Reflections on Resilience 2017

By Cherie Forbes, Catherine Ward and Louise Gammage 

Three Adaptation Network Members and UCT PhD students, Cherie Forbes, Catherine Ward and Louise Gammage, attended the Resilience 2017 Conference held in Stockholm, Sweden from 20 to 23 August 2017. We were among the approximately 1000 international conference delegates of which about 100 were PhD and Early Career Researchers (ECR) from 22 different countries.

This international conference was hosted by the Resilience Alliance and Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) and themed “Resilience Frontiers for Global Sustainability”. The conference focused on five main themes: (1) social-ecological transformations for sustainability; (2) connectivity and cross- scale dynamics in the Anthropocene; (3) multi-level governance and biosphere stewardship; (4) approaches and methods for understanding social-ecological system (SES) dynamics; and (5) cross-cutting perspectives on resilience.

Resilience thinking seeks to bring a more personal slant to researchers and practitioners, to challenge the status quo and examine practices, procedures and paradigmatic beliefs considering our complex, dynamic world. Resilience thinking also provides a more inclusive space that fosters diversity and with that can encourage more creative solutions. One of the creative ways that the three of us could engage was via a PhD and ECR Day which was hosted at the Stockholm Resilience Centre on 20 August 2017.

The event was attended by 100 PhD candidates and ECRs representing 89 different academic institutions from over 60 countries. The programme was framed around the idea of “Open Space Activities”. Open Spaces technology uses the principles of self-organisation and collective activity. Participants collectively developed discussion topics around the general theme of “Challenges and opportunities for sustainability science”. This was achieved by breaking away into small groups for focussed discussions around suggested themes, which included
“Sustainability science for the Global South”, “Real-world impact and action” and “Transdisciplinary and sustainability science”. Discussion points were captured and emergent central issues and questions were flagged using FLINGA, which generated a mind map that allowed one to navigate discussions in real time. It was interesting and insightful for us to engage with such a diverse group of peers and topics, which demonstrates not only the complexity of sustainability science, but also the diverse skills, knowledge and methods required within the resilience-thinking realm.

The diversity of the conference topics allowed each of us to explore various aspects of the conference themes. Our personal reflections on the Conference are a snapshot of the diversity of these topics and highlight the complexity of SES research. Our reflections include thoughts on the opening plenary which examined frontiers of resilience thinking (Box 1); identifying the novelty of research approaches that use ‘old tools’ (Box 2); and the use of alternative methods as a means to grapple with challenges and solutions in complex SES dynamics (Box 3).

Box 1: Louise reflects on the opening plenary which discussed resilience frontiers

Louise Gammage
PhD Student, Environmental Geography
Marine Research Institute (MARE), Department of Biological Sciences (UCT)

The complexity of the human-environmental system, whether local, regional or global, and the change faced by such systems in the Anthropocene require ‘out of the box’ thinking seeking to find ways in which we can deal or solve these problems. I like to think that the diversity of topics and themes of the conference reflected the diversity of the body of knowledge related to resilience. The opening plenary was a highlight for me. Katrina Brown and Carl Folke gave the keynote presentation titled “Resilience – Reflections & Frontiers” and provided reflections on the progress made in resilience thinking thus far, while highlighting some outlines about where resilience thinking should be moving towards. I particularly liked the emphasis on the dynamic nature of resilience where resilience thinking demands that we can combine both rapid and gradual change, that there are tipping points in all systems which can lead to dramatic changes, and that we are thus required to live with change and need to nurture the capacity to deal with change.. Importantly, it is the realisation that to live with change we need to transform (change) the way we do things. Transformation is required due to scale and the ‘great acceleration’ – we are a “big world on a small planet”. To thrive as a species, we cannot incrementally adjust and adapt – we need to change things. This is seen increasingly in development paradigms. To change the way we do things is no mean feat – it requires the development of new paradigms and new epistemologies that will allow us to capture what exactly a complex SES means in the context of today’s world.

I found the comments made by both speakers to be particularly inspirational and exciting. Working in the field of Sustainability Science in the developing ‘Global South’ is often a daunting and, sometimes, depressing experience. This is particularly true for South Africa where inequality (we have one of the highest Gini coefficients* in the world), fuelled by a complicated past and present together with uncertainty brought about by shifts in natural systems, make the possibilities for the future sometimes appear to be very bleak. The Resilience 2017 Conference was an excellent showcase of the diverse epistemologies and methodology that exist in the field of Sustainability Science today, highlighting that with some innovative thinking and method, we may just be able to change our development trajectory towards a more sustainable future.

The video of the live stream of the plenary can be found here:

* Gini coefficient is the measure of statistical distribution representing personal income of a country’s residents, commonly used as a measure of inequality.

Box 2: Cherie’s reflects on old tools, new approaches and co-production of ecosystem services

Cherie Forbes
PhD student, Palaeoecology
Plant Conservation Unit, Department of of Biological Sciences (UCT)

There were two important topics from the Resilience 2017 Conference that resonated with me. Firstly, a perspective which argues for the use of “Old tools but new approaches”. This was highlighted during a keynote presentation by Beth Fulton of CSIRO (Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization) which was a part of theme plenary session titled, “Novel methods for studying human behaviour and its interrelations with the environment”. The concept speaks about not having to always reinvent the wheel in terms of approaches and methods to better understand SES dynamics. This is especially important to me since in my PhD research I am using well-established methodologies from the field of palaeoecology, which could be considered as an ‘old tool’. However, this tool is used in a ‘new approach’, which suits the investigation of SES with the hope to build resilience around natural resource management in a conservation and agricultural landscape in the Cape Floristic Region (CFR), South Africa. This research approach is novel in the following ways:

The palaeoecological record focuses on a centennial-millennial timescale with a higher temporal resolution which is of more interest to land-use managers. Whereas the majority of palaeoecological studies have a more conventional quaternary science perspective that focuses on longer records at coarser temporal resolution, which explore climatic variables over thousands-millions of years.
Multiple palaeoecological proxies or indicators are used to reconstruct past environmental change and to investigate past ecosystem services. For example: fossil pollen (vegetation biodiversity), dung fungal spores (herbivory), charcoal (fire), geochemical markers (water quality and soil erosion regulation) and diatoms (climate change).
Assist future management decisions under various climate and land-use scenarios.A multidisciplinary research approach is used by combining insights from palaeoecology (including geochemistry) and system dynamics modelling (including a large focus on stakeholder context). This approach combines the reconstruction of past environmental changes with modelling of future scenarios as a means to understand the SES ad a

Secondly, the session chaired by Jan Bengtsson of the Swedish University of Agriculture entitled “The role of human-nature co-production of ecosystem services for resilience in production ecosystems” helped me to contextualise my research project since my study area includes both an agricultural site and a conservation site. Both sites provide ecosystem services within a landscape that consists of high agricultural production and biodiversity conservation, which are sectors that are important for our country’s economy. Discussions during this session yielded the following reflections:

The importance of framing and communicating a concept – Conservation and agriculture can often be regarded as land-use practices with conflicting gaols/objectives. However, a concept such as ‘co-production’ could help bridge the gap between conservation and agriculture. It is a concept that could stimulate discussion around inputs and outputs and highlights what each stakeholder group contributes in the production ecosystem, and therefore stimulates a narrative for a common agenda (e.g. resilience of what, to what and for whom). A concept such a co-production showcases agriculture as not merely a destructive land-use practice but rather a means to interact with nature in a different way.

ans are an integral part of nature – Nature reserves and other protected areas are not the only source of ES – other human interventions result in ES provision too. For example, farming contributes a lot to the system (e.g. soil fertilization, water, etc.) and therefore farm/production lands also provide ES (e.g. food, fuelwood, fibre). As a result, humans and nature co-produce ES in a landscape such as the dynamic CFR, which consists of highly productive agricultural lands and areas protected for biodiversity conservation.
These messages – “old tools, new approaches” and “co-production of ecosystem services” – set the tone for how one could engage in resilience thinking in an SES that has multiple uses (e.g. agriculture and conservation) and with a discipline (i.e. palaeoecology) that is often underutilised in understanding SES dynamics for biodiversity conservation and sustainable land use management. In conclusion, I felt that the Resilience 2017 Conference was an important opportunity for me to be exposed to research and views of others also working in the resilience space at an international level. It helped me gauge where I stand in terms of my research goals and how they align with an international agenda for resilience and sustainable development.

Box 3: Catherine reflects on the use of alternative methods as a way to deal with complex SES dynamics

Catherine Ward
PhD Student, Environmental Sciences
Department of Biological Sciences

Stepping into a space such as the Resilience 2017 conference gives someone like me (entering the final leg of the PhD race) time to reflect and examine what resilience means in the context of my research. Bringing a plethora of ideas, examples and experts from across the world united under the umbrella of resilience is exciting for a PhD student such as myself. Examining resilience in the Anthropocene can be useful in teaching researchers and students about complex dynamic systems, examine ‘wicked problems’ from different angles by asking alternative questions, and merge different knowledge bases to create rich dialogue/pictures of challenges or causality of current challenges. Rather than maintain status quo, resilience thinking challenges existing paradigms and highlights cross scale dynamics in order to examine new trajectories of development or shifting into alternative states. This made me reflect on my own research, particularly in the context of bringing together different knowledge systems (farmers, fishers and scientists) and how a resilience approach can create a space for these different dialogues to build towards future management plans or alternative adaptation scenarios in light of real-world challenges such as climate variability.

As someone who has a keen interest in working within complex SES and grappling with challenges and solutions, I thoroughly enjoyed the creative element of the conference. The collaboration between scientist Prof Marten Scheffer and visual artist Tone Bjordam to bring the challenges of the Anthropocene to a wider audience through a hybrid of art and science was particularly thought provoking. As noted by Marten Scheffer, great artists and scientists change the way we look at the world and this is useful in the Anthropocene where people have altered the way our environment functions and thus society has to change the way they think about it as well. Scientists and artists are similar in that they both try ‘capture the essence’ of something that is different, which may change the way people look at it. It was interesting to think about ‘how we think’ and how diverse disciplines, careers and experiences that interact together can provide a much more holistic picture of complex systems and address challenges in novel ways. The current silos of academic disciplines should not remain static and there should be room for interpretation, cross-communication and creativity.

The video of the live stream of the plenary can be found here:

In closing, Johan Rockström posed some inconvenient questions regarding the future of resilience thinking. He asked, “What is the bad resilience that needs to be broken down and the good that needs to be built up?”. He also pointed out that what society takes for granted can be changed, particularly where transformation requires changing institutions that are ‘resilient’ in the quest for a more sustainable future. One of the key messages from the conference that stood out for all three of us is that in the context of the Anthropocene, it is inadequate to merely just adapt: we must transform. Within SES, resilience should cater for complexity and change to deal with unknown unknowns. The following quote used by Carl Folke to describe resilience challenges resonated with us: “As we know, there are ‘known knowns’. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” – Donald Rumsfeld, Former U.S. Secretary of Defence.

Cherie would like to thank the Adaptation Network for funding her conference attendance. Louise and Catherine would like to thank SARChI ME&F; 2017 Postgraduate Conference Travel Grant; and the NRF for conference funding