3.1 Cycles of Change: The Adaptive Cycle

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Managing resilience requires understanding cycles of change and the vulnerabilities and windows of opportunity these cycles of change introduce.

Example: Forest fires - an ecological example of the adaptive cycleThe adaptive cycle describes four phases of change (growth, conservation, release, and reorganization) that are characteristic of many systems, particularly natural resource systems. Having an understanding of where a system is in the adaptive cycle as well as knowing a bit about past cycles of change in the system allows for more strategic management. Whether your goal is to reduce the risk of crossing an imminent threshold or to change the system’s trajectory in order to make it more sustainable, knowing how system vulnerabilities and opportunities vary from phase to phase can help to guide management decisions.

Key Messages

• Most systems are not static they are dynamic and change over time. While not entirely predictable, these changes often follow a pattern in which four phases of change are commonly observed.

• During the growth phase when resources are plentiful, fast-growing entities that can take advantage of these resources tend to dominate the system.

• As the system matures, it enters a conservation phase where resources become ‘locked up’ in longer-lived entities, (e.g., nutrients in the soil are absorbed by trees) and are no longer available for new colonizers. As a few species or organizations come to dominate in the conservation phase, the system tends to become less flexible which increases the likelihood of collapse.

• A release phase is often viewed as a disturbance to the system. Disturbances can destroy structure and other forms of capital, whether it is natural capital, such as accumulated biomass in a forest, or social capital such as policies or relationships, as suggested by the history of the telephone industry. These forms of capital have accumulated during the prior growth and conservation phases.

• The release phase is quickly followed by the reorganization phase during which new entities and innovations may enter the system but only a few will survive through to the start of the next growth phase.

• Often the new adaptive cycle will be very similar to the old; at other times, it will be very different. Forests may re-colonize with similar species and assemblages.

• The combined growth and conservation phases are called the ‘fore loop’, while the release and reorganization phases are together called the ‘back loop’ to distinguish system behaviour before and after disturbances.

• The system needn’t move sequentially between the four phases of the adaptive cycle, other transitions are possible. Nonetheless, these four phases seem to capture the behavior, structures, and characteristics of many systems.

• Sometimes, a release phase is beneficial at the focal scale. It can invite innovation and provide a ‘window of opportunity’ for creating a new system configuration when the old one is untenable.

• Levels of various capitals (e.g., natural, financial, social, etc. see Appendix B) can be the limiting factor in determining a system’s adaptability.

Resilience Assessment

In the assessment that follows you will identify the current phase of your focal system, describe some of its past adaptive cycles and the events that appear to have triggered shifts between phases. Note that phases are not precisely defined — some people might consider a system in the growth phase while others consider it in the conservation phase, particularly if the system is close to a transition. Some disagreement about phase assignments should not be unexpected. Similarly, not all systems will exhibit these four-phase characteristics. If you have worked through the assessment on thresholds and disturbances (chapter 2), you may find you can deal with some of the following questions quite quickly.

Consider which phase of the adaptive cycle your focal system (the social-ecological system) is in (growth, conservation, release, or reorganization). You may wish to initially consider the different domains separately—ecological, social, and economic. What phase is each of these in? What does this mean for the overall phase of the system? (Note that some domains could, for instance, be in a growth phase but you could still determine that the overall connected system still behaves as if it were in a conservation phase.) How long have each of the domains been in their current phase? How long has the whole focal system been in its current phase? Some of this information might be gleaned from the earlier timeline activity. Organize the information in the table below.

Table 3.1.1 Adaptive cycle phase descriptions of the focal system




For the focal system, list the dominant characteristics that have led you to assign its current phase. Does the system appear to be close to changing into another phase? If yes, what current dynamics or situations lead you to that conclusion?

Using the information that you developed in the timeline activity, can you identify past adaptive cycles for your focal system? How long did each last? Did those cycles conform to the basic sequence of change in the adaptive cycle or did they appear to follow a different trajectory? If so, what trajectory?

What crisis or disturbance (review the list of disturbances developed previously) appeared to trigger the move from the fore loop to the back loop? Note that the disturbance could come in the ecological, social, and/or economic domain. What structures or characteristics of the system made it vulnerable to that crisis or event? (In other words, why wasn’t the crisis absorbed without triggering a back loop?) Was the next adaptive cycle very similar to, somewhat similar to, or very different from the previous one? If different, how was it different? If it is the same, what does that say about the back loop in terms of thresholds? [Note: Refer to the timeline and threshold assessments.]

Table 3.1.2 Past adaptive cycles


Implications for Management

One of the insights from evaluating many case studies in resilience is that learning and innovation must be fostered regardless of the phase of the adaptive cycle. Consider your assessment of the system from chapter 1. What were the sources of innovation and learning you identified? Are these retained through all phases of the adaptive cycle? Are different strategies required to promote them in different stages of the adaptive cycle? Should you consider promoting more innovation and learning—for example, retaining the innovators even when things appear to be going smoothly?

In the front loop (growth and conservation phases), efficiency is often achieved at the expense of flexibility. This trade-off is often required to achieve a conservation phase, where resources can be efficiently exploited. If too much flexibility is lost, however, systems cannot respond to surprise and are vulnerable to entering a back loop. How much flexibility—in the social, economic, and ecological domains—have you retained in your system? Is there a reasonable balance between flexibility and efficiency? If not, how can balance be reintroduced? Enter any action items on the sheets provided.

In the back loop (release and reorganization phases), it is critical to retain capital—ecological capital, economic capital, and social capital (e.g., human resources, trust, social networks, etc.). This capital will be required in the next adaptive cycle; if too much capital is lost during a back loop, systems risk moving into very different (less desired) states in the next adaptive cycle, or remaining in the back loop. What plans are in place, if any, to retain critical capital during periods of change and reorganization? Is more needed? Enter any action items on the sheets provided.

3.1 Cycles of Change: The Adaptive Cycle

3.2 Cross-Scale Interactions: Influences from Below and Above

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