Study shows effect of infrastructure design on success of social-ecological systems

portrait of ASU professor David Yu

ASU Alum David Yu received a doctorate at the ASU School of Sustainability and conducted research in the Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment. Photo by the Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment.

For the past two decades, there has been an explosion of interdisciplinary research in the area known as social-ecological research that looks at the way human systems and the environment interact. But for the most part, this research has ignored a third element that almost always intervenes in human-environment interactions: human-made infrastructure.

“Social and ecological scientists rarely interact with engineers,” said David Yu, a recent ASU alum and now assistant professor at Purdue University. Often human and natural systems are studied separately — or together — without analysis of the role of the built environment on the dynamics.

While at ASU, Yu conducted research as part of a National Science Foundation funded project titled “When Strengths Become Weaknesses: Emerging Vulnerabilities in Coupled Natural Human Systems under Globalization and Climate Change” that examines the social-ecological-infrastructure dynamics of irrigation systems in Nepal, Thailand, and Columbia.  The project is part of the research portfolio of the Center for Behavior, Institutions, and the Environment where Yu worked as a research assistant while completing his Ph.D. in the School of Sustainability.

The study was published this past week in PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The results demonstrate how “design features common to many social-ecological systems (SES) — the structure of benefit flows and the scale of effort needed to maintain the infrastructure—can induce fundamental changes in qualitative behavior as well as altered robustness characteristics.”

The study was motivated by empirical studies of small-scale irrigation systems in a developing country context, such as laboratory behavioral experiments of irrigation systems and case studies of the effects of technological fixes to traditional irrigation systems. These empirical studies show that the success of many long-lasting irrigation systems is based on the intricate interdependence between upstream and downstream farmers, that are configured by both soft and hard infrastructure design features.

The danger comes when policy makers and organizations blindly introduce technological fixes to such systems without understanding their effect on the long-term system dynamics, explained Marty Anderies. Anderies co-directs the Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment and is the lead on the NSF-CNH research project that initiated the study.

“Despite good intentions, seemingly positive changes in infrastructure can ultimately lead to the collapse of a system if it tampers with key aspects of the relationships involved," Anderies said. "The models we are developing in our center can help us understand how to avoid these unintended consequences."

Yu’s research makes a clear point: we should think beyond SES and embrace the integrated systems of human, natural and infrastructure systems.

“While I used small-scale irrigation systems as a model, it demonstrates the relationship well and confirms that this is the right direction for research aimed at providing decision makers with informed options,” said Yu. “These initial results give scientists looking at social-ecological systems a concise model backed by empirical studies and multiple research methods. It reveals complex patterns and processes not evident when we focus on social or natural systems separately.”

The paper was authored by Yu and additionall Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment researchers Murad Qubbaj, a lecturer in ASU's Department of Physics of; Rachata Muneepeerakul, an assistant professor in the University of Florida's Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering; John M. Anderies, a professor in ASU's School of Sustainability and School of Human Evolution and Social Change; and Rimjhim M. Aggarwal, an associate professor in ASU's School of Sustainability.

The research was supported with funding from the National Science Foundation (Grant GEO-1115054).