Governing complexity: Integrating science, governance, and law to manage accelerating change in the globalized commons


The speed and uncertainty of environmental change in the Anthropocene challenge the capacity of coevolving social–ecological–technological systems (SETs) to adapt or transform to these changes. Formal government and legal structures further constrain the adaptive capacity of our SETs. However, new, self-organized forms of adaptive governance are emerging at multiple scales in natural resource-based SETs. Adaptive governance involves the private and public sectors as well as formal and informal institutions, self-organized to fill governance gaps in the traditional roles of states. While new governance forms are emerging, they are not yet doing so rapidly enough to match the pace of environmental change. Furthermore, they do not yet possess the legitimacy or capacity needed to address disparities between the winners and losers from change. These emergent forms of adaptive governance appear to be particularly effective in managing complexity. We explore governance and SETs as coevolving complex systems, focusing on legal systems to understand the potential pathways and obstacles to equitable adaptation. We explore how governments may facilitate the emergence of adaptive governance and promote legitimacy in both the process of governance despite the involvement of nonstate actors, and its adherence to democratic values of equity and justice. To manage the contextual nature of the results of change in complex systems, we propose the establishment of long-term study initiatives for the coproduction of knowledge, to accelerate learning and synergize interactions between science and governance and to foster public science and epistemic communities dedicated to navigating transitions to more just, sustainable, and resilient futures.

Publication Type
Journal Article
Barbara Cosens, University of Idaho
J.B. Ruhl, Vanderbilt University
Niko Soininen, University of Eastern Finland
Lance Gunderson, Emory University
Antti Belinskij, University of Eastern Finland
Thorsten Blenckner, Stockholm Resilience Centre
Alejandro E. Camacho
Brian C. Chaffin
Robin Kundis Craig
Holly Doremus, University of California Berkeley
Robert Glicksman, George Washington University
Anna-Stiina Heiskanen, Director of Freshwater Centre
Rhett Larson
Jukka Similä
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Related Content