Glossary of Cross Cutting Themes

Systems Thinking

The understanding of a phenomenon within the context of a larger whole; to understand things systemically literally means to put them into a context, to establish the nature of their relationships.


Resilience as an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change and in systems thinking, the meaning is similar. Drawing on work of various people, the Resilience Alliance adopts a definition of resilience as the capacity of a social-ecological system to absorb or withstand perturbations and other stressors such that the system remains within the same regime, essentially maintaining its structure and functions. It describes the degree to which the system is capable of self-organization, learning and adaptation.

Guidelines to keep in mind when building resilience:
(from the Resilience Alliance)

  • DIVERSITY: Promoting a sensible amount of required diversity, without necessarily feeling that overlapping of functions is undesirable (e.g. if NGOs and government offer an extension service and one of these sources fails to deliver, the system can remain resilient)
  • CONNECTIVITY: Promoting a sensible amount of connectivity. For example, if there are possibilities for adequate inflow of new information into an otherwise isolated system, it may better deal with change.
  • FEEDBACKS: must be recognised and promoted when appropriate. This means ensuring that if things start going wrong there are feedbacks for corrective action; or in positive situations, they continue to do so. Remembering that slow variables cause lags is important since these can lead to unexpected impacts. For instance a decline in educational quality often takes place over decades, and can feed into debilitating long-term feedback.
  • COMPLEXITY OF SYSTEMS: Helping people understand that the world around us behaves in a complex manner which, with due thought and collaboration, can be positively influenced.
  • LEARNING: Promoting quality learning at all levels in a way that encourages the discussion of options, experimentation and mistakes – all important components of such learning.
  • PARTICIPATION: Promoting appropriate levels of participation, also across dissenting boundaries or “siloes”.
  • POLYCENTRIC GOVERNANCE: Accepting that a healthy multi-level network of governance (including not only government) is required to make or keep complex systems resilient.
Go to the Work Room to complete the activity

Water Governance

The social function that regulates development and management of water resources and provisions of water services at different levels of society and guiding the resource towards a desirable state and away from and undesirable state.

Water Governance System

A water governance system is the interconnected ensemble of political, social, economic and administrative elements that performs the function of water governance. These elements embrace institutions as well as actors and their interactions.

Water Governance Regime

The interdependent set of institutions (formal laws, societal norms of professional practices) that is the main structural component feature of a governance system.
By making explicit use of the term ‘regulate’ rather than ‘steer’ in the definition of water governance I maintain a distinction between water governance and water management.

Water Management

Water management refers to the activities of analyzing and monitoring water resources, as well as developing and implementing measures to keep the state of a water resource within desirable bounds..

Adaptive Capacity

The ability of governance system to alter processes and to adapt structural elements as a response to current anticipated changes in the social or natural environment..

Transformative Capacity

The ability of a governance system to first adapt and, if required, transform structural elements as a response to current or anticipated changes in the social or natural environment..

Adaptive Co-management

Building trust through collaboration, institutional development, and social learning enhances efforts to foster ecosystem management and resolve multi-scale society–environment dilemmas. One emerging approach aimed at addressing these dilemmas is adaptive co-management. This method draws explicit attention to the learning (experiential and experimental) and collaboration (vertical and horizontal) functions necessary to improve our understanding of, and ability to respond to, complex social–ecological systems. Here, we identify and outline the core features of adaptive co-management, which include innovative institutional arrangements and incentives across spatiotemporal scales and levels, learning through complexity and change, monitoring and assessment of interventions, the role of power, and opportunities to link science with policy..