Natural Resources, School of


Date of this Version



Published in Sustainability Science (2023)



Copyright © 2023 Shana M. Sundstrom, David G. Angeler, Jesse Bell, Michael Hayes, Jennifer Hodbod, Babak Jalalzadeh‑Fard, Rezaul Mahmood, Elizabeth VanWormer, and Craig R. Allen, under exclusive license to Springer Nature Japan KK. Used by permission.


Coping with surprise and uncertainty resulting from the emergence of undesired and unexpected novelty or the sudden reorganization of systems at multiple spatiotemporal scales requires both a scientific process that can incorporate diverse expertise and viewpoints, and a scientific framework that can account for the structure and dynamics of interacting social-ecological systems (SES) and the inherent uncertainty of what might emerge in the future. We argue that combining a convergence scientific process with a panarchy framework provides a pathway for improving our understanding of, and response to, emergence. Emergent phenomena are often unexpected (e.g., pandemics, regime shifts) and can be highly disruptive, so can pose a significant challenge to the development of sustainable and resilient SES. Convergence science is a new approach promoted by the U.S. National Science Foundation for tackling complex problems confronting humanity through the integration of multiple perspectives, expertise, methods, tools, and analytical approaches. Panarchy theory is a framework useful for studying emergence, because it characterizes complex systems of people and nature as dynamically organized and structured within and across scales of space and time. It accounts for the fundamental tenets of complex systems and explicitly grapples with emergence, including the emergence of novelty, and the emergent property of social-ecological resilience. We provide an overview of panarchy, convergence science, and emergence. We discuss the significant data and methodological challenges of using panarchy in a convergence approach to address emergent phenomena, as well as state-of-the-art methods for overcoming them. We present two examples that would benefit from such an approach: climate change and its impacts on social-ecological systems, and the relationships between infectious disease and social-ecological systems.