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

Barbara Cosens, J. B. Ruhl, Niko Soininen, Lance Gunderson, Antti Belinskij, Thorsten Blenckner, Alejandro E. Camacho, Brian C. Chaffin, Robin Kundis Craig, Holly Doremus, Robert Glicksman, Anna Stiina Heiskanen, Rhett Larson, Jukka Similä

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


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, selforganized 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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2102798118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number36
StatePublished - Sep 7 2021


  • Complex systems
  • Governance
  • Law and science
  • Social-ecological-technological systems

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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