Though self-organization in a complex system is devoid of any explicit intent (i.e., system-level will or centralized control) to pursue specific aims or goals, a system possesses an intrinsic feature that underlies the capacity of its actors or components to possibly influence and manage other system properties (e.g., its resilience) and system ability to self-organize against novelty and change. This feature is defined as system adaptability.
In a natural CAS, it is related to the variability at different scales from genetic diversity (e.g., fitness to unpredictable changes), to species biodiversity (e.g., a portfolio effects of local species pool), or the heterogeneity of ecosystems and landscape mosaics in terms of structural patterns and processes. In an SES, it is related to the human social ability to learn (i.e., to create new ideas, laws, or norms) and the existence of social networks creating flexibility in problem-solving and balancing of power among interest groups. Thus adaptability is mainly a function of the social component (i.e., the individuals or groups, social norms, or economic organizations) acting directly or indirectly to manage and to dominate primarily the dynamics and direction of change of a system. However, though humans exhibit intent and are unique in having the capacity for foresight and deliberate action, an SES as a whole does not (e.g., as in the case of a market).
Adaptability could be hardly evaluated outside a retrospective analysis in real SES as it requires to assess the way actors may affect, for example, the system ecological resilience or its vulnerability/fragility. By the historical profiling of an SES' dynamic regimes and transition events, the role of actors could be enlightened and delayed effects (e.g., social learning from response to laws or disasters) appreciated. Focus needs to be on how actors could intentionally or not shift system thresholds away from or closer to the current state of the system, or the system could be moved from or closer to a threshold (Figure 1). Thresholds could be made more difficult or easier to reach, or acting at different hierarchical levels human actors could deal with cross-scale interactions to avoid or generate loss of system properties at bigger scales (e.g., by adopting national laws or international trade agreements).
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