Adaptive Capacity as a Dynamic Institutional Process: Conceptual Perspectives and Their Application

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Abstract

This paper takes exception to approaches to adaptive capacity derived from either ecology or social science that treat it as a systems response to exposure and vulnerability. It argues that many such approaches are inherently tautological (i.e. adaptive capacity is the ability of a system to adapt) and often provide little more than a classification of the determinants of adaptive capacity without an analysis or explanation of it as a dynamic social process. We suggest that such limitations are further compounded in those works that link adaptive capacity to institutional analysis, but which see institutions largely as cultural straitjackets limiting the ability of societies to respond to either ecological or social changes. We argue, instead, for an approach based in “New Institutional Analysis”. Our perspective regards institutions as the cultural frames supporting organizational processes. However, our focus is on the extent to which actors operating in organizations are impeded or facilitated by these cultural frameworks. We argue that it is the capacity of these institutional approaches to permit actions that are effective “adaptive” responses to changing environmental circumstances that is the appropriate measure of adaptive capacity. Such an approach focuses on decision-processes and interactive patterns. It is, we suggest, consistent with the work of Ostrom (2005) and the Institutional Dimensions of Global Environmental Change (IDGEC) of the International Human Dimensions Program (IHDP). We conclude the paper with a brief example of how we are operationalizing our approach in our examination of the adaptive capacity of the 'Arctic Gateway City' of Whitehorse, Yukon.