RA research is conducted in a variety of resource-use systems including:

  • Lakes used for fishing and/or recreation
  • Marine systems
  • Semi-arid rangelands used for livestock production
  • Irrigated agricultural systems
  • Forest regions involving conservation, harvesting and/or conversion to agriculture
  • Subsistence agriculture based on mixed systems of livestock and cultivation
  • Urban systems
  • Ancient and historical systems - A deep time analysis of resilience

RA researchers have been involved in the long-term studies and comparisons of 15 case studies. The results of this work appear in a 2006 special feature 'Exploring Resilience in Social-Ecological Systems' in the journal Ecology and Society.

I. Regional Research Themes


The aim of the project is to increase our understanding of the role of water in sustaining resilience in social and ecological systems dominated by agricultural land use and located in regions of water related vulnerabilities. A particular focus is on agrarian systems in need of transformation, through various management related innovations. Research focuses on the dynamic relations between land use, water flows and ecological functions, spatial landscape dynamics, and feedback loops.


The aim is to explore how regional resilience of social-ecological systems is influenced by the nature of the reserve networks they contain, and how the resilience of the reserve networks is influenced by the state and dynamics of the matrix in which they occur. Key questions include: exploring how reserves and non-reserves interact to influence regional resilience; exploring how the nature of boundaries (which can witness positive and negative flows in both directions) can influence regional resilience; and exploring the purported role that ‘refuges’ can play in rebuilding the system after collapse.


The Marine Resilience Program applies the resilience approach to marine social-ecological systems, building on the RA's traditional emphasis on terrestrial and lake systems. Marine science has been undergoing a dramatic paradigm-shift in recent years, with increased recognition of the role of people in the dynamics of all marine ecosystems. Fisheries science and marine ecology are beginning to blend, as the former becomes more experimental and the latter increases in spatial and temporal scale. The distinction between applied and basic marine science is becoming much less distinct.


In the coming decades, the world’s rapid urbanization will be one of the greatest challenges to the resilience of human welfare and the global environment.  These transforming cities represent the engines of economic growth for the developing world and, in all regions, will continue to be the centers of innovation, culture, and the arts.  These same cities, however, are the loci of increasing poverty, pollution, disease, political instability, and social inequality.  The transformation of surrounding land due to urban expansion and urban dwellers’ ever-increasing demand for energy, food, goods, and other resources is behind the degradation of local and regional environments, threatening basic ecosystem services and global biodiversity.  A research prospectus has been developed for the Urban Resilience program.

II. Cross-Cutting Theory Development

1.  A new theory program is under development (led by Steve Carpenter, Carl Folke and others).  The thrust is to gain a better understanding of transformations in SESs that have been subject to great disturbance, or that for some other reason are changing radically.  The backloop is the most mysterious and unpredictable phase of change in complex systems, yet also the phase where the most exciting, influential and novel events happen.  Briefly, the program will have five interlocking elements, each involving several RA researchers and nodes.  These elements are:

  • Tools for Backloop Theory:  development of minimal models and exploration of their behavior and ability to explain observed backloop change.  Activities will include modeling studies, comparisons of models with data from the case studies, and "laboratory" experiments that test hypotheses by studying the behavior of people playing simulated backloop games.
  • Comparative Dynamics of Backloops:  Case-study comparisons of backloops in social-ecological systems.  This will focus on regional systems where we have already established networks, or the seeds of strong networks exist.
  • Role of Diversity in Backloops:  Case-study comparisons of the role of diversity in backloops of social, political, economic and ecological systems, combined with key theoretical investigations.  This builds on the important findings from the present program of the different roles played by functional diversity and response diversity.
  • Global Experiments in Backloop Dynamics:  Web exercises using games (computer, board or card games) to explore aspects of backloops with participants around the world, using the networking capacity of Ecology and Society and the Resilience Alliance Portal.
  • Open-Source Backloop Library:  A seed bed of tools for teaching and understanding resilience and backloops, housed on the RA Portal.

The project includes innovative theory and modeling, carefully-chosen case studies, and outreach through the global experiments in backloop dynamics.


2. An on-going project on thresholds and regime shifts. It began as a joint initiative with the Santa Fe Institute's "Robustness" project with an evolving database of threshold examples, available on the RA website. The aim is to develop a typology of thresholds in ecosystems and social-ecological systems. The database will shortly be of sufficient size to warrant initial analyses aimed at a typology of thresholds and regime shifts.


Integration of I. and II.


Analyses of resilience, adaptability and transformability in SESs for the development of guidelines and principles for interventions in regard to (i) governance (including institutions and policy), (ii) investment, and (iii) management, aimed at enhancing long-term net social benefit.A variety of methods and approaches are being used to tackle this research agenda. They fall broadly into:

  • Formal models;
  • Participatory approaches to stakeholder-driven analysis of particular regions (case studies), using informal group analyses, development of agent-based models, Bayesian Belief Networks, use of historical profile analysis, scenario development, vision analysis and other techniques;
  • Comparative analysis of case studies;
  • Controlled experiments in the laboratory and the field on interactions between individuals, institutions, and their common resources. 


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