Elinor Ostrom on Adaptiveness – A Quick Reader

Congratulations to Elinor Ostrom at Indiana University and Arizona State University to a Nobel Prize! These are indeed fantastic news.

While the award she received  praised her decades long contribution to how social actors build institutions to overcome the “Tragedy of the Commons”, Prof. Ostrom has also made some very important contributions to ongoing discussions on the features of adaptiveness in the face of change and surprise in complex social-ecological systems. Two key publications in my view, are those co-authored with Bobbi Low and colleagues (2003), and later work on the dangers of panaceas in natural resources management (2007).

Elinor Ostrom

In the book chapter “Redundancy and Diversity in Governing and Managing Common-Pool Resources” (in the book Navigating Social-Ecological Systems, Building Resilience for Complexity and Change, Cambridge University Press, 2003), Ostrom and colleagues elaborate the need to understand why redundant and diversity in institutions play a key role in coping with change and surprise. While redundancy and diversity often are viewed as inefficient and lead to serious coordination failures, Ostrom argues that they also provide “back-up” options when governance systems fail to respond. They also allow for prompt re-organization after a shock similar as that observed for ecological systems.

Her 2007 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), “Going Beyond Panaceas” with Arizona colleagues Marty Anderies and Marco Janssen, is a great summary of the dangers of applying top-down blue-prints in natural resource management. While this certainly has been said before, Elinor Ostrom and colleagues are the only ones able to combine the message with both solid empirical evidence (both from the field and experiments) with a robust theoretical understanding (ranging from game theory  to agent-based modeling, and more general frameworks).

What’s in the future for this brilliant researcher? Well, it seems like a lot of energy is being invested in elaborating the robustness of institutions further through the application of the “diagnostic approach”, also presented in PNAS in 2007. Some really interesting work also seem to emerge in collaboration with Marco Janssen (ASU) on institutional innovation in dynamic spatial commons. You can watch a short presentation with Lin Ostrom about overcoming the Tragedy of the Commons here.


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