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Seven principles to guide a resilience approach

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

This post is part of the Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog's month-long series on Resilience.

Everybody’s talking about resilience, but does anyone know how to apply it? Here are seven principles to help you along the way

In our globalised society, there are virtually no ecosystems that are not shaped by people, and no human being can survive without the services ecosystems provide. The systems that are shaped by the interactions between people and ecosystems are the essence of what we call a social-ecological system.

M.Troell/Azote images A resilience approach investigates how people and nature can best manage in the face of disturbances. M.Troell/Azote images

A resilience thinking approach investigates how these interacting systems of people and nature can best be managed in the face of disturbances, surprises and uncertainty. In a recent paper, and a forthcoming book edited by Reinette Oonsie Biggs and Maja Schlüter from the Stockholm Resilience Centre together with Michael Schoon from the Arizona State University, the authors present seven principles considered crucial for building resilience of ecosystem services in social-ecological systems and how these principles can be practically applied.

Let us go through the seven principles more in detail.

Principle one: Maintain diversity and redundancy

Systems with many different components (e.g species, actors or sources of knowledge) are generally more resilient than systems with few components. Redundancy provides ‘insurance’ within a system by allowing some components to compensate for the loss or failure of others: “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”.

It has, for example, been shown in Kenya, Tanzania, the Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar that coastal fishermen are more likely to leave fishing in response to declining catches if they come from households with more diverse livelihood portfolios. Not only does such livelihood flexibility increase the resilience of individual households, it also reduces the pressure on parts of the system, thereby enhancing resilience.

Principle two: Manage connectivity

Connectivity can be both a good and a bad thing. The loss of electricity across the eastern USA and Canada in 2003, which affected some 50 million people, is an example of a network where local failures in a highly connected system eventually led to a total, systemic collapse.

Perhaps the most positive effect of landscape connectivity is that it can contribute to the maintenance of biodiversity. The Yellowstone-to-Yukon project in North America is an example of conservation planning that reconnects large habitat patches by re-establishing wildlife corridors. Through a variety of collaborative initiatives with diverse stakeholder groups, Y2Y’s primary objective is to connect eight priority areas that function as either core wildlife habitat or key corridors in an area spanning 1.3 million square kilometres

Principle three: Manage slow variables and feedbacks

Imagine an ecosystem such as a freshwater lake that provides you with readily accessible drinking water. The quality of this water is linked to slowly changing variables such as the phosphorus concentration in the sediment, which is in turn linked to fertiliser runoff into the lake.

The phosphorous content of the sediment can increase over a long time with no impact on lake water quality. However, if a certain threshold is passed, the lake water can rapidly become eutrified, after which it is very costly and difficult to return to a non-eutrophied state.

Managing slow variables and feedbacks is often crucial to make sure ecosystems produce essential services. If these systems shift into a different configuration or regime, it can be extremely difficult to reverse.

Feedbacks are the two-way ‘connectors’ between variables that can either reinforce (positive feedback) or dampen (negative feedback) change. An example of a positive feedback loop can be seen in Hawaii where introduced grasses cause fires, which promote further growth of the grasses and curb the growth of native shrub species. More grass leads to more fire which, in turn, leads to more grass. This becomes a loop and self-reinforcing feedback. An example of a dampening or negative feedback is formal or informal sanctioning or punishment that occurs when someone breaks a rule.

Principle four: Foster complex adaptive systems thinking

A complex adaptive systems (CAS) approach means accepting that within a social-ecological system, several connections are occurring at the same time on different levels. It also means accepting unpredictability and uncertainty, and acknowledging a multitude of perspectives.

Although there is limited evidence that CAS thinking directly enhances the resilience of a system, there are several examples of how it contributes to it. One example is the Kruger National Park in South Africa where management has moved away from strategies to keep ecosystem conditions, such as elephant populations and fire frequencies, at a fixed level and instead allows them to fluctuate between specified boundaries. The use of threshold indicators provides managers with warning signals when a component of the system (e.g. elephant numbers) is approaching a critical point. The overall intention is to reduce human intervention (and investment) and increase the variety of ecosystems and habitat types.

Principle five: Encourage learning

Because social-ecological systems are always in development there is a constant need to revise existing knowledge and stimulate learning in order to enable adaptation to change. More collaborative processes can also help make values about different ecosystem services more explicit.

One excellent example is the Kristiandstad Vattenrike, a wetland area in the southern part of Sweden. In the 1970’s growing developmental pressures led to increasing degradation of what was considered a vast area of water logged swamps with low value. However, thanks to a broad and collaborative process including local inhabitants and politicians, the perception of the wetlands changed and it is now considered to be water rich, and a highly valued area that has become a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

Principle six: Broaden participation

There are a range of advantages to a broad and well-functioning participation. An informed and well-functioning group have the potential to build trust and a shared understanding – both fundamental ingredients for collective action. An example is found in Australia where an extensive public participation and consultancy process was initiated to raise awareness about threats to the Great Barrier Reef. Through greater awareness of the threats facing the Great Barrier Reef, the public participation process was able to raise public support for improved conservation plans.

Principle seven: Promote polycentric governance

Polycentricity, a governance system in which multiple governing bodies interact to make and enforce rules within a specific policy arena or location, is considered to be one of the best ways to achieve collective action in the face of disturbance and change. It represents flexible solutions for self-organisations where more formal procedures seem to fail. But it is also vulnerable to tensions between actors and negative institutional interactions.  Involving a wide range of stakeholders means striking a balance between openness and mandates for decision-making. It also means negotiating trade-offs between various users of ecosystem services. These two trade-offs often lead to the third challenge about “scale-shopping” where groups dissatisfied with politics at one scale simply approach a more favourable political venue in which to frame their interests. A key to successful polycentric governance is therefore to keep the network together and maintain a tight structure, which goes beyond information sharing and ad hoc collaboration.

Keep the caveats in mind

So here we are. The seven building blocks for a resilient system. All the principles presented here require a nuanced understanding of how, where and when to apply them, and how the different principles interact and depend on one another. It is therefore essential to consider a complex understanding of what you want to build resilience of, and to what types of disturbances (e.g. fires, floods, urbanization). Simply enhancing the resilience of the existing ecosystem services in a landscape can entrench and exacerbate inequalities. Important trade-offs exist between different ecosystem services (e.g. crop production and biodiversity), and it is not possible to enhance the resilience of all ecosystem services simultaneously. So use these principles as guidelines but add some contextual, common sense too.

Read More:

What is resilience?” and ”Applying resilience


Thanks Sturle for so clearly synthesizing those principles. As any set of principles, the challenge in using them in research for development is to make sure they "hit the ground" and practically help researchers and developers change the pathways in which are trapped food insecure and poor communities, so often associated with degraded ecosystems. It would be worth testing them all (with the common sense you suggest in the end) in selected situations of "poverty hotspots".

Thanks for the information. It is very necessary and contribute enough to have clear concepts in interagency discussions and debates and project development. Greetings from Peru.

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