Paradigm Shift Towards Systemic and Adaptive Governance: Praxis Relevant to a Structurally-Coupled Social-Biophysical System?

Participant: Ray Ison
Affiliations: Communication & Systems Department, The Open University, UK; Systemic and Adaptive Governance Research Program, Monash Sustainability Institute, Monash University, Clayton, Australia
Format: Presentation and Conversation
Themes: recursion, paradigm, praxis

The prevailing paradigm in the governance of the relationship between humans and the biophysical world is characterised by joint commitments to scientism and dualistic thinking. Currently governance, if understood as enacting cybernetic processes that maintain the quality of relationships between humans and the biosphere, can be seen to be failing on many fronts. Over the last 50 years, for example, the governance of water catchments, or basins, has been guided by commitments to “stationarity” encompassing commitments to linear causality, prediction and extrapolation especially within disciplines such as hydrology and water engineering. Momentum is now growing to address the limitations of this paradigm in the face of a worsening global water crisis that threatens security of supply and food production as well as loss of many vital ecosystems services.

This ‘problematique’ raises two significant questions for praxis: (i) what form of praxis might best contribute to paradigm shift in these circumstances? (a corollary of which is: Is the concept of paradigm relevant to such circumstances?); (ii) what constraints and possibilities does a conception of rivers as the structural coupling of two systems – the human and biophysical – offer to praxis innovations that offer an effective break with dualistic thinking and acting?

These questions frame a proposal for a systemic inquiry into forms of governance more suited to the contemporary circumstances of humans, and the growing recognition of the negative impacts of the Anthropocene, which those attending the session will be invited to join. While the focus is on water systems the inquiry purpose is to invent ways of acting in theory-informed ways (i.e., praxis) that gives rise to systemic and adaptive governance at levels ranging from the international to the program or project. The presentation (or workshop) will develop and build upon some of the revealing and concealing features of Maturana’s account of structural coupling.