By ADRIAN SMITH, STEPS Centre member

Complexity pervaded debate at the Resilience Alliance conference last month. In one way or another, participants tried to get to grips with the sheer complexities of the socio-ecological systems that concerned them, and puzzled over the kinds of adaptive governance that might ensure these systems provided resilient livelihoods to the various human and non-human members dependent upon those systems. At best, these complexities were bewildering, requiring new kinds of resilience thinking. At worst, an appreciation of the complex connections and interdependencies in the world induced paralysis. Where to start; what to do?

It was only at the very end of the conference that I realised that, in actual fact, the last three days had not been about complexity. Rather, we had been grappling with simplification. We were all trying to simplify in ways that were sensitive to the uncertainties and surprises associated with complex realities.

Apart from discussion of ‘stylised models’, this process of simplification was largely implicit. But perhaps we might advance further if we considered resilience to be about temporary simplifications, sensitive to experience, and open to revision when the inadequacy of those simplifications is subsequently revealed? The critical question is how do we simplify wisely? Whose perspectives are considered in those simplifications; which ones bracketed out; and which ones simply forgotten? Which simplifications subsequently work, and for whom, and for how long before complex reality undermines them?

Buzz Holling’s adaptive cycle is one such simplification. It was the emblem for the conference. A lop-sided figure of eight, used to organise complexity into processes of growth, maturity, decay, and rejuvenation (and out of which is generated a new figure of eight development). And it is a persuasive simplification. Many participants applied it to the natural world, to social development, and to combinations of the two. To many participants, it promises a better simplification than the equilibrial approaches that dominated the governance of complex socio-techno-environmental systems in the last century. But it is still a simplification for all that; as were the agent-based models inspired by Buzz’s adaptation of the infinity symbol, and the equally inspired, contextualised case studies. My own presentations were simplifications of complex processes of social and technological change.

Of course, simplification is dangerous territory. Acknowledging the necessity for simplification risks blunting the critical edge that rightly problematises certain forms of simplifying that currently enjoy institutional privileges, such as narrow and static forms of engineering cost benefit analysis. Contexts and perspectives essential to Sustainability may continue to be deleted out of the equation on pragmatic grounds. How do we avoid simplification legitimising unSustainable expediencies?

Hopefully, the advantage with complexity thinking is that it forces some humility and prevents us from being simplistic. Complex realities force reflexivity into the necessary simplifications we undertake in order to consciously and deliberately act in the world. Institutions simplify, as do policy narratives, as do scientific reports. So as we continue to explore pathways to Sustainability through complex systems, the challenge is to be aware of the simplifications we have to make, and to make them wisely. In my view, this is the basis for resilience.