Industrial Ecology and National Culture

The task for this post is to define industrial ecology in a way that fits my national culture, and make explicit my specific national elements in this definition. I would like to do this a little different by first giving the definition of industrial ecology, then using Hofstedes theory to analyse the Mexican cultureand to propose an explanation on how certain cultural elements help to adopt a sustainable development (and industrial ecology) philosophy more easily than others.

Industrial Ecology
Industrial ecology (IE) is a multidisciplinary field of research that is concerned with the impacts of industrial activities i.e waste disposal, supply of natural resources, etc. In IE these types of problems are examined through multiple perspectives i.e. sociology, environment, economy, etc. to arrive to sustainable, innovative solutions. In IE, as its name may hint, inspiration to improve industrial systems and to reduce their impact comes from the natural systems (Wikipedia).
In this field of research it is recognized that solving problems involves a holistic understanding of the problem. The problems cannot be viewed in isolation but rather as an interconnected part of a whole. Thus, in IE, problems are analyzed through a systems thinking approach. These systems are usually complex and thus difficult to completely understand. Finally IE can be defined as a “systems based, multidisciplinary discourse that seeks to understand emergent behavior of complex integrated human/natural systems” (Allenby, 2006).

Culture is a “pattern of shared basic assumptions invented, discovered, or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that have worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems.
[Schein 1992]
As mentioned before, IE is related the implementation novel, sustainable solutions to industrial problems. National culture has a partial contribution on the way in which a nation as a whole deals with its problems. This may contribute to explain why some nations are prone to adopt an IE philosophy of dealing with problems more easily than others.
Geert Hoftede proposes a theory of culture analysis through five dimensions. In these five dimensions he saw systematic differences between national cultures. The scores in one dimension can also be found to correlate with other data i.e individualism is correlated with a nation’s wealth (“Hofstede Centre”). This theory has been used to in various fields as a paradigm of research. In this post I will use Hofstedes dimensions to compare cultural traits between Mexico (my country of origin) and the world’s most sustainable countries according to Yale University Environmental Performance Index (EPI). According to the EPI score 2012, the 10 most sustainable countries were Switzerland, Latvia, Norway, Luxemburg, Costa Rica, France, Austria, Italy, Sweden and the United Kingdom (Latvia will be left out because of lack of data). Most of them have similar scores in the dimensions, except some exceptions.


Hofstede’s four dimensions:

Power distance (PDI)
“Is the extent to which people accept power differences & consider themselves as unequal.” (Boons)
Mexico score quite high in PDI, with 81 points. “This means that people accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification. Hierarchy in an organization is seen as reflecting inherent inequalities, centralization is popular, subordinates expect to be told what to do and the ideal boss is a benevolent autocrat.” (“Hofstede Centre”)
The most sustainable countries (according to the EPI) had low PDI. With exception of France, with 68, most of them scored below 50. The average of these countries with low PDI was 37. Although we can see cases of sustainable countries with high PDI, social equity is an important value for sustainability.

Individualism (IND)
“Is the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members […] it has to do with whether people´s self-image is defined in terms of ‘I’ or ‘We'” (“Hofstede Centre”)
Mexico scores low in IND, with 30 points. Countries with los IND are considered collectivist societies, which mean they belong to groups that take care of each other in exchange for loyalty. The most sustainable countries generally score low in IND, meaning they tend to be individualist societies, in which people look after themselves and their direct family only. Costa Rica is the exception that with the IND of 15, is considered a collectivist country. Through my point of view an individualist country is prone of being sustainable because every individual takes responsibility for their actions; otherwise in collectivist countries responsibility can be shifted to other members of that group and can easily be lost. In the other hand collectivist countries tend to maintain stronger relationships and build trust among members of groups, these two characteristics are important when building socio-economic links necessary for sustainable organizations.

Masculinity (MAS)

It is what motivates people in a society, either “wanting to be the best (masculine) or liking what you do (feminine) […] A high score (masculine) indicates that the society will be driven by competition, achievement and success, with success being defined by the winner / best in field […] A low score (feminine) means that the dominant values in society are caring for others and quality of life.” (“Hofstede Centre”)

With a score of 69, Mexico ranks as a masculine society. Sustainable countries ranked the most differently in this dimension, with a range from 8 to 79. Out of the nine countries five had low scores (below 50, feminine), and four countries had high score (above 50, masculine). Thus, with these data no correlation can be done between sustainability and the masculine dimension.

Uncertainty avoidance (UAI)
“Is the degree of anxiety felt in uncertain situations” (Boons). This anxiety to the unknown or the future has been dealt differently in different cultures. Some have created strict rules, beliefs and institutions to try to avoid uncertain situations.
Mexico, scores high on this dimension (82), thus is very prone to uncertainty avoidance. These types of cultures are characterized by the need for rules, the urge to work hard, the resistance to innovation and security as individual motivation, among others. The most sustainable countries (according to the EPI) score low in uncertainty avoidance. Seven out of nine countries score below 50. To my perspective having low uncertainty avoidance allows a country to be more creative, to take risks and create innovations. All of these are important characteristics for the adoption a sustainable philosophy of dealing with problems.

Long term orientation (LTO)
“Is the extent to which a society shows a pragmatic future-oriented perspective rather than a conventional historical short-term point of view.” (“Hofstede Centre”)
There is no score available for Mexico on this dimension, but with my experience in comparing my culture to others I can assume that Mexico has a short term orientation culture. The most sustainable countries (according to the EPI) also ranked low in LTO. Out of nine countries, seven have scores below fifty. As for the res there is no information available. To my opinion a long-term orientation perspective is important for multi-generational planning, a valuable asset for sustainable development.

I must conclude that through this analysis Mexico has no cultural elements that would encourage it to adopt a sustainable philosophy or an Industrial Ecology perspective. This conclusion is not very far from my opinion on the topic. I think my country need some deep, real changes culture wise in order to continue its development but in a sustainable manner.

Allenby, Brad (2006). “The ontologies of industrial ecology”. Progress in Industrial Ecology (Inderscience Enterprises Ltd.) 3 (1/2): 28–40. doi:10.1504/PIE.2006.010039.
“Industrial ecology.” Wikipedia. N.p.. Web. 31 Dec 2012. .
Boons, Frank. “SSPM.” N.p., 22 2012. Web. Web. 31 Dec. 2012.
“National cultural dimensions.” The Hofstede Centre. N.p., 20 2012. Web. 31 Dec 2012. .

Social Networks

Social networks definition and characteristics
Human beings are social creatures that create relationships/links/ties with other human beings (or organizations) to achieve their goals and satisfy their needs. The links manifest themselves in different ways, such as family ties, affectionate relationships, business links, etc. Every actor has many links (many types of links also). By connecting all relevant actors social networks can be created. A social network is defined as “a social structure made up of a set of actors (such as individuals or organizations) and the dyadic ties between these actors” (Wikipedia). A social network analysis is useful when trying to understand the organization of social entities or when trying to identify “local and global patterns, locate influential entities, and examine network dynamics” (Wikipedia).

Actors can be connected to each other in several patterns forming different types of structures i.e. tightly coupled network, central network, etc. There can be diversity among the actors i.e. actors with more/less centrality, actors more/less powerful, etc. The links or relationships can also be of different types i.e. equal, asymmetrical, and hierarchical. Some actors may be dependent on others to achieve their goals. If all these differences are relevant to the analysis they can be represented in the network in one way or another i.e. through arrows, different colors, different sized, etc.


Actors create and use social networks to achieve common or private goals (i.e. satisfy their needs). In other words networks provide the structure in which actors can coordinate activities. Or is it the other way around? The point is that actors create social networks by connecting with other actors, this connections are the means for coordinating activities. Networks are the bases of coordination.

The types of coordination mechanisms and their definition are the following:

Is “a dynamical and adaptive process where systems acquire and maintain structure themselves, without external control” (De Wolf and Holvoest, 2004). Is a process in which actors gain organization a structure through mutual, local interactions without external coordination (Boons and Gerrits, work in progress; Boons, 2008).

A coordination mechanisms through which actors wish to gain internal control by developing and enforcing monitoring and sanctioning rules themselves. “A system of external control may be relevant in setting the boundary conditions which enables actors to devise their self-governance, but the regime of monitoring and sanctioning does not make use in any way of governmental structures ” (Boons and Gerrits, work in progress )

Private interest governments:
A coordination mechanism in which actors self-organize “with goals specified by an external control system. ” “This is different from external control, as the control system does not specify the order and goal of the system, as it does in regulation.” (Boons and Gerrits, work in progress)

“We define government as the coordination mechanism for human activities where actors subject themselves to a separate system that has the power/ability to set and enforce rules that constrain their behavior on any issue it deems relevant (Boons and Gerrits, work in progress).

A different mixes of coordination mechanisms can be found different social entities.
According to Simon (1962) complex systems “first self-organize into smaller viable sub-systems, or stable assemblies, then these can self-organize to form more complex systems”. Through my perspective smaller sub-systems need different coordination mechanisms than bigger, more complex systems. A simple way to see this is that governments organize social masses and address wider goals and scopes. Governments also can interact and address smaller social groups either by direct control or by enforcing pressure i.e. through boundaries, goals, etc. Self-governance is when groups with smaller scope and goals want to gain internal control. Finally, self-organization is when actors intend to fulfill their goals and desires (smaller scope and goals) in an environment full of boundaries (upper levels of organization).

Social Network 1: My Paternal Family


My grandfather, Ismael Mendoza had five children on his first marriage. Out of which my father was the only man. He was also the oldest out of the five. My gran mother, suffer an accident when they were still young, and unfortunately died. My grandfather took care of his children, but got re married once the last was old enough to continue on her own. On his second marriage, my grandfather had two more sons. The attention and protection of my grandfather (first generation) got divided between his two families, yet he never stopped to look after his first family. My father and aunts (second generation) are now on their mid-forties, or early fifties. Each formed a family and had children (third generation) most of which are now adults.

My grandfather procures economic stability, to himself, his wife and seven sons/daughters through family businesses. Though are many family businesses, operated by distinct family members; there is tight communication of economic matters and distribution of wealth between the whole first and second generation. My grandfather’s children of the second marriage, because of their age, are treated more similar to the third generation.

Figure 1

A network analysis of my paternal family, family Mendoza, is represented in figure 1. The central actor, my grand-father Ismael, is directly connected to his seven sons/daughters and his wife. The five son/daughters, product of the first marriage, are also connected to their respective partners and children. Families are clearly distinguishable in the network diagram. The first generation is connected to the second and the second to the third. Ties are still strong between generations because there is no actor completely economic or sociably independent to their progenitors. Thus, there is clear dependency of every actor to its progenitor(s), represented by arrows in figure 1. Although there are strong relationships between all the members of the family, the network analysis focuses only in the relationships between generations. These ties denote economic dependency and social authority.

The scope of the analysis is three consecutive generations of consanguine members, starting with my grandfather as the first generation, plus the affectionate family. The affectionate family represents the partners or children that form part of the family by choice. The goal of this organization is to ensure economical-social prosperity among all the members. The organization procures that younger members are sociably and economically protected by older members. Smaller organizational groups, called families, are stable entities that facilitate the organization and stability of the whole family.

There is a different mix of coordination mechanisms in the family network. My paternal family is set within a context, and thus obeys larger economic and social organization structures i.e. Mexican/international law, Mexican culture, etc. These external structures may affect the internal order through direct control or as pressures. For example in family businesses the external pressures may come as bank loans or businesses opportunities. The government, through the law, exerts direct control over the organization, in such a way that many aspects of the family the businesses, households, vehicles are dictated by this outer control. Additional to the external control, there are internal forms of control, or self-governance systems within the family. Every family has its own mechanisms of rule formation, monitoring and sanctioning social behavior. There is also a social pressure that comes from my grandfather to every member of the family i.e. his grand children should get good grades. Every family business also has its own governance system; these include rules and compromises such as working schedule, business goals, deadlines, etc. Finally self- organization is present in actors within this context. For example the replication of behavioral patterns from sons/daughters to parents is a form of self-organization.

The family network is organized in such a way to ensure stability. This stability is dynamic, and depends on feedback based on economic loops i.e. earning profits, accomplishing deadlines and social loops i.e. living in accordance to family values.

Social Network 2: Social Systems- Policy and Management

Social Systems-Policy and Management (fall 2012) is a course of 27 students and one teacher, Mr. Frank Boons. The goal of the course is to facilitate the appropriate environment, tools and material so that the enrolled students can learn from the topic. In this course a network of knowledge is created. The teacher, Mr. Boons, is the actor in the central position tightly linked to all the other actors who are students, as represented in figure 2. The student-teacher link is a relationship of knowledge dependency. The in-experts in the subject are dependent on the expert. During the lectures the teacher gives information to the students, thus the information flow is in one direction. The teacher lowers the dependency from the students and enriches the course by relying on other experts, either through guest lecturers or through published articles. There is also some interaction and information transfer among the students through conversations, electronic class networks (the SSPM blog), class discussions and/or class activities; where some students create more interactions for knowledge transfer than others. These types of interactions are exemplified in figure 2. Thus the networks structure is highly centralized, with large dependency on the central actor, but with enabled interactions among the peripheral actors.

Figure 2
Networks SSPM

In the SSPM network there is also a different mix of coordination mechanisms. This network is set within a context which renders most of its characteristics. The SSPM class is part of the Master Programme of Industrial Ecology, imparted by three united institutions: University of Leiden (official institution), TU Delft (official institution) and Rotterdam University (unofficial institution). In a broader context the course also obeys Dutch social, educative and institutional systems. The external structures affect the internal organization through direct control i.e TU Delft course rules; or through pressures i.e. social science teacher’s normative pressures. This entity also poses internal control in the form of a self-governance system. Self-governance is held through rule formation, monitoring and sanctioning according to F. Boons organizational criteria. Finally, self-organization of the actors is held within these boundaries through mechanisms such as mimicry.

As a small conclusion I want to say that this two examples intend to demonstrate how organization among social entities can be analysed using the concepts or theories of social networks and coordination mechanisms.


Boons, F.A. 2008. Self-Organization and Sustainability: The Emergence of a Regional Industrial Ecology, Emergence: Complexity and Organization 10(2).
Boons, F.A., Gerris, Lasse. “Between self-organization and government: a complexity perspective on the rise and fall of the hierarchical state.” Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
De Wolf, T. and Holvoet, T. (2004).. Emergence and Self-Organization: a statement of similarities and differences. Proceedings of the 2nd International Workshop on Engineering Self- Organizing Applications, 2004. “Social Network.” Wikipedia. N.p., 20 2012. Web. 23 Dec 2012.

Feedback on Car Game 2.0

The Car Game 2.0 was played on the Social Systems Course on December 13, 2012. The group was divided into Consumers (18 people) and Producers (4 croups of 2 people). The academic purpose of the game was to visualize the evolution of a product i.e. the car, when stakeholders involved in an organizational field i.e. the car industry, pushed towards their interests and interacted with other actors through different coordination mechanisms i.e. self-organization, government. To my point of view, the game did illustrate the car evolution, mainly because it was based in simple rules that allowed freedom to the actors. Throughout the game most cars evolved into being more durable (Increased durability), while they also displayed variety regarding luxury or reduction of CO2 emissions.


Some weaknesses came to float once the game was played for several rounds. Some of these weaknesses were, to my point of view, superficial, i.e more logistics towards money flows; while others affected the game in a more profound way i.e. Producers started to create new out-of-the- box car arrangements to increase their sales. If some of these weaknesses were to be “improved” other game dynamics would appear, rendering novel results on car evolution. Only by playing we will see if one can still visualize the evolution of the car in a clear, realistic manner.


It is important to point out that while being a player in the game, one could be aware of the structure and dynamics of the whole game, because in some rounds there was some information-sharing of different actors, but the knowledge was limited. With this I want to say that the Game 2.0 will be reconstructed for the purpose of localizing its weak points and making some suggestions for improvement, but the reconstruction of the game will be based solely on the “instruction sheet” and the limited information about the dynamics of the whole game.


The recreation of main parts of the Game will be used to understand the weak points and to suggest possible improvements.



Car Game 2.0, Re-creation


Money Flows


Initially, t=0

18 Consumers with $500/each

4 Producers with $8,000/each

1 Government with $5,000/each

1 Bank with the rest of the money


Actor (round number)


Round 0

Bank (0) → Consumers (0) → Producers (0) → Bank(0)


Round 1 (with Government)

Bank (1) → Consumers (1) → Producers (1) → Bank(1)

Government (1) → Consumers (1) [Buying information]

Producers (1) → Government (1) [Through taxes]


After a few rounds the money started accumulating in the Consumers and in a less extent in the Producers, also the Government started to suffer money shortage.



Added Characteristics


Producers sold standard cars with four different types of added characteristics.

Luxury items

Reductions CO2

Safety Increase

Increased durability


As rounds passed Producers started to rely more on additional arrangements other than this “added characteristics” in order to gain competitive advantage. Some of this additional arrangements fell into the permitted game rules i.e. such as loans, or, promotions; while other didn’t i.e. additional cost-free characteristics.


There was a tendency among Consumers to buy Increased durability cars while Reductions CO2 and Safety Increase were the least popular.


Theories, Weaknesses and Proposed improvements



The government has a starting budget of $ 5,000, which was used throughout the rounds to pay for information to the consumers. In the game played there were 18 consumers, each with a hypothetical car during each round. This would mean that the government would pay $1,800 per information-gathering session. If the government wants to ask for information on every two rounds (close to what was seen in the game), this means that the government should have a round-income of at least $900.


Proposed improvement

Through my perspective this doesn’t sound possible relying solely on taxes placed on producers to make cars with increased safety or reduced CO2 emissions. An additional small tax placed on standard cars ($50) could place the government in a safe position, while still depending on “punishment-taxes” for survival-income.



As mentioned before there was a tendency among Consumers to buy Increased durability cars while Reductions CO2 and Safety Increase were the least popular. Through a “consumers eyes” the only added characteristic that saved money throughout the rounds was the “Increased durability”. Amongst all the transportation options consumers had, the cheapest was to buy an “Increased durability” car. With this option it was possible to satisfy your transportation needs while still saving some money. This strategy (attractive to many Consumers) could partially explain why money was piling up at the Consumers end. This theory could also explain why at the last round there were many Consumers which had enough money to buy cars with many (>3) added characteristics.


Proposed improvement

To balance the game and give a strategic value to other “added characteristics” some luck could be added to the game. In each round, a aleatory paper could be drawn from a pile. This papers would represent external events that would affect the car-consumers, specifically attacking one of the “added characteristics”. For example, in one round one paper could say “there is a car crash and all the consumers without safe cars were the most injured. They should pay X amount to cover hospital fees”. This external, aleatory events would place more value to the other “added characteristics”. It would also increase money flows from the consumers to the bank, in an attempt to re-mediate the problem of money being piled up at the consumers end.



As rounds passed Producers started to rely more on additional arrangements other than this “added characteristics” in order to gain competitive advantage. The “additional characteristics” where the producers resources and means to obtain more (or sufficient) sales. According to Stuarts Hart paper on “A natural-Resource-Based view of the firm”, in order for resources to contribute to a firms competitive advantage they should be rare and/or specific to a given firm (among other characteristics). Due to the fact that these “additional characteristics” were not rare or specific, producers started relying more on additional arrangements to gain sales.


Proposed improvement

In order to make resources a bit more costly to acquire by the Producers the “additional characteristics” could be sold in tandem, valid for three or four cars. This would make the “additional characteristic” appear more like an investment and would lead to producers to be differentiated by their specific “additional characteristic”.


This three Game solutions where though of as the simplest way to improve the weaknesses of the game, although they are also increase the complexity of it.

Evolution in Global PCS Automobile Industry

Product Evolution Game

  evolution of car

The evolution of the car industry is process that depends on many small controlling factors. Car producers may try to guide and control this process though market analysis (to secure the selection of their product), or lobbing (to avoid normative pressures), but the control is limited. In production and consumptions systems there are many economic actors and stakeholders involved, each with different interests, trying to pull the balance towards their benefit.

Here, I present a game that intends to illustrate the evolutionary process of the car industry. This game consists of three stakeholders and one bank. Produces, consumers, and the government are the main stakeholders, each with their own aim to the game. The producers and consumers have different aims and different ways of reaching their aims. These two stakeholders are not up against each other, but they do interact and need each other in order to play and win. The government, on the other hand, doesn’t compete against anyone but has a important role: to maintain a healthy, sustainable and balanced society. The rules of the game are the following:





How Rounds Work

First thing is first. Before starting each round:

  • Consumers pick a card with: Salary (Received from the bank in each round)
  • Producers pick a card with: Money loan to start producing (Received from the bank at the beginning of the game

Each round starts with the producers designing one car model, paying for the batch and placing new batch into the market. The round continues with the consumers choosing one car, and paying for it to the producers. And finally the round ends with the government analyzing consumer behavior and placing taxes in the car characteristics. This taxes are then given to the producers so they can use this information for the next round.


Aim: Win the most money

Each producer initially receives a fixed quantity from the bank in order to produce their first batch of cars.

Producers design a car according to certain characteristics. Each characteristic has a ranking point (P).

Comfort (Big) Quality (exclusivity) Speed (time spent) Ecology
5 Very comfortable 5 Very luxurious 5 Very fast 5 Very eco-friendly
4 Comfortable 4 Luxurious 4 Fast 4 Eco-friendly
3 Average 3 Average 3 Average 3 Average
2 Uncomfortable 2 Austere 2 Slow 2 Contaminating
1 Very uncomfortable 1 Very Austere 1 Very slow 1 Very contaminating

The points (P) turn into money by multiplying them by a conversion factor (CF). The conversion factor is given by the government (In the first round the conversion factor is 1).

The costs sum up into the total cost of the car.

Total cost per car = SUM ((P)X(CF))

Before placing the car into the market the producers have to predict how many cars they are going to sell. The total cost of the batch is the multiplication of the number of predicted cars by the total cost per car.

Total cost per batch= (Total cost per car) X (Number of cars in a batch)

This amount of money goes back to the bank.

The money that returns to the producers by selling the cars is their utility. The aim of the producers is to have the biggest utility.

Each producer should keep count of their points and money in the Producers Game Card:

Table 2. Producers Game Card

Round no. Big/Small Luxurious/Austere Fast/Slow Eco-friendly/ Contaminating Total cost per car Number of cars in a batch Total cost of batch (to bank) Money earned (from consumers)
Round 1 (1-5) 1 (1-5) 1 (1-5) 1 (1-5) 1
Round N (1-5) (1-3) (1-5) (1-3) (1-5) (1-3) (1-5) (1-3)

If a consumer doesn’t have enough money to place a new batch of cars into the market he is automatically out of the game.


Aim: Win the most points

Before the game starts the consumers picked a card which contained their earned salary. Each consumer receives from the bank their designated salary.

When one producer places their a car into the market, they show to the consumers a table with the characteristics (Points) plus a picture of the car.

The consumers buy the cars once they are placed into the market. Each consumer has to buy one car each round. Consumers much chose a car according to their preferences (characteristics of the car) and the price set. The money that isn’t spent in one round passes to the next round as savings. Consumers should keep count of their points and money in the Consumers Game Card:

Table 3. Consumers Game Card

Round no. Big/Small Luxurious/Austere Fast/Slow Eco-friendly/ Contaminating Total points Money saved
Round 1
Round N

evolution of car 2


Aim: to keep a balanced and healthy society.

The job of the government is to analyze the consumer behaviors after each round and set taxes (through the conversion factors) to the producers. The aim of the government is to have a balanced, sustainable and healthy society. If for example, consumers are contaminating to much the can directly put taxes in the following characteristics: “contaminating” and/or “ very contaminating”. Government can also place taxes in a general characteristic. If consumers are buying very big cars, the government can place a general tax (CF) in the size of the cars. Because the government can only react to what is happening, the taxes (CF) will be applied to the next round. The taxes (CF) can be applied or removed in each round. There is no limit to tax placement, but the government has to take into consideration that taxes put economic stresses into the producers and could push them to bankruptcy.


Sustainability is the capacity to create, test, and maintain adaptive capability. Development is the process of creating, testing, and maintaining opportunity. ” (Holling, 2001)


Human-nature systems and social-ecological systems resemble the natural systems in such a way that they evolve through time. Holling proposes a theory to understand the dynamics of such complex systems. Holling explains that these complex systems have “hierarchies” which are “semi-autonomous levels that share similar speed” of evolution. Hierarchical levels interact by exchanging information and materials. Withing a big, complex system there are subsystems that evolve at their own speed of evolution, meaning that they grow, accumulate, restructure and renew themselves. This repetitive process, was named “adaptive cycle”. To quickly resume, Holling explained that complex systems evolve though a never-ending adaptive cycles that take place in nested sets of hierarchical scales.

The adaptive cycle consists of four stages (figure 1), which are: Exploitation (r), conservation (K), release (Ω) and reorganization (α).

There are three properties that shape the adaptive cycle: (i) inherent potential or wealth (ii), internal controllability (iii) and resilience. Within a system (or subsystem) (i) the potential, or wealth, sets the limits of what is possible; (ii) the internal controllability determines the degree of control of its own destiny; and (iii) the resilience measures how vulnerable it is to unpredictable shocks.

NOKIA case study (the documentary)

A few years ago NOKIA committed to ethical and sustainable business practices. As part of this sustainability strategy NOKIA made itself responsible to extend its sustainable practices throughout the whole supply chain. The system to be analyzed is NOKIA and their major supplier: a Chinese company. NOKIA is a company with hundreds of suppliers, the “Chinese supplier” is also a big company with other clients. To state hierarchical levels, companies would be the highest level in the system. Inner organization within the company would be considered as lower hierarchical levels. This means that NOKIA and its “Chinese supplier” are both in the same hierarchical level.

Nokia being a mature and international company, is assumed to have high potential, or wealth, high internal controllability and low resilience. Its is conservative (K) according to the adaptive cycles stages. Its has a rigid system, and costs of unpredicted failure are quite high. Internally, NOKIA allows for new ideas and innovation through at lower hierarchical levels such as through projects or strategies. The interactions between levels i.e the “sustainability strategy” and the NOKIA, enable the tested sustainable innovations to permeate from lower levels to higher, i.e NOKIA. In other words, NOKIA allows for smaller self-organized controlling processes take place (through lower hierarchical levels). This allows NOKIA to be sustainable at an organization level while permitting creative change.

The “Chinese supplier” seems to be a big and well established company, having high wealth and high internal controllability. It is also positioned in the K, or conservation stage of the adaptive cycle. Though this organization would seems to have high resilience, meaning that it has a great ability to “resist external influences and persist, even beyond the point where it is adaptive and creative” (Holling, 2001). This organization has a very rigid control and strict routines. They seem reluctant to change. For example, when new sustainability measures were proposed, even the most easily adopted were not very much welcome. Additionally self-organization between workers was highly discouraged, and the organization didn’t appear to have allowed spaces for experimental process to take place. This organization resembles a sustainable but maladaptive system, and seems to have a rigidity trap.

To incorporate sustainability measures into NOKIA supply chain helps them be aware of potential problems in their production chain. The “Chinese supplier” is not just maladaptive, which represents a problem for the quality of life of the workers, but is also a collapse just waiting to happen, which represents high risk situation for the NOKIA organization itself.

As mentioned before NOKIA’S “Sustainable strategy” is a lower hierarchical self-organized entity within the NOKIA system (NOKIA & “Chinese supplier). Its has its own evolutionary characteristics: high potential, low internal control and high resilience. It is a reorganization state according to the adaptive cycle (α). NOKIA tried to incorporate their “Sustainable strategy” into the “Chinese supplier” organization, through normative pressure, but the way they did it (during the documentary) showed lack of structure and control, but also flexibility and experimentation. Through this trial and error process I believe that NOKIA will develop a more controlled and efficient way to exert it normative pressure (evolving towards a more conservative state, K).



Holling, C.S. “Ecosystems.” Ecosystems. 4. (2001): 390-405. Print.




A system is a set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole” (Glaser, 2008). Often the goal of studying the components and their interrelations, is to understand and control the outcomes of a given system. For example nobel prize winner, Elinor Ostrom, was interested in “understanding of the processes that lead to improvements in or deterioration of natural resources”. One of her relevant contributions was the proposal of a common framework to classify the information of a system into subsystems, draw the relationships between these and study the outcomes. To be more specific, the framework proposed by Ostrom (figure 1) is a steady-state representation of four core subsystems which interact with each other to produce outcomes: (i) resource systems, (ii) resource units, (iii) governance system and (iv) users (Ostrom, 2009). The framework is useful for understanding specific social-ecological systems (SESs); defined as ‘a bio-geo physical’ unit and its associated social actors and institutions’.


Figure 1

SESs are both complex and adaptive, meaning that to understand their dynamics we will use an additional theoretical framework, this one developed by Gunderson and Holling in 2001. This framework is relevant because is explains how social-ecological systems “are interlinked in never-ending adaptive cycles of growth, accumulation, restructuring, and renewal” (Holling, 2001). The adaptive circle (figure 2) is divided into for quadrants called ecosystem functions (r, K, Ω, α) “with its properties of growth and accumulation on the one hand and of novelty and renewal on the other”. The three dimensions that determine where the “steady state system” is positioned within the adaptive cycle (i.e r, K, Ω, α) are (i) potential, (ii) connectedness and (iii) resilience. Potential, or wealth, sets limits for what is possible. It determines the number of alternative options for the future. Connectedness, or controllability, determines the degree to which a system can control its own destiny, as distinct from being caught by the whims of external variability. Resilience, as achieved by adaptive capacity, determines how vulnerable the system is to unexpected disturbances and surprises that can exceed or break that control. ” (Holling, 2001)

Figure 2

Although many scholars use the SESs to analyze and solve some of the most serious environmental problems, I will use this framework to analyze my kitchen just to give and example of how it can be used. First I will give and overview to my kitchen situation, and further on I will approach this situation as a SES by describing the subsystems and the dynamics.

The Overview

At the moment I live at a big student house, in Oestgeet, NL. A student house is a complex system: 25 people or so, all from different nationalities, sharing most of the facilities, with no written or formal rules. From know on I will only focus on which in my opinion is the best part of the house: the kitchen. The kitchen by itself is a socio-ecological system (SES).

The first time a student arrives at a student house owned by DUWO (student-housing company in NL) he or she is given a big box with common kitchen items (i.e. tableware, pan, pot, cutlery, etc.). In theory this items are for his or her use only and are supposedly enough to satisfy his or her kitchen needs. In practice, some private goods such as the kitchen items are turned into public goods. For example most of the people in the house look out for their personal kitchen items, by putting them into a personal box in the cupboard after using them while others just put and take kitchen stuff out of a common pile. Other example of transformation from private to public goods are the cleaning products (i.e. dish-soap, sponge, napkins, etc.) and the spices. On the other hand the main public goods are the electro-domestic appliances (i.e. refrigerator, toaster, kettle, etc.) and kitchen furniture (i.e. countertop, sink, garbage bin, oven, stove, etc.).

The main outcome of the kitchen is the (I) food. Of course cooking generates garbage (some which can be recycled) and dirtiness, both also considered outcomes but under a slightly different name: (ii) the kitchen state and (iii) the garbage and recycling.

The governance system consists mainly of self-organization. Most people go to the supermarket for their goods, cook for themselves and clean their kitchen items. Everybody cooks for themselves at their most-preferred eating schedule. When there is more than one person cooking, people coordinate to use the facilities without to much disturbance to the others. As for the cleaning, most people clean their plates after they are done, but they rarely clean the common areas of use such as the electro-domestic appliances or the kitchen furniture. Usually dirty kitchen items start accumulating after short periods of time and the common areas are most of the time also dirty. The cleaning of common areas and common goods is done voluntarily by a hand full of people (always the same people) that have lower tolerance for this dirtiness. This motion usually starts by the self initiative of one user and is sometimes followed by one or two more. Again, it is mostly self-organization. Some self-governance systems for cleaning have been tried, mostly by communicating through a social network (a facebook house page), but efforts are weak and no strong leadership is seen.

A cleaning lady comes to clean during the weekend but only cleans the kitchen floor and disposes of the garbage. The DWUO company doesn’t act as an authority regarding cleaning or organization matters. Their job consists in fixing and repairing non-functional electro-domestic appliances and kitchen furniture.

Figure 3

The SES framework

Resource systems (RS)

Student house kitchen

Governance system (GS)

Self-organization: for cooking, cleaning and recycling

Self-governance: some unsuccessful trials to make formal rules, regarding cleaning and recycling. No trials to make rules in food preparation.

Government: Intervention when problems regarding inappropriate house hold garbage removal and bulky refuse and fire alarm activation.

Other external organizations DWUO and cleaning lady

Resource units (RU)

Private goods:


Cleaning products

Kitchen items

Public goods:

Electro-domestic appliances

Kitchen items

Kitchen furniture

Cleaning products


Users (U)

25 international students from the ages of 18 to 32

Outcomes (O)


Kitchen state

Garbage and recycling materials

The Adaptive Cycle framework

To localize in which part of the adaptive circle the SES is currently in we first have to describe the amount of potential or wealth, connectedness and resilience of the system. Since the SES (kitchen) has three main outcomes each one will be analyzed independently according to the three dimensions (See table 2).

Outcomes Potential (or wealth) Connectedness Resilience Quadrant (or Ecosystem function)
Food High potential, Accumulation of public and private kitchen items.

Accumulation of ingredients for private use.

High control,

High control over the production of food (i.e. buying, preparing, stroring…)

High resilience,

Alternative methods to solving unexpected food shortages, which involve house-mate solidarity or trading.

K (conservation)
Kitchen state Low potential,

No cleaning organization

No knowledge accumulation on organizational methods to clean

Medium control,

Mechanisms only rely on people cleaning after their own private goods, by a sense of ownership.

Little or no control on cleaning over public goods (i.e. kitchen furniture and kitchen common items)

Medium resilience,

Unexpected accumulation of dirty “common goods” is usually followed by people voluntarily cleaning our of their own will

Garbage and recycling High potential,

Capital for garbage disposal

Low potential for recycling

High control over garbage disposal (Cleaning lady)

Low control over taking recycling materials to a recycling center (users)

Low resilience,

Unexpected over accumulation of garbage is rarely followed by people voluntarily disposing it out.

K (garbage)

r (recycling)

The SES is mostly in the r and K quadrant of the adaptive cycle framework. The food production and the garbage disposal are at present in the quadrant K, associated with stability and capital accumulation. On the other hand cleaning and recycling are both in the r quadrant. They belong to this quadrant because they both require the administration of public goods, which are more costly because they require users to get together and agree on changes (Ostrom, 2009). A self-governance system requires certain characteristics that are not present in this SES, such as: respected leaders , shared moral and ethical standards , knowledge of the SES , importance of resource (or activities) to users , etc (Ostrom, 2009). These characteristics, which by nature, are not inherent to the kitchen student house (because of the multi international background, the lack of knowledge accumulation and the lack of hierarchy) will stand in the way of developing sustainable cleaning and recycling practices.


Anderson, Krister and Ostrom, Elinor. “Environmental Science & Policy.” Environmental Science & Policy. 41. (2008): 71-93. Web. 4 Nov. 2012.

Holling, C.S. “Understanding the Complexity of Economic, Ecological, and Social Systems ” Ecosystems. 4. (2001): 390-405. Web.

Human-Nature-Interaction in the Anthropocene..” Potential of Social-Ecological Systems Analysis. . N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Nov 2012. <>&gt;.

Ostrom, Elinor. “General Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems.” Science magazine. 24 2009: 419-422. Web. 4 Nov. 2012.

Environmental Management Systems


When I hear the concept of Environmental Management Systems, the first word that personally has more importance of the tree, is the word environment. Maybe because solving environmental problems in a holistic manner is one of my ultimate professional goals. But doing the EMS exercise, broadened my way of thought. During this exercise I was told to locate myself inside an specific context: An environmental Management department of a company called Platform Inc. which needed to start building a EMS.

I found out that while we were all focused trying to address specific topics regarding EMS such as:

  • a vision of what environmental excellence, and the role of the EM department in making that a reality

  • a specification of what information the EM department needs, and can provide, as input/output of the EMS

  • a specification of what information needs to be collected routinely (as opposed to information that is specifically requested)

Other problems keep popping out making them difficult to discuss these EMS topics. To be more specific it was hard for us to organize all our ideas into a coherent unified answer for each topic (or issue). Before starting to address the EMS topics we needed to address broader topics regarding the social organization and social context. This is when I realized that out of the three words (Environmental Management Systems), Management had its importance, specially the part of management that leads with getting people together to accomplish desired goals.

If solving environmental problems is the goal, then Management can be seen as the path. Through management you achieve that goal.

During the EMS exercise I learned that most lessons thought were regarding the management and social problems.

We encountered some problems as a team:

  1. As EM division we had fixed assignments but there wasn’t an EMS organization scheme at a company level in which we could see the big picture.

  2. We had no practical background information about Platform Inc. Usually a company that incorporates an Environmental Management System is all ready a functioning company that has social working schemes and decision making processes. Before we focused on the environmental issue we had to address some more generic company and department questions to understand which where the activities and decision making boundaries of the EM department.

  3. There was no social structure in our division, which made the interaction more disorganized. As team members we considered ourselves professionally as equals so there was no hierarchy or division role.

Practical Lessons

  1. We need to be able to place ourselves in a broader context so that individual assignments (departmental assignments) can take a broader meaning.

  2. As a group it would be useful to create a company context and specify what is required and expected form each department by developing a company departmental organigram, tasks and activities of each department, decision making process, company goals and values…

  3. Inside each department we need to learn how to organize ourselves in a social environment in which the social interactions, roles, hierarchies are unknown and come up with an explicit,functional social structure in which each team member plays a key role in order to give structure and organization to the working team.

The most important lesson the idea that as a group it would be very useful to create a common context, a common language ad a common scheme of work in which we could all place creative ideas and solutions to environmental problems related to Platform Inc.