Understanding the complexity of economic, ecological and social systems.

TitleUnderstanding the complexity of economic, ecological and social systems.
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2001
AuthorsHolling C.S
Start Page4: 390-405.
Keywordsadaptive cycles, hierarchy, multiple scales, panarchy, resilience, sustainability

Gunderson, L. H. & Holling, C.S. (Eds) 2002. Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Island Press: Washington

Annotation for Understanding the complexity of economic, ecological and social systems.

Holling C.S. 2001. Understanding the complexity of economic, ecological and social systems.. Ecosystem..


Analyses the process of panarchy, multiple adaptive cycles, within the context of complex systems and sustainable development.

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This article is based substantially on the book ‘Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems’ (Gunderson & Holling 2002). ‘Panarchy’ is a term that is used to describe interactions within complex systems through hierarchies of adaptive cycles. Communications between these adaptive cycles serve to both conserve and stabilise, as well as allowing for opportunity through innovation and experimentation. The article also refers to the phenomenon whereby adaptive cycles can be maladaptive leading to ‘rigidity traps,’ that is, embedding of dysfunctional behaviours or ‘perverse resilience.’ The theoretical framework of ‘panarchy’ is used to clarify and explore practical applications for sustainable development.


The theoretical concepts within the panarchy model draw attention to critical dynamics that influence adaptive learning. One important aspect is the need for maintaining connection or transfer between levels of the panarchy, that is, various elements of the hierarchy of adaptive cycles at a range of temporal and spatial scales. It is this connection that allows transformation processes to occur through experimentation, innovation or novelty. In other words, wherever there is a disconnection within system elements, that disconnection will reduce the capacity for adaptive learning. The goal within adaptive learning, therefore, is to identify the current and potential adaptive cycles relevant to the system in question and to ensure adequate transfer, while maintaining stability more broadly. For example, if technological or economic elements of a system are disconnected from social, ecological or cultural/spiritual elements, adaptive learning and transformability will be hampered, perhaps critically for that system. This is relevant at a range of scales. This theoretical approach identifies that a system can maintain some form of resilience without these connections or knowledge flows, but the processes will tend toward ‘traps’, maladaption or ‘perverse resilience.’ Instability eventually results, where the systems reach a threshold and ‘flip’ into an unplanned, often undesirable, state.