October 08, 2006

Colorful ecological economics

I hesitate to assign special epistemological status to science. But I do think science is fun while other "ways of knowing" - religion, tradition, post-normal science, being at one with nature and the cosmos - are boring. Thus, I think ecology is fun and economics is fun but ecological economics is boring.

The text below exemplifies how boring ecological economics can be even after adding colors to enhance it.
This overview pertains to a current Phd study underway at the Centre for Ecological Economics and Water Policy Research. The work is being undertaken by Micheal O'Loughlin.

This research employs a complexity theoretical framework or way of knowing that envisages organizations, industry-markets, regions and cities as self-organising emergent, complex adaptive systems. A complexity systems framework and perspective, acknowledges the existence of non-linear interrelationships across economic, social and ecological system domains. These systems are shaped by both negative stabilizing and positive accentuating feedback loops, unintended consequences, lagged feedback effects over space and time from policy decisions, disturbances and the dynamic interrelationships with other nearby systems. For instance, property price rises and urban consolidation policies in the Sydney regional metropolis can encourage further population outflows to and rapid changes in the pace of development in other regions in NSW.

Regional tourism destinations and enterprises are seen as examples of complex adaptive systems. Such regional complex adaptive systems with their market situations typified by a high degree of complexity and uncertainty, with rapid technological and evolving markets, require new planning approaches with an appreciation of their nature as adaptive systems.

Complexity thinking is also concerned with the dynamics of emergence of both new structures and behaviours as a system adapts through countless small, ongoing interactions between its numerous elements to develop, new system pathways, novelty or a new whole. Emergence can explain the evolution of a city, ant colonies building giant ant nest or the dynamic formation and purposeful tracking of a blue slime mould through a forest i.e. their emergent higher order emergent behaviours and structures.

This thesis also explores and advances a re-configuring or new conceptual way of seeing or metaphor of regions and places as culturally storied, self-organising emergent complex systems. These regional and place systems, envisaged here as interconnected social, economic and ecological systems, it is argued, are storied and shaped by different, planning narratives and contesting cultural perspectives. This study considers whether a particular place based regional, planning process can establish the ripening conditions to catalyze emergence of new stakeholder-agency governance structures with a capability for adaptive social learning and innovation, i.e. novelty. Regions, their rural places, diverse communities, various landholder and town based industries are depicted as dynamic interconnected social-economic-environmental systems adapting to changes within their boundaries and in response to other regions, nearby metropolis as well as exogenous factors such as market and climate change.

In comparison, simple systems thinking and the strategic planning approach assumes linear causal relationships and that outlining pre-determined goals with aligned strategies can deliver planned outcomes. This type of instrumentally rationalist thinking underpins modernist strategic planning approaches and relies on step by step methodologies and planning instruments; it assumes that self-organising complex adaptive systems can be controlled through the mere act of developing plans which contrast with the current reality for global and regional industry and markets outlined above.

This research project has also purposefully drawn on insights from both soft systems thinking (Checkland) and collaborative planning approaches (Healy, Innes & Booher) and seeks to promulgate a new collaborative systems planning approach. In doing this, the study seeks to add to the scope of methodological pluralism that underlies the ecological economics project outlined by Richard Noorgaard.

This particular collaborative conversational systems approach is applicable for both the planning of sustainable regional enterprises and regions i.e. planning at a regional or cross-regional scale. In this instance, this planning process helped build a shared multi-stakeholder systems picture to better understand a region’s adaptive dynamics, its stakeholders, the key relationships and what type of regional tourism system would best fit in with and most likely work in this region. This collaborative system picture building process helped stakeholders to appraise and test the feasibility of regional tourism initiatives in this case and guides decision-making as to the best design and implementation of such projects.

This planning research project seeks a new way to make sense and generate social-collaborative learning to better co-manage evolutionary transitions within these complex, evolutionary regional-place systems.

The study explores whether this particular collaborative conversational systems approach, at a cross-regional scale, can catalyze emergence and novelty as outlined above, as part of identifying sustainable pathways. It is a purposeful exploration of a new way of planning that is considered more appropriate with a new way of seeing and thinking about regions and their places, as complex, self-organising emergent systems.

This work seeks to build on the ‘mudmapping’ tools employed by other Centre for Ecological Economics and Water Policy Research researchers, Roderic Gill and Tony Meppem in their earlier forays into planning for sustainable regional localities. Firstly, by employing the mudmapping tool within a wider cross-regional and deliberate self-organising conversational process. Secondly, by articulating the hermeneutical phenomenological principles and process as to how to elicit the key design principles, community and stakeholder advice and any emergent, novel concepts for a regional tourism venture. In this way the collaborative conversational process can open up new ‘horizons’ i.e. understandings about and possibilities for sustainable regional development pathways. This process aimed at capturing the ‘essence’ of these stakeholder-community conversations; notably a better designed or stakeholder informed, re-conceptualisation of what a feasible and sustainable regional ecotourism venture might look like..

This study also constitutes a first stage exploration of a ‘bottom up planning process that explicitly addresses regions as self-organising systems. In this case bottom-up planning was used to creatively appraise and re-design a regional tourism enterprise through an inclusive dialogue with a wide range of regional stakeholders, communities and agencies. ‘Bottom Up Planning ’ is envisaged as a purposeful catalysing and mapping of an open, self-organizing conversational process, with no pre-determined goals, to explore, scope, co-evaluate and identify other possible emergent regional pathways, generate and re-design novel enterprises, collaborative governance- management network structures and stakeholder strategies. A bottom up planning process sought here, in this instance, to foster emergence and novelty as a way to help catalyze regional transformation. ‘Top-Down Planning’ is used to denote the expert-led strategizing around a pre-determined vision, strategies and goals, using instrumental rationalist logic, characteristic of strategic planning to shape, align activities and resource allocation to drive and control an organizations, regions or cities growth and evolution.

This study poses the notion of a new bottom-up top-down or adaptive planning process. Here feedback and learning about how a particular market or industry landscape is changing, ideas about adaptive change options, potential new enterprise services and structures or evolutionary pathways are identified and co-evaluated by regional stakeholders to explore new evolutionary transformations. This bottom-up process is seen as helping to re-formulate strategic plans to adapt to changing circumstances in markets, to new technologies and to re-align the enterprise or regional system to serious disturbances such as rapid oil price rises. The top down planning process in this case, supports and flexibly responds to feedback from this on-going, self-organising stakeholder conversation about adaptive and evolutionary change options.

This regional planning study also sought to explore and develop a more culturally appropriate planning process to engage with the rich complexity and uniqueness of Australian regional landscapes. Australian regional landscapes are portrayed as unique complex ecological, social, economic phenomena that are multi-culturally layered. Regional stakeholder groupings occupy varying hermeneutical circles, each with their own particular ways of knowing, seeing, thinking and sets of priorities. Regional planning conversations can avoid or deny this complexity of ‘landscapes of difference’ or seek to engage with it. This exploratory conversational systems picture building approach deliberately sought to explore this rich cross-regional complexity i.e. the specific local context this particular proposed tourism enterprise as well as ways to harness other, stakeholder ways of knowing and local situated knowledge to co-assess the sustainability of this regional tourism enterprise.

A second methodological contribution is a reflexive, learning process tool to assist planners engaged in planning conversations across regional Australian landscapes that are cross-cultural and or involve stakeholders and communities with differing hermeneutical circles, worldviews or ways of understanding the world.


  1. Let's hope there are more Heroic Computers out there,

  2. It's really boring!!. I was unable to finish of reading it. Does text say something really?

  3. Lol!

    I haven't read it through and through. That would have required an adaptive dynamic evolutionary appreciation of its nature as a complex regional planning stakeholder approach, which I unfortunately lack. I have used a complex adaptive systems bottom-up search routine to add the emergent conversational colors, which saved me the hermeneutical lagged-feedback effort of going word by word and disturbing other interconnected nearby self-organising systems.

  4. I don't think you have an ecological education if you are making fun of this. It is quite clear what it says, it just happens to be written for ecologists who use complexity theory and emergent properties in their work. You, obviously, don't. As these are what is being taught now, you are behind in your education or don't have one.