Adaptive Management in Social Ecological Systems: Taming the Wicked?

  • Asim ZiaEmail author
Part of the The International Library of Environmental, Agricultural and Food Ethics book series (LEAF, volume 26)


In many publications, Bryan Norton has proposed hierarchical systems theory to understand and manage complex environmental conservation and sustainability problems. In doing so, Norton drew from the decision science and planning theory literature to frame persistent environmental problems, ranging from Herbert Simon’s un-programmed decisions to Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber’s wicked problems. Norton pioneered the development of an adaptive management framework to guide a community and valued-based pragmatic and discursive approach for continually solving and re-solving the wicked environmental management problems. In this chapter, I highlight important ingredients of Norton’s adaptive management framework and synthesize some of the key findings that resulted from applying some of the key elements of Norton’s adaptive management framework in the field setting of addressing the “wicked” problem of tropical deforestation in Tanzania, Vietnam and Peru through a MacArthur Foundation funded project (2006–2011). The following specific problem formulation and valuation issues are explored in this chapter: space-time boundaries; identification of stakeholder values; weights on stakeholder values; and decision rule choice. We discovered that many wicked problems surrounding environmental management persist in the field settings due to the stakeholder power asymmetries, conflicting values, politics of scale across different space time horizons and institutional inertia. I propose that institutional designs and governance processes operating at different levels of the space-time hierarchy—ranging from a person’s ambit to their community, city, state, country and planetary scales—must also be examined and addressed for adaptive management in social ecological systems.


Hierarchical systems theory Adaptive management Biodiversity conservation International development Social ecological systems Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis 


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© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Community Development & Applied EconomicsUniversity of VermontBurlingtonUSA

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