James Kay: An ecosystem approach

I’m following a set of David Ing-originated rabbit-holes this afternoon, though I’m running out of time for now – this is from the archive of James Kay’s site.

I must say, this and the other relevant diagrams are strikingly similar to my own thinking about using the viable systems model in #systemschange – which I think just shows some irreducible principle, which were a lot more obvious in 2018 than before Jame Kay passed away in 2004, partly thanks to his efforts.

Tribute to James Kay here: http://www.postnormaltimes.net/wpblog/a-tribute-to-james-kay/


Also, I can’t find a full text open copy of  An ecosystem approach for sustainability: Addressing the challenge of complexity


  • September 1999
  • Futures 31(7):721-742
  • DOI: 10.1016/S0016-3287(99)00029-4
The dynamics of ecosystems and human systems need to be addressed in the context of post-normal science grounded in complex systems thinking. We portray these systems as Self-Organizing Holarchic Open (SOHO) systems and interpret their behaviours and structures with reference to non-equilibrium thermodynamics: holons, propensities and canons; and information and attractors. Given the phenomena exhibited by SOHO systems, conventional science approaches to modelling and forecasting are inappropriate, as are prevailing explanations in terms of linear causality and stochastic properties. Instead, narratives in the form of scenarios to depict morphogenetic causal loops, autocatalysis, and multiple possible pathways for development need to be considered. Short examples are given. We also link SOHO system descriptions to issues of human preferences and choices concerning the preferred attributes of particular SOHO systems, and to the implications for achieving them through adaptive management, monitoring and appropriate structures for governance. A heuristic framework to guide reasoning for this is presented, and reiterative steps for applying it are identified. In this way we provide a coherent conceptual basis, in the workings of both natural systems and decision systems, for the practice of post-normal science.







Source: James Kay: An ecosystem approach

An adaptive Self Organizing Holarchic Open (SOHO) Systems approach to Ecosystem Sustainability and Health
Reference: Kay. J., Regier, H., Boyle, M. and Francis, G. 1999. “An Ecosystem Approach for Sustainability: Addressing the Challenge of Complexity” Futures Vol 31, #7, Sept. 1999, pp.721-742.





The diagram illustrates the necessity to integrate the biophysical sciences and the social sciences to generate an ecosystem description of the biophysical and socio-economic-political situation. This is used to formulate feasible and desirable futures, one of which is chosen to promote. It is then necessary to design a collaborative learning process for the ongoing adaptive process of governance, management, and monitoring for sustainability.


Descriptions of related methodologies:

In the second chapter of his Ph.D thesis, Martin Bunch reviews adaptive management, the ecosystem approach and soft systems thinking. He developed an alternative version of the diamond diagram which is quite popular.
Bunch, Martin An Adaptive Ecosystem Approach to Rehabilitation and Management of the Cooum River Environmental System in Chennai, India Ph.D., Environmental Studies, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, 2000

Beth Dempster, one of my Ph.D. students, has also developed another version of this diagram which she discusses on her WWW site.

Another variation on this theme, the AMESH diagram, is discussed in: Waltner-Toews D., Kay, J., Murray, T., 2001. “Adaptive Methodology for Ecosystem Sustainability and Health (AMESH): An Introduction”. In Gerald Midgley & Alejandro E. Ochoa-Arias (Eds.) Community Operational Research: Systems Thinking For Community Development, Plenum Press.

An even simpler version .