Complexity is overwhelmingly apparent in both the structure and the dynamics of the ecosystems, economies, and societies that we inhabit on a daily basis. Complex systems are recognisable through their behaviours and their architecture. They often respond nonlinearly (disproportionately) to small perturbations; they process information; they self-organize and adapt to their local environment, often via the action of selection on diversity; they incorporate feedbacks, both amplifying and regulating, between cause and effect; and they have the potential to undergo regime shifts and display alternate stable states. Their behaviours are made possible by their architecture, which is hierarchical, multi-scalar, and full of redundancy.
An important but often ignored element of complexity is the fact that most complex systems have a location (or a series of locations, if mobile) in geographic space. Location can determine the ability of a complex adaptive system to persist. For instance, location influences a system’s interactions with other systems, the perturbations that it experiences, its relationships to broader and finer-scale patterns and processes, and its immediate environment.
My research programme focuses on the concept of spatial resilience. This body of theory recognizes that spatial variation (e.g., context, gradients, connectivity, network membership, and spatial feedbacks) changes how complex systems adapt, maintain or return to a desired state, and ultimately persist. My students and I combine tools from complexity theory and other disciplines to explore the spatial resilience of complex systems, as exemplified by social-ecological systems (SESs). As a case study, we have recently started to work on protected areas – both private and public - in southern Africa.
In particular, we are interested in five focal questions: (1) how do asymmetries in biophysical and economic environments influence the emergence of social-ecological networks? (2) How do the locations of network members (nodes) in space affect their likelihood of sub-group membership and the properties (e.g., response speed, frequency of interaction) of different networks to which they belong? (3) How do spatially congruent networks interact with one another, and to what extent do they influence one another’s spatial development (e.g., clustering of nodes at different scales) and other properties? (4) How do networks of social-ecological systems develop through time, and can classical landscape ecology variables such as area size, shape, or proximity to other landscape features predict network development and/or explain why some nodes persist and others do not? And lastly, (5) how do local and regional controls relate to one another as drivers of social-ecological resilience, and how rigid are these structures? For example, can local resilience be built independently of national or regional resilience if national governance is weak?
Our research will apply complex systems approaches to a clearly articulated question (that of how spatial variation and network membership influence the resilience of protected areas) in several fields of study where they are not mainstream - particularly, conservation biogeography, landscape ecology, ecosystem services, and protected area management. It will also contribute to the further conceptual development of complex systems theory by providing new insights into pattern-process relationships and testing existing hypotheses.