Scientific articles

This is a selection of key scientific papers about the subject of resilience, both from a theoretical and practical perspective. While we endeavour to showcase southern African examples of resilience thinking and practice, some of the articles highlighted here also provide useful background information and insights into resilience learnings from other regions of the world. Please click on the images to navigate to the articles.


Resilience: what it is and is not

Brian H. Walker

2020; Ecology and Society 25(2): 11.

“Resilience” is becoming a buzzword. Sometimes it is open to
interpretation and sometimes it is simply wrong. This misuse is
detracting from an important and much-needed basis for
managing agricultural regions, rivers, fisheries, natural
ecosystems, cities, communities, people—all of which are complex
systems. To help overcome the misunderstandings this paper
is a brief outline of what resilience is and what it is not, based on
research over the past 50 years.


Exploring resilience capacities with food innovators: a narrative approach

Lindow, M., Preiser, R., Biggs, R.

2020; Global Sustainability 3: E28.

We interviewed grassroots food innovators in South Africa to explore the diverse ways in which their narratives expressed different capacities for resilience, such as dealing with surprise and shaping desirable change. We drew on key resilience themes of rootedness, resourcefulness and resistance (the 3Rs) as lenses through which to view their personal stories and efforts to build resilience and reshape the future. We used narrative and interpretative methods to connect the personal and context-specific experiences of food innovators to the 3Rs, exploring a new approach to uncovering resilience capacities. We suggest that this approach could be usefully employed to understand potential resilience capacities that could help address diverse sustainability challenges around the world.


Systems thinking for planning and evaluating conservation interventions

Mahajan, S., Glew, L., Rieder, E., Ahmadia, G., Darling, E. et al.

2019; Conservation Science and Practice 1: e44.

As conservation shifts to meet the challenges of our globalized world, approaches for planning and evaluating interventions must evolve to account for the increasing complexity of conservation problems and the dynamic, multiscalar relationships between humans and the environment. Systems thinking offers approaches that could help conservation be more adaptive, transparent, and evidence‐based. Using case studies and the literature, we trace the evolution of systems thinking and demonstrate how systems mapping could support the process of planning and evaluating interventions.


Improving conservation practice with principles and tools from systems thinking and evaluation

Knight, A., Cook, C., Redford, K., Biggs, D., Romero, C. et al.

2019; Sustainability Science 14: 1531-1548.

Achieving nature conservation goals require grappling with ‘wicked’ problems. These intractable problems arise from the complexity and dynamism of the social–ecological systems in which they are embedded. To enhance their ability to address these problems, conservation professionals are increasingly looking to the transdisciplines of systems thinking and evaluation. We present a review and synthesis of the learnings about praxis that have emerged from The Silwood Group, a consortium of conservation professionals, professional evaluators, and complexity and systems thinkers.


Social-ecological resilience and biosphere-based sustainability science

Folke, C., Biggs, R., Norstrom, A., Reyers, B., & Rockstrom, J.

2016; Ecology and Society 21(3): 41.

Humanity has emerged as a major force in the operation of the biosphere. The focus is shifting from the environment as externality to the biosphere as precondition for social justice, economic development, and sustainability. In this article, we exemplify the intertwined nature of social-ecological systems and emphasize that they operate within, and as embedded parts of the biosphere and as such coevolve with and depend on it. We regard social-ecological systems as complex adaptive systems and use a social-ecological resilience approach as a lens to address and understand their dynamics. We raise the challenge of stewardship of development in concert with the biosphere for people in diverse contexts and places as critical for long-term sustainability and dignity in human relations.


Measuring and assessing resilience: broadening understanding through multiple disciplinary perspectives

Quinlan, A., Berbes-Blasquez, M., Haider, L. J. & Peterson, G.

2016; Journal of Applied Ecology 53: 677-687.

Increased interest in managing resilience has led to efforts to develop standardized tools for assessments and quantitative measures. Resilience, however, as a property of complex adaptive systems, does not lend itself easily to measurement. Whereas assessment approaches tend to focus on deepening understanding of system dynamics, resilience measurement aims to capture and quantify resilience in a rigorous and repeatable way. We discuss the strengths, limitations and trade‐offs involved in both assessing and measuring resilience, as well as the relationship between the two. We use a range of disciplinary perspectives to draw lessons on distilling complex concepts into useful metrics.


Incorporating the social-ecological approach in protected areas in the Anthropocene

Palomo, I., Montes, C., Martin-Lopez, B., Gonzalez J., Garcia-Llorente M. et al.

2014; BioScience 64: 181-191.

Protected areas are the main strategy for the protection of ecosystems and biodiversity. However, changes occurring during the Anthropocene continue to threaten biodiversity and, therefore, the associated ecosystem services that maintain human well-being. Despite efforts to integrate protected areas into a wider landscape, most of these areas are still managed as islands within a matrix of degraded territory; there is no clear conceptual framework that integrates them into the surrounding landscape. We first review the evolution of the protected-area concept. Then, we acknowledge the main limitations that protected areas face for long-term conservation. Next, we discuss how the ecosystem service approach could overcome some of these protected-area limitations. Finally, we propose a social–ecological approach for protected areas to maintain high biodiversity and its associated flow of ecosystem services in the context of uncertainty.


Toward principles for enhancing the resilience of ecosystem services

Biggs, R., Schlueter, M., Biggs, D., Bohensky, E., BurnSilver, S. et al.

2012; Annual Review of Environment and Resources 37: 421-448

Enhancing the resilience of ecosystem services (ES) that underpin human well-being is critical for meeting current and future societal needs, and requires specific governance and management policies. Using the literature, we identify seven generic policy-relevant principles for enhancing the resilience of desired ES in the face of disturbance and ongoing change in social-ecological systems (SES). These principles are (P1) maintain diversity and redundancy, (P2) manage connectivity, (P3) manage slow variables and feedbacks, (P4) foster an understanding of SES as complex adaptive systems (CAS), (P5) encourage learning and experimentation, (P6) broaden participation, and (P7) promote polycentric governance systems. We briefly define each principle, review how and when it enhances the resilience of ES, and conclude with major research gaps.