By David Lusseau

Are you working on a complex context of resource use, involving ecological, economic and social dynamics? Do you want to better understand how this complex system reacts to changes like increased harvest, higher market demand, or climate change?

We are coming to realise that in order to sustainably manage the, direct or indirect, exploitation of natural resources we cannot look at economic and environmental aspects in isolation. Sustainability is defined by our ability to maintain an economically viable activity while preserving the ecological integrity of the natural resources it uses as well as the socioeconomic welfare of the communities involved. Isolated management of these socio- economic- ecological systems leads to societal conflicts that are difficult to inform in a rational manner. To bridge this gap we have classically evaluated the economic outputs of services provided by ‘pristine’ natural resources and altered macroeconomics models to account for these incomes. However, this approach limits our abilities to account for indirect human effects on ecosystems as well as indirect ecosystem contributions. Importantly, it maintains a notion that people and their environment are separate entities.

Socioecological systems as complex adaptive systems

Alternatively, we can see these systems as complex adaptive systems composed of many agents of different types that are interacting in different contexts (see Figure 1, below, for an example). This approach is appealing for two reasons. Firstly, it recognizes that people and their environment are part of the same system. Secondly, it simplifies the application of our original view of sustainability to a system-wide management aim. In such a system, sustainability is achieved when all components can be sustained (economic viability, ecological integrity, socioeconomic welfare). The emergence of this notion of socioecological systems has developed concurrently with new analytical advances in applied statistics and mathematics that improved our ability to model complex systems and fit such models to data. These advances have led to a recent shift in approaches to analysing socio-ecological conflicts using socio-ecological modeling techniques. This method, in brief, models the mechanisms linking economic, social and ecological capitals in study systems. We can use computational simulations in which actors and their interactions and actions are mechanistically modeled (agent-based models), informed by real data, to determine the emergent dynamics and behavior of the system. We can therefore assess whether such system can remain viable or will perish under given conditions. Using these mechanistic models, we can understand under which socioecological conditions we can sustain present infrastructure and ecological capitals. We can also simulate scenarios to predict likely sustainability impacts of proposed developments or exploitation intensities, and therefore inform management actions.  Crucially, we now have techniques to assess the sensitivity of outcomes to uncertainties in the model’s parameters or structure.

The challenges

Many studies are now underway in isolation focusing on particular socioecological model case studies. Greater coordination would promote the development of insights in this burgeoning inter- and multi-disciplinary venture. Secondly, many of these efforts are taking place in developed countries where funding is available because modelers often lack connections with less favoured countries. There is a need to improve the connectivity between socioecological modelers and systems where their skills would be greatly beneficial; particularly in guiding development scenarios. Such connections would also provide great opportunities for capacity building. Finally, most of our socioecological models now only focus on infrastructure and ecological capitals (economic-ecological models) and these models still largely do not account for societal/cultural impacts. Yet, we know that social and cultural mechanisms can have profound effects on the sustainability of natural resources exploitation. We therefore need to develop a forum in which anthropologists and social scientists, that have insights in key conflicts on which IUCN is focussing, can engage with socioecological modelers in finding ways to integrate these dimensions in socioecological models to define sustainability solutions.

The potential role of SULi SG

I think that the broad spectrum of representation that the SuLi Specialist Group offers  by spanning SSC and CEESP, along with the clear terms of reference it was given by IUCN, provide the perfect forum for meeting these challenges. This could be achieved with the creation of a modeling for sustainability working group within the SG of which the remit would be to take forward the three urgent tasks highlighted above, namely:

  1. Act as forum to develop methodological and conceptual insights by contrasting case study models;
  2. Act as a networking center to foster:
  • access to people with technical expertise for communities needing assistance,
  • socioecological system approach to pressing global development challenges,
  • capacity building in modeling skills;
  1. Engage in model developments to integrate local socioeconomic and cultural aspects in socioecological systems by fostering interactions between individuals of all relevant disciplines.

If you have any thoughts or comments feel free to contact me.

David Lusseau
Marine Alliance for Science and Technology for Scotland and Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen AB24 2TZ, UK. E-mail: