10 An Ecological Principle

In this chapter, the findings of section two are revisited and interpreted in light of an ecological organising principle. A number of stewardship principles to ensure sustainability are presented. These principles are borrowed from natural ecology research. The "health" of the research environment is assessed in ways reminiscent of how natural habitats are studied. Namely, it is claimed that the quantity and quality of relationships in the research networks (and how they change over time) represent a critical indication of how healthy and vibrant the environment is.

Output versus outcomes
outcomes are usually more long-term and less defined. how accurately do outputs match outcomes? in this instance, these are research publications, funding and collaboration. Outcomes are knowledge discovery, aggregation/filtering and dissemination. (and evolutionary version of research)

Fads such as MBO, PPBS are part of the economic organising principle. They failed because they did not attend to the political organising priciple.

Rhetoric of economic engine

Axioms of the ecosystem view:
1. The system is complex. Fads fail because outcomes are not quantifiable and outputs are inadequate. they oversimplify the system
2. Outcomes cannot be assessed by output. They only describe the system, not prescribe it.
3. More can be learned from describing the system then devising cause-effect relationships
4. The system is people-centric

2 Ecology as An Organising Principle

Innovation is the activity of solving existing problems in new ways (by way of inventing, borrowing or adapting solutions.) Contrast this what Nature does. Nature does not solve problems; in Nature there are only processes of natural selection and some sort of competition between agents for limited resources. For example, Nature does not adapt “solutions” from one environment to another (Nature is no sentient). Rather, we call such things convergent evolutions, divergent evolutions, and so on.

If this is correct then Biomimcry is not a searching the natural environment for a solution to some socio-technological problem. Biomimcry is, itself, *a solution* of the problem (that takes its cue from Nature.) It is a solution among many and its merits need to be justified by showing that it is somehow more effective or more efficient than other solutions.

But Nature’s “solutions” are neither more effective nor more efficient than other solutions (at least not necessarily so). Contrary to popular belief, survival is often not of the fittest but of the merely adequate. Many natural “solutions” are far more complex and inefficient than necessary. (Indeed, every now and then, Humans give Nature a push to be more effective and/or efficient) Moreoever, Nature’s way of inventing is limited to those products that afford gradual improvements over time.

An Evolutionary Approach
In environments where context is constantly changing, constant re-customisation is not a desirable answer in terms of time, money and effort. One way that to mitigate this problem is by adding more dimensions to the problem or “degrees of freedom”. That is, by introducing more variables that can be tweaked by changing context “parameters”. While it might work with a low number of dimensions, this ad hoc solution is not sound on two grounds: first, however many degrees of freedom one might add to the system, it shall remain unsatisfactory until it can "adequately" capture the context. The mostly likely outcome, here, is a prohibitively large number of parameters that overwhelmingly complicates the solution for little perceivable benefit.

Second, a more serious problem with this approach is that it fails to acknowledge that changes in the context are not external factors. They are, in fact, endogenic -- products of the system itself. Multiplying the degrees of freedom is bound to be fruitless as it lacks the deep understanding of how these changes occur and the forces that govern them. Changes in the context are manifestations of system-wide properties or phenomena that occur at a higher level of granularity than what a piecewise reductionist modelling approach is able to deal with. Bar-Yam[1] suggests that in such complex environment, an evolutionary approach is needed. And such an approach requires the existence of an ecosystem.

The Ecology as an Organising Principle
"An ecosystem is a biological community and its environment. All the dynamic interactions between plants, animals, and the physical environment in which they live make up an ecosystem. No community can carry more organisms than its food, water, and physical environment can accommodate therefore for an ecosystem to be self sustaining these interactions must remain in balance. In an ecosystem, each organism has its own niche, or role, to play. Food and territory are often balanced by natural phenomena such as fire, disease, and the number of predators. Ecosystems may change in function, structure and composition over time due to natural or human disturbance such as drought, flooding, mowing and herbicides."

Ecosystem as concept innovation

The ecosystem paradigm is a content-free principle that the sustainability of socio-technical systems can be managed in ways similar to that of natural environments.

There are 3 traditions in ecosystems thinking: part/whole, combination, energies
Socio-technical enviornments need to satisfy the certain criteria to qualify as complex ecosystems:

Interactions between agents are restricted to their local vicinity. But give rise to system-wide "emergent" properties
The system lacks strong top-down control. Top-down control is often weakened by bottom-up forces
The ecosystem is organised as a heterogeneous network structure
The various elements of the ecosystem are able to adapt to the changing conditions of their environment
The elements of the ecosystem possess mechanisms that evolve new properties and functions under the influence of environmental forces

Evolution happens whenever there is replication, variation and selection

"requisite variety" to enhance resilience

"It is important for students to understand that food webs are diagrams representing only some of the many possible relationships that exist in any given ecosystem."

2 From a descriptive model to a perscriptive toolkit: Ecosystem Health

How can the ecosystem be used as a normative model? better assess the health of the environment and help steer it towards sustainability.

For instance, it is important for those in charge of the ecosystem to foster evolutionary drive of the environment by looking at ways to maintain the sustainability of the ecosystem. Some ways to do that might be by influencing the topology of the ecosystem at certain important junctions in its evolution or by imposing constraints that speed up or slow down the rate of change in certain niches. The toolkit can assist the ecosystem steward in understanding the structural characteristics of the environment and shape it into a sustainable ecosystem.

Meso level
Context variability
Change over time and space
Macro level
Ecosystem diversity
Ecosystem heterogeneity
Ecosystem evolution
Emergent properties

  1. ^ Bar-Yam, Y. When Systems Engineering Fails: Towards Complex Systems Engineering. in IEEE International Conference on Systems, Man and Cybernetics. 2003.