socio-ecological systems natural resource management
sustainability research developmental impact studies

natural resource management

Natural resource management systems are the core to sustainable development. Characterised by a high level of complexity, and shaped by unpredictable external and internal changes, they represent (and being a part of) the very nature of environment-economy conflicts, which we are facing on a global scale. In general, natural resource management systems are hierarchically arranged mosaics of co-evolving social, technological and environmental processes. As socio-ecological systems they express an essential part of human-environment interaction in which the two sides modify one another permanently by mutual feedback creating a dynamic process shaped by qualitative change, error making, ignorance, learning and adaptation.

In natural resource management, applying the concept of socio-ecological systems emphasises the objective to relate management practices based on ecological understanding, to the social mechanisms behind these practices, in a variety of geographical settings, cultures and ecosystems. This objective is tackled by the concept of adaptive management which is a relatively new approach to natural resource management that aims at the capability to simultaneously foster different ways of management, emphasising social and institutional learning, monitoring and accumulating knowledge. Subsequently, adaptive management is accompanied by permanent adjusting the rules that underpin our behaviour in order to cope with uncertainties and fundamental change. It differs from conventional practice of natural resource management as it emphasises the crucial importance of feedback from the environment in shaping management, followed by further systematic experimentation to shape subsequent management, and so on. This process is iterative and based on feedback and learning. Hence, adaptive management is co-evolutionary in the sense that it includes reciprocal feedback between the state of the resource and management policies.

Aiming at sustainable resource management a special focus is drawn on the ”coevolutionary potential“ of a management system. From a general system point of view, we understand the term ‘coevolutionary potential’ as the capacity of systems (subsystems or organisms) to establish new evolutionary interactions, which open the way for future development trajectories. It is seen as the ability to perceive and respond to feedback in terms of establishing mutual and dynamic interactions between the particular systems or evolving elements. In natural resource management systems, ‘coevolutionary potential’ enhances the reciprocal adaptations between and within socio-economic systems and natural systems, with adaptations often driven by crisis, conflicts, learning and redesign. Hence, we speak about the potential to initiate a ‘coevolutionary dialogue’ where a steady state of change is driven by the mutual and reciprocal interactions among the interlinked systems. Within this dialogue, the ability to form new combinations and innovations support the chances of adaptive change.

selected areas of the research agenda

  • Adaptive management
  • Institutional learning and change
  • Coevolutionary potential
  • The trade-off between efficiency and adaptivity


Indicators of coevolutionary dynamics – Water management systems and sustainability


Institute for Anthropology

Last modified 8 October, 2004 -