipping point dynamics are fundamental drivers for sustainable transition pathways of social-ecological systems (SES). Current research predominantly analyzes how crossing tipping points causes regime shifts, however, the analysis of potential transition pathways from these social and ecological tipping points is often overlooked. In this paper, we analyze transition pathways and the potential outcomes that these may lead to via a stylized model of a system composed of interacting agents exploiting resources and, by extension, the overall ecosystem. Interactions between the social and the ecological system are based on a perception-exploitation framework. We show that the presence of tipping points in SES may yield counter-intuitive social-ecological transition pathways. For example, the high perception of an alarming ecological state among agents can provide short-term ecological benefits, but can be less effective in the long term, compared to a low-perception condition. This work also highlights how understanding non-linear interactions is critical for defining suitable transition pathways of any SES.


Knowledge Infrastructure and Safe Operating Spaces in Social-Ecological Systems

Anderies, J.M., J.D. Matthias, and M.A. Janssen

2019 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 116: 5277-5284.


Maintaining safe operating spaces for exploited natural systems in the face of uncertainty is a key sustainability challenge. This challenge can be viewed as a problem in which human society must navigate in a limited space of acceptable futures in which humans enjoy sufficient well-being and avoid crossing planetary boundaries. A critical obstacle is the nature of society as a controller with endogenous dynamics affected by knowledge, values, and decision-making fallacies. We outline an approach for analyzing the role of knowledge infrastructure in maintaining safe operating spaces. Using a classic natural resource problem as an illustration, we find that a small safe operating space exists that is insensitive to the type of policy implementation, while in general, a larger safe operating space exists which is dependent on the implementation of the “right” policy. Our analysis suggests the importance of considering societal response dynamics to varying policy instruments in defining the shape of safe operating spaces.


How does knowledge infrastructure mobilization influence the safe operating space of regulated exploited ecosystems?

Matthias, J.D., J.M. Anderies and M.A. Janssen

2018 Earth’s Future 6(11): 1555-1567.


Decision makers often have to act before critical times to avoid the collapse of ecosystems using knowledge that can be incomplete or biased. Adaptive management may help managers tackle such issues. However, because the knowledge infrastructure required for adaptive management may be mobilized in several ways, we study the quality and the quantity of knowledge provided by this knowledge infrastructure. In order to analyze the influence of mobilized knowledge, we study how the following typology of knowledge and its use may impact the safe operating space of exploited ecosystems: (1)knowledge of the past based on a time series distorted by measurement errors; (2)knowledge of the current systems’ dynamics based on the representativeness of the decision makers’ mental models of the exploited ecosystem; (3)knowledge of future eventsbased on decision makers’ likelihood estimates of extreme events based on modeling infrastructure (models and experts to interpret them) they have at their disposal. We consider different adaptive management strategies of a general regulated exploited ecosystem model and we characterize the robustness of these strategies to biased knowledge. Our results show that even with significant mobilized knowledge and optimal strategies, imperfect knowledge may still shrink the safe operating space of the system leading to the collapse of the system. However, we also show that in some cases imperfect knowledge may unexpectedly increase the safe operating space by suggesting cautious strategies. We leverage the quantitative results to frame a discussion focusing on the importance of understanding subtleties of how adaptive knowledge mobilization and knowledge infrastructure affect the robustness of exploited ecosystems.


On our rapidly shrinking capacity to comply with the planetary boundaries on climate change

Mathias, J-D., J.M. Anderies and M.A. Janssen

2017 Scientific Reports 7: 42061.


The planetary boundary framework constitutes an opportunity for decision makers to define climate policy through the lens of adaptive governance. Here, we use the DICE model to analyze the set of adaptive climate policies that comply with the two planetary boundaries related to climate change: (1) staying below a CO2 concentration of 550 ppm until 2100 and (2) returning to 350 ppm in 2100. Our results enable decision makers to assess the following milestones: (1) a minimum of 33% reduction of CO2 emissions by 2055 in order to stay below 550 ppm by 2100 (this milestone goes up to 46% in the case of delayed policies); and (2) carbon neutrality and the effective implementation of innovative geoengineering technologies (10% negative emissions) before 2060 in order to return to 350 ppm in 2100, under the assumption of getting out of the baseline scenario without delay. Finally, we emphasize the need to use adaptive path-based approach instead of single point target for climate policy design.


A multi-method approach to study robustness of social-ecological systems: the case of small-scale irrigation systems

Janssen, M.A. and J.M. Anderies

2013 Journal of Institutional Economics 9(4): 427-447.


Elinor Ostrom was a leader in using multiple methods to perform institutional analysis. In this paper, we discuss how a multi-method approach she pioneered may be used to study the robustness of social–ecological systems. We synthesize lessons learned from a series of studies on small-scale irrigation systems in which we use case-study analysis, experimental methods in laboratory and field settings, and mathematical models. The accumulated insights show the importance of creating institutional arrangements that fit the human ecology within the biophysical constraints of the system. The examples of work based on multiple methods approaches presented here highlight several lessons. For example, experimental work helps us better understand the details of how the ability to maintain trust relationships, low levels of inequality, and low transaction costs of coordination are critical for success. Likewise, the integration of case-study analysis and modeling helps us better understand how systems that can leverage biophysical characteristics to help address challenges of monitoring, sanctioning, and coordination may be able to increase their chances of success.


Robustness of Social-Ecological Systems: Implications for Public Policy

Anderies, J.M. and M.A. Janssen

2013 Policy Studies Journal 41(3): 513-536.


We conceptualize social-ecological systems (SESs) as complex adaptive systems where public policy affects and is affected by the biophysical system in which it is embedded. The study of robustness of SESs combines insights from various disciplines including economics, political science, ecology, and engineering. In this paper we present an approach that can be used to explore the implications for public policy when viewed as a component of a complex adaptive system. Our approach leverages the Institutional Analysis and Development framework to provide a platform for interdisciplinary research that focuses on system-wide outcomes of the policy process beyond just policy change. The main message is that building robustness can create new vulnerabilities. Fail-free policies cannot be developed, and instead of a focus on the “right” policy, we need to think about policy processes that stimulate experimentation, adaptation, and learning.


The fragility of robust social-ecological systems

Anderies, J.M. and M.A. Janssen (Editorial)

2011 Global Environmental Change 21(4): 1153-1156.

Resource intruders and robustness of social-ecological systems: An irrigation system of Southeast Spain, a case study

Pérez, I., M.A. Janssen, A. Tenza, A. Giménez, A. Pedreño and M. Giménez

2011 International Journal of the Commons 5(2): 410-432.


Globalization increases the vulnerability of traditional social-ecological systems (SES) to the incursion of new resource appropriators, i.e. intruders. New external disturbances that increase the physical and socio-political accessibility of SES (e.g. construction of a new road) and weak points in institutional SES of valuable common-pool resources are some of the main factors that enhance the encroachment of intruders. The irrigation system of the northwest Murcia Region (Spain) is an example used in this article of the changes in the structure and robustness of a traditional SES as a result of intruders. In this case study, farmers have traditionally used water from springs to irrigate their lands but, in recent decades, large agrarian companies have settled in this region, using groundwater to irrigate new lands. This intrusion had caused the levels of this resource to drop sharply. In an attempt to adapt, local communities are intensifying the use of resources and are constructing new physical infrastructures; consequently, new vulnerabilities are emerging. This situation seems to be heading toward the inevitably collapse of this traditional SES. From an institutional viewpoint, some recommendations are offered to enhance the robustness of SES in order to mitigate the consequences of intruders.

Keywords: Adaptability, common-pool resources, globalization, groundwater, institutions, resilience, water management


Confronting Management Challenges in Highly Uncertain Natural Resource Systems: a Robustness–Vulnerability Trade-off Approach.

Rodriguez, A.A. Cifdaloz, O., J.M. Anderies, M.A. Janssen, J. Dickeson

2011 Environmental Modeling and Assessment 16(1): 15-36.


This paper presents a framework for the study of policy implementation in highly uncertain natural resource systems in which uncertainty cannot be characterized by probability distributions. We apply the framework to parametric uncertainty in the traditional Gordon–Schaefer model of a fishery to illustrate how performance can be sacrificed (traded-off) for reduced sensitivity and hence increased robustness, with respect to model parameter uncertainty. With sufficient data, our robustness–vulnerability analysis provides tools to discuss policy options. When less data are available, it can be used to inform the early stages of a learning process. Several key insights emerge from this analysis: (1) the classic optimal control policy can be very sensitive to parametric uncertainty, (2) even mild robustness properties are difficult to achieve for the simple Gordon–Schaefer model, and (3) achieving increased robustness with respect to some parameters (e.g., biological parameters) necessarily results in increased sensitivity (decreased robustness) with respect to other parameters (e.g., economic parameters). We thus illustrate fundamental robustness–vulnerability trade-offs and the limits to robust natural resource management. Finally, we use the framework to explore the effects of infrequent sampling and delays on policy performance.

Keywords: Resource management; Uncertainty; Robust control; Policy implementation; Learning; Vulnerability


Robustness-tradeoffs for social-ecological systems

Janssen, M.A. and J.M. Anderies

2007 International Journal of the Commons 1(1): 77-99.


The governance of common-pool resources can be meaningfully examined from the somewhat broader perspective of the governance of social-ecological systems (SESs). Governance of SESs invariably involves trade-offs; trade-offs between different stakeholder objectives, trade-offs between risk and productivity, and trade-offs between short-term and long-term goals. This is especially true in the case of robustness in social-ecological systems – i.e. the capacity to continue to meet a performance objective in the face of uncertainty and shocks. In this paper we suggest that effective governance under uncertainty must include the ongoing analysis of trade-offs between robustness and performance, and between investments in robustness to different types of perturbations. The nature of such trade-offs will depend on society’s perception of risk, the dynamics of the underlying resource, and the governance regime. Specifically, we argue that it is impossible to define robustness in absolute terms. The choice for society is not only whether to invest in becoming robust to a particular disturbance, but rather, what suit of disturbances to address and what set of associated vulnerabilities is it willing to accept as a necessary consequence.

Keywords: resilience, robustness, social-ecological system, common-pool resources, trade-offs, irrigation


Panaceas, uncertainty, and the robust control framework in sustainability science

Anderies, J. M., A.A. Rodriguez, M.A. Janssen, and O. Cifadloz

2007 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 104(39):15194–15199.


A critical challenge faced by sustainability science is to develop strategies to cope with highly uncertain social and ecological dynamics. This article explores the use of the robust control framework toward this end. After briefly outlining the robust control framework, we apply it to the traditional Gordon–Schaefer fishery model to explore fundamental performance–robustness and robustness–vulnerability trade-offs in natural resource management. We find that the classic optimal control policy can be very sensitive to parametric uncertainty. By exploring a large class of alternative strategies, we show that there are no panaceas: even mild robustness properties are difficult to achieve, and increasing robustness to some parameters (e.g., biological parameters) results in decreased robustness with respect to others (e.g., economic parameters). On the basis of this example, we extract some broader themes for better management of resources under uncertainty and for sustainability science in general. Specifically, we focus attention on the importance of a continual learning process and the use of robust control to inform this process.

Keywords: natural resources; resource management; vulnerability; policy design; environmental policy


Robustness of Social-Ecological Systems to Spatial and Temporal Variability

Janssen, M.A., J.M. Anderies and E. Ostrom

2007 Society and Natural Resources 20(4): 307-322.


Some social-ecological systems (SESs) have persisted for hundreds of years, remaining in particular configurations that have withstood a variety of natural and social disturbances. Many of these long-lived SESs have adapted their institutions to the particular pattern of variability they have experienced over time as well as to the broader economic, political, and social system in which they are located. Such adaptations alter resource use patterns in time and/or space to maintain the configuration of the SESs. Even well-adapted SESs, however, can become vulnerable to new types of disturbances. Through the analysis of a series of case studies, we begin to characterize different types of adaptations to particular types of variability and explore vulnerabilities that may emerge as a result of this adaptive process. Understanding such vulnerabilities may be critical if our interest is to contribute to the future adaptations of SESs as the more rapid processes of globalization unfold.

Keywords: disturbances, institutions, resilience, robustness, social-ecological system, variability


A framework to analyze the robustness of social-ecological systems from an institutional perspective

Anderies, J.M., M.A. Janssen and E. Ostrom

2004 Ecology and Society 9(1): 18.


What makes social-ecological systems (SESs) robust? In this paper, we look at the institutional configurations that affect the interactions among resources, resource users, public infrastructure providers, and public infrastructures. We propose a framework that helps identify potential vulnerabilities of SESs to disturbances. All the links between components of this framework can fail and thereby reduce the robustness of the system. We posit that the link between resource users and public infrastructure providers is a key variable affecting the robustness of SESs that has frequently been ignored in the past. We illustrate the problems caused by a disruption in this link. We then briefly describe the design principles originally developed for robust common-pool resource institutions, because they appear to be a good starting point for the development of design principles for more general SESs and do include the link between resource users and public infrastructure providers.

Keywords: institutions, resilience, robustness, social-ecological systems.


Robust strategies for managing rangelands with multiple stable attractors

Janssen, M.A., J.M. Anderies and B.H. Walker

2004 Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 47(1):140-162.


Savanna rangelands are characterized by dynamic interactions between grass, shrubs, fire and livestock driven by highly variable rainfall. When the livestock are grazers (only or preferentially eating grass) the desirable state of the system is dominated by grass, with scattered trees and shrubs. However, the system can have multiple stable attractors and a perturbation such as a drought can cause it to move from such a desired configuration into one that is dominated by shrubs with very little grass. In this paper, using the rangelands of New South Wales in Australia as an example, we provide a methodology to find robust management strategies in the context of this complex ecological system driven by stochastic rainfall events. The control variables are sheep density and the degree of fire suppression. By comparing the optimal solution where it is assumed the manager has perfect knowledge and foresight of rainfall conditions with one where the rainfall variability is ignored, we found that rainfall variability and the related uncertainty lead to a reduction of the possible expected returns from grazing activity by 33%. Using a genetic algorithm, we develop robust management strategies for highly variable rainfall that more than doubles expected returns compared to those obtained under variable rainfall using an optimal solution based on average rainfall (i.e., where the manager ignores rainfall variability).

Our analysis suggests some key features of a robust strategy. The robust strategy is precautionary and is forced by rainfall variability. It is less reactive with respect to grazing pressure changes and more reactive with respect to fire suppression than is an optimum strategy based on a deterministic system (no rainfall variability). Finally, the costs associated with implementing a robust strategy are far less than the expected economic losses when uncertainty is not taken into account.

Keywords: Rangelands; Multiple stable states; Robust management; Genetic algorithms


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