The Adaptive Cycle

As we all wonder how the current world order will be transformed by the Covid-19 pandemic, perhaps now would be a good time to read up on the Adaptive Cycle. Worried about societal and economic collapse, I was originally thinking about the notion of social cycles, but came across this more general notion of cycles within ecological systems. It is also applicable to insightful investigation of social institutions and organizations.

The Adaptive Cycle is usually shown as a figure-eight loop, with four main segments (Growth, Maturity, Release, and Renewal), inhabiting a space of two or three variables (Potential, Complexity, and Resilience):

  • Growth or Exploitation: (r)
  • Maturity or Conservation: (K)
  • Release or Collapse: (Ω)
  • Renewal or Reorganization: (α)

Thus these charts indicate a closed trajectory of a system’s state within a state space over time. This concept was originally applied to cycles within ecological systems, measuring certain attributes of systems in order to predict their ability to handle, recover, and adapt from significant disruptive changes in environment, species populations, genetic landscape, etc.

These cycles can form steps on chains of greater systems where an individual cycle is a quasi-stable element but the overall state can jump and grow to higher forms of complexity and potential, or indeed collapse and fall to lower forms if the resilience is weak. As well, the multiplicities of cycles can represent a range of spacial scales for systems that have smaller cycles nested within them, operating concurrently.

This greater notion of change within systems has been called Panarchy. In contrast to hierarchy or even anarchy, Panarchy is neither the top-down or bottom-up of the other two. Panarchy tries to describe how actual ecological and social systems can change and transform yet endure and return to similar states, across scales of space and time.

Further Reading:

View at

Images of the Adaptive Cycle:

Images of Panarchy:

Social Cycle Theory



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