Ecology and SocietyEcology and Society
 E&S Home > Vol. 20, No. 1 > Art. 53
The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Palmer, C. G., R. Biggs, and G. S. Cumming. 2015. Applied research for enhancing human well-being and environmental stewardship: using complexity thinking in Southern Africa. Ecology and Society 20(1): 53.
Guest Editorial, part of a special feature on Applied Research for Enhancing Human Well-Being and Environmental Stewardship: Using Complexity Thinking in Southern Africa

Applied research for enhancing human well-being and environmental stewardship: using complexity thinking in Southern Africa

1Unilever Centre for Environmental Water Quality, Institute for Water Research, Rhodes University, South Africa, 2Stockholm Resilience Centre, Sweden, 3Centre for Studies in Complexity, Stellenbosch University, South Africa, 4Percy FitzPatrick Institute, University of Cape Town, South Africa
Key words: complexity; relational; stewardship; sufficiency; well-being

Humans all over the planet are struggling and aspiring to engage with the scale and scope of the challenge of achieving human well-being and environmental stewardship for all. This special feature presents the products of processes in Southern Africa that have explored the potential use of complexity approaches to tackling the substantial social-ecological challenges in the region. Although the papers composing the special feature draw mainly on South African case studies, the thinking and participation in development processes were inclusive of the broader region.

A concept that emerges through the papers is the inevitable conflation of human well-being and justice, and together they point toward social and ecological justice as an expression of human well-being, founded on environmental stewardship. Over the time the constituent papers have emerged, Mark Swilling and Eve Annecke have produced a most elegantly written and argued book Just Transitions (Swilling and Annecke 2012) that foregrounds the justice theme, deepens and complements several of the perspectives collectively presented in this feature, particularly complexity-based research, and adds an important economics lens.

Succinctly, the conceptual framing of the feature is grounded in recognizing the implications of a conscious awareness of social-ecological systems as complex systems (Cilliers 2000, Audouin et al. 2013, Cilliers et al. 2013). This conscious apprehension embraces transdisciplinary, action-research approaches that are complexity-consistent, to gain insights and marshal action toward social and ecological justice (Swilling and Annecke 2012).

Southern Africa offers a compelling context from which to reflexively engage with the challenge of sustainable social-ecological justice and well-being. The subcontinental region has a dramatic social ecology encompassing the emergence of humanity, diaspora, multiple colonizations, and in South Africa, an unexpectedly peaceful democratic transition. Generous natural resources were fought over and used, and with time, violence and injustice were embodied, starkly, for example, in the South African apartheid regime. Later, negotiation triumphed, and a heady process of building a renewed South African society emerged. Through this, people of all sorts engaged with each other and with their environment in a process of learning to live together in a particular place.

In the present context, Southern Africa is characterized by wide-spread poverty adjacent to extravagantly consumptive lifestyles. South Africa has the highest Southern African GINI Index (range 42.7-61.3, mean 51.28; There are still rich natural resources, and a range of transitions between variously generated incomes ranging from natural resource extraction, agricultural and industrial production, to natural-resource-based local livelihoods and eco-tourism. These enterprises have divergent and often competing goals, with misaligned timescales for sustainability and profitability (Swilling and Annecke 2012). At the same time, there remains a strong mosaic of relatively intact ecosystems with structural and functional biodiversity, interspersed with rapidly deteriorating ecosystems, and concomitant loss of ecosystem services (CSIR 2012).

From this context, the authors have engaged with the task of assembling a range of conceptual, theoretical, and methodological tools with which to engage seemingly intractable situations characterized by threats to social and ecological well-being. The particular pathway to the special feature began in 2009, when a group of researchers gathered in Skukuza, Kruger National Park, South Africa. Each brought their own life and professional journeys, and each was passionate about contributing practically and intellectually to explore the challenge of sustainable social-ecological well-being. Common themes were recognitions of the need for transdisciplinary approaches, and the value of concepts including resilience, complex social-ecological systems, and strategic adaptive management (Rogers and Luton 2011). The meeting resulted in the founding of the South African National Research Foundation (NRF) and supporting the Akili Complexity and Integration and Initiative. Akili is a ki-Swahili word for wise knowing. It was chosen to signify the importance of the broadest African context, and the concept of wisdom, which integrates knowledge about how the world works with deep emotional insight about how this knowledge can be justly used to advance human well-being.

Akili was located in the Applied Research and Innovation Directorate of the NRF, and was formally motivated by the argument that research output and uptake require innovative processes that take account of the context for research processes and products. The initiative brought together a rich mix of researchers and practitioners across South Africa, with widely varying philosophies, theories, knowledge, concepts, experiences, and practices to address the explicit challenge of sustainable social-ecological well-being. Akili processes: (i) emphasized research in the service of society, that positively influences social-ecological well-being, takes account of values, and that facilitates change toward sustainability; (ii) took care to mix early career and experienced researchers and practitioners so as to encourage concurrent excellence and innovation; and (iii) communicated a set of enabling transdisciplinary practice principles (Palmer et al. 2007):

After a colloquium and national workshop, groups of Akili participants agreed to collaborate to write a series of papers that would exemplify South African learning and experience in Applied Research for Enhancing Human Well-Being and Environmental Stewardship: Using Complexity Thinking in Southern Africa. The process was both exciting and frustrating. Some really hard-working groups could not find a persuasive, substantive voice and other groups that finally submitted manuscripts were not part of the Akili process. However, five years after initiation, this issue stands as a record of a collective social learning process and reveals some of the innovative thinking and practice to emerge from southern Africa in applying complexity based approaches to advancing social-ecological stewardship and human well-being. The NRF Akili initiative has subsequently been closed down, but in addition to this special feature, its legacy has been the Southern African Complexity Forum and the establishment of the Southern African Program on Ecosystem Change and Society (SAPECS), a network of regional transdisciplinary social-ecological case studies linked to the international ICSU Program on Ecosystem Change and Society (Carpenter et al. 2012).

The lead article in this special feature is contributed by Cilliers et al. (2013). It was published posthumously and stands as a tribute to the substantive contribution of the philosopher, Professor Paul Cilliers of Stellenbosch University, to complexity as a basis from which to engage with the trenchant issues of humanity living well on the planet (Cilliers 2000, 2001). The paper offers a clear exposition of Cilliers’ perspectives and contribution to complexity thinking, framed, in this instance, in the context of natural resource management. It offers a crisp foundation to understanding that the world comprises complex systems, and that the implications of complex systems are critical to the future. The Cilliers et al. (2013) foundation is built on by Audouin et al. (2013) who further explore complexity, bringing the notion of critical complexity, and the valuable contribution of emphasizing process and underlying principles. Rogers et al. (2013) add depth to an understanding of learning processes within complex social-ecological system research and practice, highlighting the role of “habits of mind,” and both Pollard et al. (2014) and Freitag et al. (2014) take the thinking and theory of applied research in social-ecological systems into the complexity of practice. Biggs et al. (2015) present a series of examples that illustrate four general strategies for managing social-ecological systems in the face of uncertainty, based on innovations and experiences in the region.

These thoughtful pieces provide insights into the detail of applying these approaches in the real word. The papers by Malinga et al. (2013), Pad-Khene et al. (2013), and Urgenson et al. (2013) exemplify and expand on the role of stakeholder and participation and use of the notion of ecosystem services, all emerging foci of research that aims to engage with complex, real-world social-ecological issues to further social-ecological well-being.

We suggest that the particular perspective of complexity thinking in these papers enables the distillation of a few general lessons:

A final word draws on the opportunity this feature offers to express in a nuanced way the philosophy of Paul Cilliers. In presenting the world as a complex, multiple system of systems Cilliers placed relationship at the centre, both in terms of the quality and nature of the processes between elements, and in terms of the complete reality and humanity’s incomplete insight into and knowledge of that reality (Fig. 1). His primary philosophical tools were modesty and provisionality. As we seek a mosaic of methodological pathways to knowledge and understanding, each step and elucidation needs to be accepted with all its known and unknown limitations. The general lessons that emerge from the process come from exploring the several ways in which we come to know and derive meaning in the world, bringing alongside one another interesting configurations: the customary intellectual approach of academia, the contribution of an emerging understanding of both conscious and unconscious processes, and the implacable world of acting and taking responsibility for action. In some ways, recognition of the complex and systemic nature of the world has come about through a willingness to become more conscious and attentive, especially to those observations and experiences that do not make sense in terms of a modern rationality. Cilliers challenges us to recognize and take responsibility for how we act individually and collectively and be open to learning and change, and to the conversion of our deeply held habits of mind (Rogers et al. 2013) and habitus, which includes our encultured and often taken for granted socio-cultural practices (Bourdieu 1990). This hard road seems best mediated by the stories we tell one another and the quality of our listening.


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.


This special feature was supported by the South African National Research Foundation: The Akili Complexity and Integration Initiative within Applied Research and Innovation. The funding enabled author groups to meet over time, and for researchers, including early career researchers and students, to co-publish.


Audouin, M., R. Preiser, S. Nienaber, L. Downsborough, J. Lanz, and S. Mavengahama. 2013. Exploring the implications of critical complexity for the study of social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society18(3): 12.

Biggs, R., C. Rhode, S. Archibald, L. M. Kunene, S. S. Mutanga, N. Nkuna, P. O. Ocholla, and L. J. Phadima. 2015. Strategies for managing complex social-ecological systems in the face of uncertainty: examples from South Africa and beyond. Ecology and Society 20(1): 52.

Bourdieu, P. 1990. The logic of practice. Translated by R. Nice. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, USA.

Carpenter, S. R., C. Folke, A. Norström, O. Olsson, L. Schultz, B. Agarwal, P. Balvanera, B. M. Campbell, J. C. Castilla, W. Cramer, R. DeFries, P. Eyzaguirre, T. P. Hughes, S. Polasky, Z. Sanusi, R. J. Scholes, and M. Spierenburg. 2012. Program on ecosystem change and society: an international research strategy for integrated social-ecological systems. Current Opinion on Environmental Sustainability 4:134-138.

Cilliers, P. 2000. What can we learn from a theory of complexity? Emergence 2(1):23-33.

Cilliers, P. 2001. Boundaries, hierarchies and networks in complex systems. International Journal of Innovation Management 5(2):135-147.

Cilliers, P., H. C. Biggs, S. Blignaut, A. G. Choles, J. S. Hofmeyr, G. P. W. Jewitt, and D. J. Roux. 2013. Complexity, modeling, and natural resource management. Ecology and Society 18(3): 1.

Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). 2012. CSIR natural resources and environment annual research and impact report. CSIR, Pretoria, South Africa.

Freitag, S., H. Biggs, and C. Breen. 2014. The spread and maturation of strategic adaptive management within and beyond South African national parks. Ecology and Society 19(3): 25.

Ison, R. 2010. Systems practice: How to act in a climate-change world. Springer, London, UK.

Malinga, R., L. J. Gordon, R. Lindborg, and G. Jewitt. 2013. Using participatory scenario planning to identify ecosystem services in changing landscapes. Ecology and Society 18(4): 10.

Pade-Khene, C., R. Luton, T. Jordaan, S. Hildbrand, C. Gerwel Proches, A. Sitshaluza, J. Dominy, W. Ntshinga, and N. Moloto. 2013. Complexity of stakeholder interaction in applied research. Ecology and Society 18(2): 13.

Palmer, C. G., J. Gothe, C. Mitchell, C. Reidy, K. Sweetapple, S. Mclaughlin, G. Hose, M. Lowe, H. Goodall, T. Green, D. Sharma, S. Fane, K. Brew, and P. Jones. 2007. Finding integration pathways: a transdisciplinary (TD) approach for the Upper Nepean Catchment. Proceedings of the 5th Australian Stream Management Conference. Charles Sturt University, Thurgoona, New South Wales, Australia. [online] URL:

Pollard, S., H. Biggs, and D. R. Du Toit. 2014. A systemic framework for context-based decision making in natural resource management: reflections on an integrative assessment of water and livelihood security outcomes following policy reform in South Africa. Ecology and Society 19(2): 63.

Rogers, K. H., and R. Luton. 2011. Strategic adaptive management as a framework for implementing integrated water resource management in South Africa: report to the Water Research Commission. WRC Report No. KV 245/10. Gezina, South Africa.

Rogers, K. H., R. Luton, H. Biggs, R. Biggs, S. Blignaut, A. G. Choles, C. G. Palmer, and P. Tangwe. 2013. Fostering complexity thinking in action research for change in social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society 18(2): 31.

Swilling, M., and E. Annecke. 2012. Just transitions. UCT Press, Cape Town, South Africa.

Urgenson, L. S., H. E. Prozesky, and K. J. Esler. 2013. Stakeholder perceptions of an ecosystem services approach to clearing invasive alien plants on private land. Ecology and Society 18(1): 26.

Address of Correspondent:
Carolyn G. Palmer
IWR, Rhodes University
PO Box 94, Grahamstown
6140, South Africa
Jump to top