Adaptive Management

Adaptive management seeks to aggressively use management intervention as a tool to strategically probe the functioning of an ecosystem. Interventions are designed to test key hypotheses about the functioning of the ecosystem. This approach is very different from a typical management approach of 'informed trial-and-error' which uses the best available knowledge to generate a risk-averse, 'best guess' management strategy, which is then changed as new information modifies the 'best guess'.

Adaptive management identifies uncertainties, and then establishes methodologies to test hypotheses concerning those uncertainties. It uses management as a tool not only to change the system, but as a tool to learn about the system. It is concerned with the need to learn and the cost of ignorance, while traditional management is focused on the need to preserve and the cost of knowledge.

There are several processes both scientific and social which are vital components of adaptive management:

  1. management is linked to appropriate temporal and spatial scales
  2. management retains a focus on statistical power and controls
  3. use of computer models to build synthesis and an embodied ecological consensus
  4. use embodied ecological consensus to evaluate strategic alternatives
  5. communicate alternatives to political arena for negotiation of a selection

The achievement of these objectives requires an open management process which seeks to include past, present and future stakeholders. Adaptive management needs to at least maintain political openness, but usually it needs to create it. Consequently, adaptive management must be a social as well as scientific process. It must focus on the development of new institutions and institutional strategies just as much as it must focus upon scientific hypotheses and experimental frameworks. Adaptive management attempts to use a scientific approach, accompanied by collegial hypotheses testing to build understanding, but this process also aims to enhance institutional flexibility and encourage the formation of the new institutions that are required to use this understanding on a day-to-day basis.

See also Paradoxes of Management.


Selected references:

Holling, C. S. (1978). Adaptive Environmental Assessment and Management. Wiley, London. Reprinted by Blackburn Press in 2005.

Walters, C. J. (1986). Adaptive Management of Renewable Resources. New York, McGraw Hill.

Lee, K. (1993). Compass and gyroscope: integrating science and politics for the environment. Washington, D.C., Island Press.

Habron, G, (2003). Role of Adaptive Management for Watershed Councils. Environmental Management 31(1):29-41

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