Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

A synthesis of key factors for sustainability in social–ecological systems


Attempts to identify relevant variables for the success or failure of sustainable management of social–ecological systems seem to be constrained by the inconsistent organization of the variables and the difficulties arising from their lack of comparability; both of these reduce generalizability to other systems. Therefore, to date, only a few comprehensive lists of attributes relevant to the performance of socio-ecological systems exist for sustainable management. This paper integrates such lists into a synthesis of 24 concepts. The scattered evidence of why each factor is important for sustainability has been compiled through a literature review. This concept synthesis may help to overcome some of the constraints of SES research by increasing the comparability of research designs and extending analyses from that of a few concepts for a few systems to widely applicable approaches in sustainability science.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. Acheson JM (1987) The lobster fiefs revisited: economic and ecological effects of territoriality in the maine lobster industry. In: McCay BJ, Acheson JM (eds) The question of the commons. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, pp 37–65

  2. Agrawal A (2001) Common property institutions and sustainable governance of resources. World Dev 29(10):1649–1672

  3. Agrawal A (2002) Common Resources and Institutional Sustainability. In: Ostrom E, Dietz T, Dolšak N, Stern PC, Stonich S, Weber EU (eds) The Drama of the Commons. National Academy Press, Washington, pp 41–85

  4. Agrawal A (2007) Forests, governance, and sustainability: common property theory and its contributions. Int J Commons 1(1):111–136

  5. Agrawal A, Chhatre A (2006) Explaining success on the commons: community forest governance in the Indian Himalaya. World Dev 34(1):149–166

  6. Anderies JM, Janssen MA, Ostrom E (2004) A framework to analyze the robustness of social–ecological systems from an institutional perspective. Ecol Soc 9(1):18

  7. Baland J, Platteau J (1996) Halting degradation of natural resources: is there a role for rural communities?. Clarendon Press, Oxford

  8. Berkes F (1986) Local-level management and the commons problem: a comparative study of Turkish coastal fisheries. Mar Policy 10:215–229

  9. Berkes F (1987) Common-property resource management and Cree Indian fisheries in subarctic Canada. In: McCay BJ, Acheson JM (eds) The question of the commons. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, pp 66–91

  10. Berkes F (1992) Success and failure in marine coastal fisheries of turkey. In: Bromley DW, Feeny D, Peters P, Gilles JL, Oakerson RJ, Runge CF, Thomson JT (eds) Making the commons work. Institute for Contemporary Studies, San Francisco, pp 161–182

  11. Berkes F (2007) Community-based conservation in a globalized world. Proc Natl Acad Sci 104(39):15188–15193

  12. Binder CR, Bots P, Hinkel J, Pahl-Wostl C (2013) Comparison of frameworks for analysing social–ecological systems. Ecol Soc 18(4):26–44

  13. Bischoff I (2007) Institutional choice vs communication in social dilemmas—an experimental approach. J Econ Behav Organ 62:20–36

  14. Brooks JS, Waylen KA, Mulder MB (2012) How national context, project design, and local community characteristics influence success in community-based conservation projects. Proc Natl Acad Sci 109(52):21265–21270

  15. Chhatre A, Agrawal A (2008) Forest commons and local enforcement. Proc Natl Acad Sci 105(36):13286–13291

  16. Cinner JE, McClanahan TR, MacNeil MA, Graham NA, Daw TM, Mukminin A, Feary DA, Rabearisoa AL, Wamukota A, Jiddawi N, Campbell SJ, Baird AH, Januchowski-Hartley FA, Hamed S, Lahari R, Morove T, Kuange J (2012) Comanagement of coral reef social–ecological systems. Proc Natl Acad Sci 109(14):5219–5222

  17. Cox M (2010) Exploring the dynamics of social–ecological systems: the case of the Taos valley acequias. Dissertation, Bloomington

  18. Cox M, Arnold G, Villamayor Tomas S (2010) A review of design principles for community-based natural resource management. Ecol Soc 15(4):38–57

  19. Dietz T, Dolšak N, Ostrom E, Stern PC (2002) The drama of the commons. In: Ostrom E, Dietz T, Dolšak N, Stern PC, Stonich S, Weber EU (eds) The drama of the commons. National Academy Press, Washington, pp 1–36

  20. Domptail S, Easdale MH (2013) Managing socio-ecological systems to achieve sustainability: a study of resilience and robustness. Environ Policy Gov 23(1):30–45

  21. Falk A, Fehr E, Fischbacher U (2003) On the nature of fair behavior. Econ Inq 41(1):20–26

  22. Feeny DH (1992) Where Do We Go from Here? Implications for the Research Agenda. In: Bromley DW, Feeny D, Peters P, Gilles JL, Oakerson RJ, Runge CF, Thomson JT (eds) Making The Commons Work. Institute for Contemporary Studies, San Francisco, pp 267–292

  23. Folke C, Carpenter S, Elmqvist T, Gunderson L, Holling CS, Walker B (2002) Resilience and sustainable development: building adaptive capacity in a world of transformations. AMBIO J Human Environ 31(5):437–440

  24. Frey UJ, Cox M (2015) Building a diagnostic ontology of social–ecological systems. Int J Commons 9(2):595–618

  25. Frey UJ, Rusch H (2013) Introducing artificial neural networks to the analysis of social–ecological systems. Ecol Soc 18(2):40

  26. Frey UJ, Rusch H (2014) Modelling ecological success of common pool resource systems using large datasets. World Dev 59:93–103

  27. Geels FW (2002) Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes: a multi-level perspective and a case-study. Res Policy 31(8–9):1257–1274

  28. Gibson CC, Williams JT, Ostrom E (2005) Local enforcement and better forests. World Dev 33(2):273–284

  29. Gruber E (2008) Key principles of community-based natural resource management: a synthesis and interpretation of identified effective approaches for managing the commons. Environ Manag 45:52–66

  30. Gutiérrez NL, Hilborn R, Defeo O (2011) Leadership, social capital and incentives promote successful fisheries. Nature 470(7334):386–389

  31. Hagedorn K (2008) Particular requirements for institutional analysis in nature-related sectors. Eur Rev Agric Econom 35(3):357–384

  32. Hinkel J, Cox M, Schlüter M, Binder C, Falk T (2015) A diagnostic procedure for applying the social–ecological systems framework in diverse cases. Ecol Soc 20(1):32

  33. Kajikawa Y (2008) Research core and framework of sustainability science. Sustain Sci 3(2):215–239

  34. Kosfeld M, Okada A, Riedl A (2009) Institution formation in public goods games. Am Econ Rev 99(4):1335–1355

  35. Lam WF (1998) Governing Irrigation Systems in Nepal: Institutions, Infrastructure, and Collective Action. Institute for Contemporary Studies, San Francisco

  36. Loring PA (2016) Toward a theory of coexistence in shared social–ecological systems: the case of cook inlet salmon fisheries. Human Ecol Interdiscip J 44:153–165

  37. Markard J, Raven R, Truffer B (2012) Sustainability transitions: an emerging field of research and its prospects. Res Policy 41(6):955–967

  38. McGinnis M, Ostrom E (2014) social–ecological system framework: initial changes and continuing challenges. Ecol Soc 19(2):30

  39. McKean MA (1992) Management of traditional common lands (Iriaichi) in Japan. In: Bromley DW, Feeny D, Peters P, Gilles JL, Oakerson RJ, Runge CF, Thomson JT (eds) Making the commons work. Institute for Contemporary Studies, San Francisco, pp 63–98

  40. Meinzen-Dick R (2007) Beyond panaceas in water institutions. Proc Natl Acad Sci 104(39):15200–15205

  41. Miller C, Sarewitz D, Light A (2008) Science, technology, and sustainability: building a research agenda. Science 319(5862):424–434

  42. Mitchell B (1998) Sustainability: a search for balance. University of Waterloo, Faculty of Environmental Studies research lecture, vol 1998. Department of Geography, University of Waterloo, Waterloo

  43. Mitchell B (2006) IWRM in practice: lessons from Canadian experiences. J Contemp Water Res Educ 135(1):51–55

  44. Muñoz-Erickson TA (2014) Multiple pathways to sustainability in the city: the case of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Ecol Soc 19(3):2

  45. Nagendra H (2007) Drivers of reforestation in human-dominated forests. Proc Natl Acad Sci 104(39):15218–15223

  46. Oberlack C, Walter PL, Schmerbeck J, Tiwari B (2015) Institutions for sustainable forest governance: Robustness, equity, and cross-level interactions in Mawlyngbna, Meghalaya, India. Int J Commons 9(2):670–697

  47. Olsson P, Folke C, Berkes F (2004) Adaptive comanagement for building resilience in social–ecological systems. Environ Manag 34(1):75–90

  48. Ostrom E (1990) Governing the commons: the evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

  49. Ostrom E (1992) Crafting institutions for self-governing irrigation systems. Institute for Contemporary Studies, San Francisco

  50. Olson M (1968) Die Logik des kollektiven Handelns: Kollektivgüter und die Theorie der Gruppen. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen

  51. Ostrom E (2008) Frameworks and theories of environmental change. Glob Environ Change 18(2):249–252

  52. Ostrom E (2009) A general framework for analyzing sustainability of social–ecological systems. Science 325:419–422

  53. Pagdee A, Kim Y, Daugherty PJ (2006) What makes community forest management successful: a meta-study from community forests throughout the world. Soc Natural Resour 19:33–52

  54. Partelow S (2016) Coevolving Ostrom’s social–ecological systems (SES) framework and sustainability science: Four key co-benefits. Sustain Sci 11(3):399–410

  55. Plummer R, Fitzgibbon J (2004) Co-management of natural resources: a proposed framework. Environ Manag 33(6):876–885

  56. Pomeroy RS, Katon BM, Harkes I (1998) Fisheries co-management: key conditions and principles drawn from Asian experiences. In: Paper presented at the 7th annual conference of the IASCP. pp 1–23

  57. Pomeroy RS, Katon BM, Harkes I (2001) Conditions affecting the success of fisheries co-management: lessons from Asia. Mar Policy 25(3):197–208

  58. Poteete AR, Ostrom E (2008) Fifteen years of empirical research on collective action in natural resource management: struggling to build large-N databases based on qualitative research. World Dev 36(1):176–195

  59. Poteete AR, Janssen MA, Ostrom E (2010) working together: collective action, the commons, and multiple methods in practice. Princeton University Press, Princeton

  60. Pretty J (2003) Social capital and the collective management of resources. Science 302(5652):1912–1914

  61. Sandström C, Widmark C (2007) Stakeholders’ perceptions of consultations as tools for co-management—a case study of the forestry and reindeer herding sectors in northern Sweden. For Policy Econom 10(1–2):25–35

  62. Scheberle D (2000) Moving toward community-based environmental management: wetland protection in Door County. Am Behav Sci 44(4):565–579

  63. Schlager E, Ostrom E (1992) Property-rights regimes and natural resources: a conceptual analysis. Land Econ 68(3):249–262

  64. Schlager E, Blomquist W, Tang SY (1994) Mobile flows, storage, and self-organized institutions for governing common-pool resources. Land Econom 70(3):294–317

  65. Schurr C (2006) Zwischen Allmende und Anti-Allmende. Dissertation, kein Ort

  66. Shiferaw B, Kebede TA, Reddy RV (2008) Community Watershed Management in semi-arid India: the state of collective action and its effects on natural resources and rural livelihoods. Accessed 08 Jul 2012

  67. Tang SY (1989) Institutions and collective action in irrigation systems. Accessed 30 Sep 2011

  68. Tang SY (1991) Institutional arrangements and the management of common-pool resources. Public Adm Rev 51(1):42–51

  69. Thomson JT, Feeny D, Oakerson RJ (1992) Institutional dynamics: the evolution and dissolution of common-property resource management. In: Bromley DW, Feeny D, Peters P, Gilles JL, Oakerson RJ, Runge CF, Thomson JT (eds) Making the commons work. Institute for Contemporary Studies, San Francisco, pp 129–160

  70. Tucker CM (2010) Learning on governance in forest ecosystems: lessons from recent research. Int J Commons 4(2):687–706

  71. Tucker CM, Randolph JC, Castellanos EJ (2007) Institutions, biophysical factors and history: an integrative analysis of private and common property forests in Guatemala and Honduras. Hum Ecol 35:259–274

  72. van Laerhoven F (2010) Governing community forests and the challenge of solving two-level collective action dilemmas—a large-N perspective. Glob Environ Change 20(3):539–546

  73. Vogt JM, Epstein GB, Mincey SK, Fischer BC, McCord P (2015) Putting the “E” in SES: unpacking the ecology in the Ostrom social–ecological system framework. Ecol Soc 20(1):55–65

  74. Vollan B (2008) Socio-ecological explanations for crowding-out effects from economic field experiments in southern Africa. Ecol Econ 67:560–573. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2008.01.015

  75. Wade R (1992) Common-property resource management in south indian villages. In: Bromley DW, Feeny D, Peters P, Gilles JL, Oakerson RJ, Runge CF, Thomson JT (eds) Making the commons work. Institute for Contemporary Studies, San Francisco, pp 207–228

  76. Wade R (1994) Village Republics: Economic Conditions for Collective Action in South India. Institute for Contemporary Studies, San Francisco

  77. Walker B, Holling CS, Carpenter SR, Kinzig A (2004) Resilience, adaptability and transformability in social–ecological systems. E&S 9(2):5

  78. Young OR (1989) The politics of international regime formation: managing natural resources and the environment. Int Org 43(3):349–375

  79. Yu DJ, Qubbaj MR, Muneepeerakul R, Anderies JM, Aggarwal RM (2015) Effect of infrastructure design on commons dilemmas in social–ecological system dynamics. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 112(43):13207–13212

Download references


This article is dedicated to Lin Ostrom who inspired generations of researchers. Lin contributed as co-author to the initial stages of this paper.

Author information

Correspondence to Ulrich J. Frey.

Additional information

Handled by Osamu Saito, United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS), Japan.

Electronic supplementary material

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Frey, U.J. A synthesis of key factors for sustainability in social–ecological systems. Sustain Sci 12, 507–519 (2017).

Download citation


  • Sustainability
  • Design principles
  • Success factors
  • Common-pool resources
  • Social-ecological systems
  • Framework