Governance and Surprise

Full Title

Navigating the unforeseen: How governance can better account for and accommodate surprise in social-ecological systems


This Pursuit focuses on the governance dimensions (e.g., rules, decision making processes, actors) of surprise in social-ecological systems (SESs). We are interested in identifying and synthesizing the characteristics of governance that contributes to the development of surprise, which we define here as unanticipated challenges and change (Gunderson 2003). We are proposing a novel multimethod approach that uses Ostrom’s SES framework (Ostrom 2007, 2009; McGinnis & Ostrom 2014) as a starting point to identify relevant variables for the focal SESs (i.e., the selected case studies) and the outcome of interest (e.g., surprise in SESs). Such an approach shows promise for revealing new and important insights concerning the dynamic feedbacks and complex processes—including the role of governance—that characterize social-ecological systems. We have selected three diverse case studies from North America that demonstrate how ineffective governance can lead to surprise in SESs. In these cases, surprise is a direct result of maladaptive human responses—which have been influenced by governance—to environmental change and variability. These case studies include:

  1. the Mountain Pine Beetle infestation occurring in Canada’s Western Boreal Forest;
  2. the changes in hydrology and water quality occurring in the Lake Champlain Basin; and
  3. the cod fisheries collapse and subsequent transition to lobsterdependent livelihoods in Atlantic Canada’s Bay of Fundy.

Understanding how governance could be improved in relation to recent and historic shifts in trajectory can provide crucial information for designing policies and programs that are effective and responsive in the face of rapid environmental change and surprise. 

Project Type
Team Synthesis Project
Principal Investigators
Jeremy Pittman, University of Waterloo
Matthias Bass, University of British Columbia
Matthew Burke, McGill University
Karen Filbee-Dexter, Dalhousie University
Heather Haig, University of Regina
Celia Symons, University of California, San Diego

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