Incorporating complex systems dynamics in sustainability assessment frameworks: enhanced prediction and management of socio-ecological systems performance

Elena Mamouni Limnios

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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[Truncated abstract] The application of reductionism, breaking down problems to simpler components that can be solved and then aggregating the results, is one of the bases of classical science. However, living organisms, ecosystems, social and economic structures are complex systems, characterised by non-linear interactions between their elements and exhibit emergent properties that are not directly traceable to their components. Sustainability assessment frameworks oversimplify system interactions, achieving limited predictive capacity and causing managerial behavior that may reduce system's ability to adapt to external disturbance. Intrigued by the importance of complexity, we explore the central theme of how complex thinking can influence the understanding and progress towards sustainability. The purpose is to conceptualize the relationship of key terms (such as sustainability, functionality and resilience), and consecutively develop new or adjust existing sustainability frameworks to take into account complex systems interactions. We aim at developing theory and frameworks that can be used to raise awareness of the pitfalls of the growth paradigm and direct towards modest positions when managing complex systems. We seek to define the structural elements that influence system adaptive capacity, allowing identification of early signs of system rigidity or vulnerability and the development of knowledge and techniques that can improve our predictive and managerial ability. The focus has been on a variety of system scales and dynamics. At the collective community level, a number of stakeholder engagement practices and frameworks are currently available. However, there is limited awareness of the complexity challenges among stakeholders, who are commonly directed to a triple bottom line analysis aiming at maximizing a combination of outputs. An attempt is conducted to measure the functionality of the processes underlying a standing stock, in contrast to sustainability measures that only assess the variations of the standing stock itself. We develop the Index of Sustainable Functionality (ISF), a framework for the assessment of complex systems interactions within a large-scale geographic domain and apply it to the State of Western Australia. '...' Finally, we focus on smaller systems scales and develop a methodology for the calculation of Product Ecological Footprint (PEF) including elements from the accounting method of activity based costing. We calculate PEF for three apple production systems and identify significant differences from first stage calculations within the same industry. Cross-industry application will provide a practical way to link individuals' consumption with their ecological impact, reduce misperceptions of products' ecological impacts and develop a market-driven approach to internalizing environmental externalities. At the firm level PEF can be compared with investment costs, resulting in the opportunity to optimize both functions of financial cost and ecological impact in decision making. We have developed methods for incorporating complexity in sustainability assessment frameworks. Further work is required in testing and validating these methodologies at multiple system scales and conditions. Integrating such tools in decision making mechanisms will enhance long-term management of socioecological systems performance.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2008


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