Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Ross Buckley on Late Night Live

Last night’s edition of Phillip Adams’s program on BC Radio National, Late Night Live, carried an interview on the question of an international financial transactions tax, known as the Tobin Tax.

The interviewees were:

-  Peter Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and laureate professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE) at the University of Melbourne.

-  Australia 21 Fellow Ross Buckley, Professor of International Financial Law at the University of New South Wales.

The promo for the program states:

It's been nearly 40 years since American economist and Nobel laureate, James Tobin, proposed a tax on foreign exchange transactions. Tobin saw danger ahead unless there was a reduction in speculation in international currency markets. He envisaged that this tax might go towards supporting the United Nations or funding projects of benefit to Third World or developing countries. It was known as the Tobin Tax. Now there's a campaign up and running for the introduction of a Tobin-like tax called The Robin Hood tax. The campaign was launched last month in the U.K.

The program will be repeated on ABC Radio National this afternoon at 4.00 pm Australian Eastern Summer Time, or this segment may be heard in streaming audio or downloaded onto your iPod from here.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Next Big Question

For an organisation dedicated to research, especially research oriented to contemporary policy issues, a key issue is always to identify the researchable question(s), to ensure that our efforts add to the sum of human knowledge rather than the chorus of opinion that swirls around the big issues of the day. Many of our workshops are directed to that end – we identify an issue that we think is important, and convene a meeting of high level thinkers, some with expertise directly relevant to the subject matter, others from other domains whom we think would make a contribution, and ask these people to help us to frame the researchable question.

We think that it is equally important to ask the nation’s leading thinkers to help us to switch on the over-the-horizon radar and think about what the really big questions might be in the years ahead, and last year we formalised this as an Australia 21 project, one to which we could invite leading thinkers to make an attributable contribution, but to which we could invite any of our fellow Australians to make a contribution.

To that end, Australia21 has created a global on-line space for eminent Australians to ask the questions designed to create a new conversation about the future. This project is led by Australia 21 Executive Officer Dr Lynne Reeder, and Australia 21 Director Deb Lavis.

The project’s formal launch, in April 2009, brought together Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty; Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Penny Sackett; and former Australian of the Year and Child Advocate Professor Fiona Stanley, who asked their next big question, identified its importance and outlined its implications for Australia’s future.

The two-year project was officially launched in Canberra by Professor Frank Fenner, who played a major role in overseeing the eradication of smallpox from the world. It also featured a question by a young Australian National University student, Tom Sloan.

In addition to the online questions in either video or audio format — events are also being held. They provide opportunities for asking the next big question on topics such as social inclusion, corporate social responsibility and food safety in a time of climate change.

The questions are captured on the Australia21 website here,  which is designed to facilitate the interactive nature of the project — inviting all Australians to submit what they consider to be the next big question.

To date questions have been asked on climate change, human rights, population levels, governance arrangements, health measures, social inclusion, participation of young people, new economic systems and others.

The questions are being analysed in a report which will be released every six months over the two years of this project. The analysis will seek to determine the trends and identify the major questions that need to be addressed to create an enhanced future.

Over the next eighteen months other distinguished Australians in all discipline areaswill be asking what they consider to be thenext big question. The specific goals of this project are:

-  To inquire into ground-breaking and visionary questions to ensure Australia remains capable of addressing its long term sustainability

-  To make an exceptional contribution to the essential thinking and responses to the unprecedented challenges facing Australia in the world of today

-  To access insightful thinking and applications to influence broader industry planning and government policy 

-  To engage Australians in a conversation to identify new thinking around the challenges facing our long-term future.

A major launch of the final report will take place to coincide with Australia21’s 10 year anniversary in March 2011.

If you would like to submit your next big question — please do so here.

Monday, March 29, 2010

A National Ecosystem Services Network

For the past twelve months, the Australia 21 ecosystems team has put its efforts into promoting the development of a National Ecosystem Service Strategy (NESS) and a National Ecosystem Services Network (NESN).

This work is led by Geoff Gorrie, Chair of the A21 Ecosystems team that includes Australia 21 Fellow Mike Archer, Australia 21 Scholars Peter Ampt, Phillipa Rowland and Simone Maynard, Dr Jeremy Thompson, Dr Allan Dale and A21 Chairman Professor Bob Douglas.

Evidence of the diminishing health of Australian ecosystems is unfortunately not hard to find, with evident decline in soil fertility, fisheries stocks, water quality and quantity and loss of carbon sinks that help local/regional climate regulation.  There is both a national and a global sense of urgency about the need for a coherent strategy to preserve ecosystems and the services they provide to humans.  This is highlighted in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment conducted by the United Nations (access the Assessment home page here) and recognised by the Obama Administration which on 6 January 2009 announced a new section of its Department of Agriculture, entitled the Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets, to be headed by a new appointee Dr Sally Collins (see here).

The concept of ecosystem services is becoming more widely recognised in research and policy and has the potential to provide the framework for better planning and management, leading to ecologically sustainable development.  An ecosystem services approach is being applied to Southeast Queensland catchments and is becoming recognised as leading the world.  Research networks are already focused on ecosystem service provision.  Some groundbreaking work with indigenous communities has highlighted the possibilities for payments to groups who, by their actions, are enhancing ecosystem service provision on the vast and important indigenous estate.

Great potential can be generated by fostering enthusiasm and passion from innovators and bringing them together in a flexible network that brings together the interests, skills and capacities of Federal and State Governments, the private sector, research communities, local regional bodies and civil society. An approach that encourages collaboration and ownership and builds on existing activity, while creating opportunities for a broad consistent approach to the national valuation of the essential suite of services could, Australia 21 believes, contribute very substantially to the solution of many natural resource issues including biodiversity conservation, bio-sequestration of carbon and indigenous employment.

Cross-sectoral learning from each other appears to have the greatest likelihood of success in rapidly building ecosystem services into the future Australian economy.

In its preliminary proposal for a NESN, the Australia 21 Ecosystems team is suggesting that NESN members would have the responsibility for overseeing the implementation of a world leading strategy to be at the heart of the activities of regional Natural Resource Management (NRM) bodies around Australia.  The NESN would have responsibility for overseeing the data needs, the research activity, and the development of a framework for a coordinated regional approach to the assessment and management of ecosystem services across the nation.

To further develop these ideas for an NESN, Australia 21 is currently seeking support from funding agents, to undertake discussions and a roundtable with the many stakeholders who would be needed to make the national strategy operational.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Resilience – what is it?

In National Conference on Resilience I reported that Australia 21 had convened its first national conference, on the subject of resilience and its applicability to complex systems beyond the world of social-ecological systems.

“Resilience” is a term that is on many policy makers’ lips these days, but if it is to have policy relevance it is important that it be defined rigorously, and its consequences, usefulness and limitations derived with equal rigour, so that what we learn in one knowledge domain can be transferred with due care to others.

Australia 21 is fortunate that one of its directors, Dr Brian Walker, is a world authority on resilience.  Dr Walker is a Research Scientist with CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems.  He is the Board Chair of the Global Resilience Alliance. In 2003 he was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal for service to Australian Society in Ecology. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering. He was formerly Chief of CSIRO Wildlife Ecology.

Dr Walker staked out the ground for our conference with a paper entitled Resilience in Perspective, the text of which is reproduced below. The paper may be downloaded as a PDF file from here, and the PowerPoint slides which accompanied the presentation may be downloaded from here.

Resilience in Perspective – Dr Brian Walker

“Resilience” is gaining increasing attention, not just in science but in policy development and amongst practitioners, in all sectors. This rise in interest is not really surprising. It’s a response to an increasing uneasiness about potential looming shocks that would sorely test the coping capacities of nations and of the world. Economic uncertainty, climate change, new pandemics, fanatical terrorism, food shortages and food riots, water ‘wars’ and other serious worries are converging in a way that evokes the feeling Winston Churchill described in the build up to the Second World War as “the gathering storm”. The spectre of being hit by a serious ‘whammy’, and perhaps double or triple whammies, has raised the notion of resilience high on the agendas of many governments, corporations and organisations.

All of these concerns involve the behaviour of dynamic systems; systems that are always changing, sometimes in surprising and unpredictable ways. Ecosystems, organisations, farming regions, countries, people – all of them are complex adaptive systems, which means they are self-organising systems. Change some part of any one of these systems and they respond by initiating changes in other parts, and for most of the time this self-organising, self-regulating behaviour allows the system to keep functioning in the same kind of way. But there are limits to this; limits to how much the system can be changed and cope through self-organising processes. A change beyond those limits causes a change in one or more of the feedback processes that control the system’s dynamics, and the changed feedbacks result in a change in the way the system functions. It then changes towards a
different structure.

The application of resilience ideas in science and society has four main origins – engineering, ecological/biological, psychosocial and defence/security – with organisational resilience appearing more recently. The literature is large and overlaps with that on robustness (see for example Jen 2005). I will not go into it here except to say that some of the differences are important in regard to how useful the concept is - in particular, the difference between the engineering use and the others. Engineering use focuses on a designed amount of resilience, while in ecological, psychosocial, organisational and defence use what is important is how resilience can change, how it can be gained or lost.

This is what resilience is essentially about – the amount of change, or disturbance, a system can undergo without changing to a different way of functioning, a different structure. A definition developed for social-ecological systems, but used more widely for other kinds of systems, is “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and to reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks” (Walker et al 2004). As resilience declines it takes a progressively smaller size of shock to push the system across a threshold. This is the emphasis I am adopting because it’s the one we need to focus on in applying resilience to policy and management, and it constitutes the first of the characteristic features of resilience that need to be understood and included in program that adopts a resilience approach.

Five characteristic features of complex systems that need to be considered in developing a resilience approach to policy and management

1. Maintaining resilience requires continual change. Keeping things constant reduces resilience. A common objective of policies aimed at optimizing some particular product or outcome is to identify an ‘optimal’ state of the system, and then to somehow try and keep it in that particular state. In fact, keeping a system in one particular state leads to self-organised changes that make the system less and less resilient. As an example, preventing fire in a forest in an attempt to keep it in its present state eventually leads to the loss of those species that are able to withstand fire. They are out-competed by species that do not have to channel resources into attributes like thick bark, resistant cell structures and dormant stem buds that enable them to resist or recover from fire. The longer fire is prevented, the more vulnerable the forest becomes to fire. To keep a forest resilient to fire it is necessary to periodically burn it. Immune systems of children protected from contact with dirt do not develop the capacity to cope with it, resulting in later allergies. Maintaining resilience requires probing its boundaries.

1a. A corollary of the above is that resilient systems evolve through time. The self-organised evolutionary change in response to changes in the environment (natural and social) is part of being resilient. The point to make is that resilience does not mean no change. All systems have to change in order to adapt to changing environments.

2. Resilience is maintained by having a high response diversity.
 This means having different ways of performing the same function, each with different capabilities of responding to shocks and disturbances. Pursuing efficiency, narrowly defined, removes apparent redundancies that later can turn out to have been response diversity.

3. Cross-scale and cross-domain interactions.
You cannot understand or manage the resilience of a system by focusing at only the scale of interest. You need to consider, at least, one scale above and the embedded scale below. This is the basis of the concept of ‘panarchy’ (Gunderson and Holling 2002). Increasing resilience at one scale can reduce resilience at other scales. A common example of this is pushing problems up-scale (through seeking short term solutions). The Australian ‘wool mountain’ and the European ‘butter mountain’ and ‘milk lakes’ were a consequence of efforts to make individual farmers resilient to fluctuating market prices, leading to loss of resilience in the industries concerned.

The ecological, social and economic domains in linked social-ecological systems tend to have multiple, interacting thresholds. If one is crossed it can cause either an increase or decrease in the likelihood of others being crossed, leading to a cascading effect.

4. General and specified resilience.
There is a danger in focusing too much on known or suspected thresholds. If all the attention and resources of management are channelled into managing for the identified (specified) resilience and associated thresholds, it may inadvertently reduce resilience in other ways. There is therefore a need to consider both general and specified resilience. General resilience involves such things as diversity (natural and social), tightness of feedbacks and modularity. While it is reasonably straightforward to estimate the costs of maintaining general resilience (some form of foregone extra yield or profit that it entails), it is much harder to estimate the costs of not maintaining it (since it is unspecified).

5. Resilience vs. (and) transformation
Resilience, per se, is not ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Undesirable states of systems can be very resilient (woody weeds, dictatorships, poverty traps, saline landscapes). Also, a system state that once was considered to be a ‘desired’ state can become ‘undesirable’ through changes in external conditions. Where the current state of a system is considered ‘desirable’, and it is possible to avoid crossing a threshold into an alternate, undesirable state, building resilience is the appropriate action. But where crossing such a threshold is unavoidable, or has already happened, then efforts to build the resilience of that state only amount to digging the hole deeper. The need in such circumstances is reduce the resilience of the existing state of the system in order to allow transformation into a different kind of system, defined by a different set of variables and a different way of functioning – a different way of making a living.

Both resilience and transformability are necessary, and given the looming pressures and changes facing the world and individual nations, the question policy makers and planners will increasingly have to face is: “which parts of our (locality, region, country) need enhanced resilience in order to ensure that their present states can continue, and which parts need to be transformed?”

Changes in resilience through time – adaptive cycles.
Societies, ecosystems, organizations - most complex systems - tend to exhibit relatively long periods of fairly predictable change from a phase of rapid growth with high resilience through maturation into a highly inter-connected conservation phase with much increased complexity and little resilience. They become accidents waiting to happen. These long periods are interspersed with short, chaotic periods of release and re-organisation (Schumpeter’s ‘creative destruction’ episodes in economic systems). They are quickly followed by a new growth phase of another adaptive cycle.

Planners and managers largely base their actions on the predominant cumulative phases, yet it is the short, chaotic periods when big change is possible that allow for changes in system directions. Embracing uncertainty and surprise, using crises as opportunities, and even generating a ‘planned’ crisis, are crucial aspects of a resilience approach to planning and management. The phase a system is in determines what kind of policy or management intervention is most appropriate.

A concluding comment and a question

1. Adopting a resilience approach sometimes comes into conflict with current policy doctrines. “Efficiency” is one. But it isn’t efficiency per se; the problem is narrowly defined economic efficiency, calling for removal of so-called redundancies that are in fact sources of resilience. Another conflict that I am encountering is the requirement for precisely defined targets. The need for better accounting of how money is spent on government (and other) programs, coupled with the general increased emphasis on compliance and increased risk aversion, has given rise to what is now virtually a mantra about defined targets and audited progress towards them (“on track, on target, on budget”). Yet, I would submit that instead of asking for evidence that the defined targets are on track in a cost-effective way, a more resilience kind of question might perhaps be: “Have you changed your targets in the past year; and if not, why not?”

Resilience is about adaptive management and, even more importantly, adaptive governance. This puts an emphasis on reviewing and adapting the understanding of the system, and therefore the appropriateness of goals and targets and the rules for use and management. It embraces uncertainty and rather than trying to pick precise targets in an uncertain, changing, and not-very-well-understood world, it is more about deciding where not to go, and allowing the system to self-organise within a range of acceptable trajectories. The challenge to the world of planners and auditors is how to match two, equally legitimate needs: the need for accountability, and the need for the adaptability required to navigate the inherent messiness that keeps the world resilient.

2. The question I posed earlier will, I believe, increasingly confront people in planning and policy development, at all scales: “Where do we need to build resilience, and where do we need transformational change?”

Gunderson, L. H., and C. S. Holling (eds). 2002. Panarchy: understanding transformations in human and natural systems. Island Press, Washington, D.C., USA.

Jen, E (ed.). 2005. Robust design: A repertoire of biological, ecological, and engineering case studies. Oxford University Press, N.Y., 295pp.

Walker, B.H., Holling, C.S., Carpenter, S.R. and Kinzig, A. 2004. Resilience, adaptability and transformability in social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society: 9(2): 3. [online] URL:

National Conference on Resilience

On 18-19 February 2010 Australia 21 convened its first national conference, at the Australian National University in Canberra.

The title of the conference was Shaping Australia’s Resilience: Policy development for uncertain futures. It was, as its title suggests, an exercise in exploring the applicability of a disciplined concept of “resilience”, a concept which emerges from the study of natural ecosystems, to other policy domains that deal with complex systems.

The core concept of resilience is defined as the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change so as to retain essentially the same structure, function, identity and feedbacks. In other words, how much of a shock can the system absorb and continue to perform its characteristic functions.

We were fortunate to attract the participation of an impressive list of high level speakers.  The presentations may be accessed by visiting the Australia 21 website here.

Our thanks are due to the Australian National University, mecu credit union and the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department for their support in convening this conference.

About the Australia 21 blog

The aims of this blog are to complement Australia 21’s website and support the organisation’s objectives by:

-  Expanding awareness of Australia 21 and its activities in the wider community

-  Giving notice of Australia 21 events, reports and discussions

-  Giving both subject matter specialists and members of the general community an opportunity to contribute to thinking about the important issues which confront Australian society

-  As the opportunity arises, drawing attention to reports and other materials published elsewhere that we consider represent significant contributions on the issues that we have in focus.

Accordingly, we welcome constructive comments from our readers, whether they agree with us or disagree with us, and the blog has been set up for “open” comment, that is, you don’t have to have any form of registered access in order to post comments.

There are, however, some rules:

 - The comment facility has been set up for “moderated” comment – no comment will be uploaded to the site until it has been reviewed by the site manager

- Publication of comments is at the absolute discretion of Australia 21

- Racist, sexist, insulting or otherwise offensive material will not be published

- Potentially defamatory material will not be published

- The language of the blog is English – comments submitted in other languages will not be considered

- Material that is not considered relevant to the subject matter of the post will not be accepted

- As our aim is to further understanding of the matters we consider important, we welcome commentary that will contribute to that end, but we do not welcome cheap shots, unsubstantiated assertions, or ad hominem attacks.

Subject to those rules, we hope you will find our posts interesting and stimulating, and will feel free to contribute to our debates.

Friday, March 26, 2010

About Australia 21

Australia 21 is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit organisation which was established in 2001 to develop and promote new frameworks of understanding regarding the complex problems which Australian society faces in the 21st century.

It was established in the belief that the big issues that now confront Australians are so complex as to require independent, non-ideological, collaborative inputs from our best thinkers and researchers from many intellectual disciplines around the nation.

Australia 21’s charter commits it to:

-  Promote interdisciplinary and inter-institutional discussion and germinate new research on topics pertinent to our national and regional future

-  Build open networks between researchers, community, corporate, business leaders, policy makers and decision makers

-  Ensure that we are open and accessible to the policy and decision makers who will shape our nation’s future.

Australia 21 operates by drawing on outstanding researchers and experts from diverse institutions and disciplines, nationally and internationally, and from various sectors of society – the research community, government and business. We bring together in roundtables and ongoing research networks of the best minds available and provide them with opportunities to interact in ways that are not usually available.

We undertake inclusive, integrated analysis in four thematic programs:

-  Australians in society (how we develop and interact with each other)

-  Australians in the landscape (how we interact with our natural environment and the landscape over which we exercise custodianship)

-  Australia in the world (how we interact with the rest of the community of nations)

- Building Australia’s resilience (building our capacity to withstand shocks and adverse events).

Our stakeholders are all present and future Australians. We serve them by working to enhance the links between science, business and policy, through our focus on complex long-term issues. We produce distinctive outputs of relevance to governments, corporations, universities and communities.

Australia 21 is registered by the Commonwealth Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations as an approved research organisation, and is gift tax exempt.

Our independence is assured by the fact that we are entirely dependent upon donations, grants and in-kind assistance.  If you wish to support our work, please visit our website, where you can make a secure on-line donation.