13: Key system components

Now that you have defined aspirations and dilemmas it is time to start thinking about which variables are the most relevant to consider to start navigating towards a more sustainable, safe and just future. This work card will help you identify key components in the system.

Initially in small meetings or workshops with different stakeholder groups, explore system components in sub sections of the system most relevant to the particular group. In larger workshop settings, progressively bringing together different stakeholders understanding to form a more complete picture of the whole system that is shared by all stakeholders.

Suggested approach: small meetings or workshops leading to larger workshops

Time required: 1hr

Facilitation skill level: Medium

Resources: workshop materials, whiteboards, poster paper, markers, sticky notes

Identifying key components in different sectors

In complex social-ecological systems, many different system variables interact and influence each other, while also being exposed to external driving forces. These interactions, between social, economic and environmental variables, shape the overall behavior of the system, and over time shape the development trajectory.

In complex social-ecological systems, many different system variables interact and influence each other. Mapping out key system components in different domains is a first step towards building a conceptual systems model. Photo: iStock.

In Phase 3, the main task is to generate an in-depth understanding of the system dynamics that produce the dilemmas, and that keep a system on its current trajectory. In this phase, we lay the foundation for the analysis of system dynamics, by mapping out the system components most relevant to solving the dilemmas and moving towards stakeholder aspirations.

Understanding system boundaries

By identifying key system components, we also provisionally decide on some boundaries for the system, which gives the process a focal scale of analysis. In the past, social-ecological systems tended to be more localized than today, and geographical boundaries often corresponded fairly well to social and jurisdictional boundaries. People lived in a community and relied to a large extent on the surrounding landscape for food, income and cultural identity. Today, this is often not the case. While people live in one place and often have some relation to the environment there, they also depend on many resources from elsewhere.

If this is the case for your system, there is no point in trying to force a fit between the geographical and the social boundaries of a system. Instead, describe approximate boundaries that relate to the key dilemmas and that encompass the main components of the system. Further on in the process, additional scales and levels of organization above and below the focal system will be identified, such as individual households, broader ecosystems, and governing regions, as well as new and emerging drivers for change. The goal here is not to get it exactly right, as the information will be refined later on, but the process of creating a shared understanding of the system identity, focusing on key components and scales relating to the dilemmas and aspirations, is important for framing the remainder of the Wayfinder process.

Use the attached discussion guide to structure your work. Start by listing relevant system components in different domains. The you may want to start drawing a simple diagram to help to organize these components. This will be the beginnings of a conceptual model for your system.

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14: Connections and networks

Once you have a provisional idea about the main system components, and the system boundaries, the next step is to think about the important connections, networks and governance arrangement that exist in the system.

Use small meetings and interviews with key individuals to map social networks in the system. Use small workshops to identify other important connection in natural systems, infrastructure, governance and institutional structures. Record information visually so you can observe patterns. You may also want to do an inventory of formal institutions and organizations relevant to the dilemma in focus. 

Suggested approach: interviews, small meetings, workshops

Time required: 0.5-2 hrs

Facilitation skill level: Medium

Resources: workshop materials, whiteboards, poster paper, markers, sticky notes, computer based network mapping tools to capture and visually display information collected.

Understanding linkages in the system

Connections and networks in the system, including governance arrangements, reflect how key components from the different domains link to each other. These features have a large structuring role on system behavior. Social networks, for example, influence how new ideas are picked up, how information is shared, and how decisions are made.Infrastructure influence how people move. Similarly, connections in a landscape between forest patches affects how biodiversity is distributed across the system, and how fires or disease spread.

Connections and networks in the system, including governance arrangements, reflect how key components from the different domains link to each other. In the digital age, social media for example, forms new networks and connections across the world. Photo: iStock.

Insight into important social and ecological connections in the system will help with understanding how shocks and stresses may affect the system, as well as how the system might respond to different events. It may also shed light on important missing links in the system, illustrating to what extent social networks include different groups of actors.

There are many quantitative and qualitative tools, like social-networks analysis, available that can be used for an in-depth analysis of social, economic and ecological network connections in the system. Use the attached discussion guide to start exploring linkages in the system.

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15: Cross-scale interactions

To properly understand how a social-ecological system works, it is not enough to pay attention to system components, connections, and networks at the focal scale, but a complexity perspective requires that we also consider how different scales interact. This work card will help you to start to analyze important cross-scale interactions that influence the development of your system.

In a workshop setting with multiple stakeholders, map the relevant scales and connections, influences, and flows between the different scales. You may want to include external experts here, such as scientists, who have special insight into particular cross-scale interactions. You may also need to search out additional information and data on relevant trends and processes, as input to the workshops.

Suggested approach:  workshops with multiple stakeholders

Time required: 1-2 hrs

Facilitation skill level: Medium

Resources: workshop materials, whiteboards, poster paper, markers, sticky notes

Why are cross-scale interactions important?

The behavior of complex systems is governed by interactions between processes occurring at different scales. This means that, in addition to analyzing key components and connections and networks at your focal scale, you also need to identify relevant scales above and below your focal scale, where important processes occur, and drivers for change originate from. System dynamics at larger spatial scales tend to have a constraining influence on system function at lower levels. At the same time, novelty, innovation, and sources of change often originate at smaller scales and can aggregate up to create change at higher levels.

A fading sign, sponsored by Coca Cola, welcoming tourists to the Great Rift Valley, Kenya. In the globalized and hyper-connected world that we live in today, cross-scale interactions, including market developments, transfer of new technology and a changing climate, increasingly shape local realities and tie distant places close together. Photo: iStock.

Interactions between local, regional and global processes are not a new phenomenon. Regional phenomena such as El Nino (the Southern oscillation) have shaped local realities in both South America and Asia for thousands of years. However, the globalized and hyper-connected world we live in today is increasingly characterized by this type of cross-scale interaction. Virtually all social-ecological systems today, are affected by change processes that originate from outside of the system. These external driving forces include both distal factors, such as climate change, international trade, human migration, and the diffusion of technology, and more proximate factors, which can be seen as the results of these global trends. These include land use change, emerging markets, regional policies (e.g. at EU level), biodiversity loss, and new consumption patterns.

Cross-scale interactions in the Anthropocene

It is difficult to anticipate how these global and regional drivers and trends will affect local prospects for sustainable development in different parts of the world. The interactions between for example, climatic, economic and political factors sometimes have very surprising results, through so-called telecouplings that tie local realities close together in places that are geographically distant. One example is the increase in global demand for octopus, which has influenced gender relations along the Swahili coast in Western Indian Ocean (see attached case), and another is the increasing demand for bananas in Chinas growing urban centers which has transformed traditional paddy landscapes of Laos into banana mono-cultures (see attached case).

Navigating towards a more sustainable, safe and just future, will require that we deal with this level of complexity. This includes analyzing how factors that we already know about, such as climate change and increasing resource consumption might affect local realities around the world, but also scanning the horizon for new emerging trends that could become game changers in the future.

Importantly, we also need to consider how actions at lower levels, such as changes in individual attitudes, aggregate up, and may have an influence beyond the local scale. Grappling with the complexity of cross-scale interactions in the Anthropocene is not a job that will ever be completed, but to be able to design strategies for chance that has at least a reasonable chance of being effective it is important at this stage in the Wayfinder process to start mapping out what we do know about cross-scale interactions. Use the attached discussion guide and activity sheet to help structure your exploration.

You may want to try adding some of these dynamics to the picture you are developing of the system, noting linkages and effects. Be sure to record your assumptions and any evidence you have to support these observations.

Click here to learn more about teleconnectivity by Beatrice Crona, Associate professor at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Executive Director of Global Economics Dynamics and the Biosphere at The Royal Academy of Sciences

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