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MEA Bulletin - Guest Article No. 39 - Thursday, 17 January 2008
Adaptive Policies: Meeting the Policymaker’s Challenge in Today’s Complex, Dynamic and Uncertain World
By Darren Swanson, International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), and Suruchi Bhadwal, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI)
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Today’s policymaker has a tough job to do. Crafting public policies to ensure our economic, social and environmental wellbeing is challenging under the best of circumstances. But the reality is that our world is now more complex than ever – highly interconnected, owing to advances in communication and transportation, and highly dynamic, owing to the scale of impact of our collective actions.

Policies that cannot perform effectively under dynamic and uncertain conditions run the risk of not achieving their intended purpose and having unintended negative impacts. Using insights gained from literature on complex adaptive systems as currently being applied in a range of economic sectors, and through the analysis of policies identified through hundreds of on-the-ground interviews in Canada and India, we have compiled a pragmatic set of approaches and tools for adaptive policies and policymaking.

A policy that has the ability to adapt to anticipated conditions is built upon insights into cause-and-effect relationships. Mechanisms include:

View HTML version Automatic Adjustment – Some of the inherent variability in socio-economic and ecologic conditions can be anticipated, and monitoring can help trigger important policy adjustments to keep the policy functioning well.

View HTML version Integrated Assessment to Inform Policy Parameters – Through an integrated assessment of causal factors, key impacts and scenario outlooks, policies can be crafted to perform under a range of anticipated conditions, and possibly function even under worst cases.

View HTML version Multi-perspective Deliberation – Deliberative processes strengthen policy design by building recognition of common values, shared commitment and emerging issues, and by providing a more comprehensive understanding of cause-and effect relationships.

The ability of a policy to adapt to unanticipated conditions is a newer notion, based on a holistic appreciation of system complexity, capacity, performance and dynamics. Mechanisms include:

View HTML version Formal Review and Continuous Learning – Policy review undertaken on a regular basis, even when the policy is functioning well, can help policies deal with “emerging” issues, and trigger policy adjustments.

View HTML version Encouraging Self-organization and Networking – By encouraging interaction, policies can foster the emergence of innovative responses to unexpected events.

View HTML version Subsidiarity – By recognizing that action will occur at different levels of jurisdiction, depending on the nature of the issue, policies can be crafted to assign priority to the lowest jurisdictional level of action consistent with effectiveness.

View HTML version Promoting Variation – Small-scale interventions for the same problem offer greater hope of finding effective solutions. Diversity facilitates the ability to persist in the face of change.

Our two organizations have undertaken a multi-year project (2005–2009), with funding from the International Development Research Centre, to advance the understanding of adaptive policies and to help government agriculture and water resource policy-makers at the local, state and federal levels design adaptive policies—policies that can adapt to anticipated as well as unanticipated conditions.

To learn more about this project, visit The authors can be reached at and
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