What is System Viability?

One of the principal aims of the COBRA project is to investigate and disseminate strategies that indigenous communities are using to manage their natural resources and survive within increasingly challenging circumstances. The framework that is used to evaluate these strategies is called the system viability approach. What is this approach?

What is a system?

A “system” is a term that people commonly use to describe a collection of components that are perceived to work together in order to achieve something. For example, an “ecosystem” is a collection of plant and animal species that interact within a particular environment in a way that sustains their existence over time. Similarly, a system can be a community, where specific interaction between individuals create the conditions for meeting everybody’s needs while providing a sense of common identity.

The purpose of a system viability assessment is that it allows us to understand, evaluate and monitor whether a particular system of interest is viable or not.

Using indicators

Indicators are used to describe the information needed to evaluate the state of the systems of interest. When a person with a serious illness enters the hospital, he or she will be subject to a sequence of basic tests to check the temperature, breathing, pulse and weight- to-height ratio. These indicators will give the doctor immediate information on the person’s viability. Further checks are then required to identify the ill-health cause, according to a series of models, attributing symptoms to diseases. A good indicator alerts you to a problem before changes become irreversible and helps you recognise the areas to focus on in order to maintain a healthy, viable system.

System orientors

The indicators used to assess system viability are divided into six categories, or ‘orientors’. These are: existence, resistance, flexibility, adaptability, ideal performance, and coexistence. Each of these orientors are in direct response to particular environmental conditions the system may find itself in:

A balanced system

Every system must therefore have characteristics that can cope with these six distinct environmental conditions. It is clear that characteristics required for coping with one condition may not be appropriate for others. Thus, a key aspect of the systems viability approach is that it recognises that the healthy survival of any system at any scale requires attention to the six essential system orientors listed in the table above.

In many cases, there are tensions between these system orientors. One can visualise this as the orientors pulling the system in six different directions. For example, in some cases securing resources for basic existence means that there are less resources for dealing with other systems within the environment. Optimising a system so that it can perform ideally with limited resources can reduce a system’s flexibility to make the best use of an environment with high variety. Resisting change can take away resources from the system’s ability to evolve into a different form.

Nested systems

The power of the systems viability approach is that one can carry out an analysis at different scales of nested systems. For example, we could investigate the viability of a community, the region within which the community is situated, the state within which the region is situated, and the international context within which the state is situated. In effect, a system becomes the environment for any subsystem nested within it. Sometimes, the system provides a stable environment for its subsistence. At other times, it can significantly limit resources, create high environmental variety, be extremely variable, or change the environment altogether.

Within each of the community, regional, national and international scales there are social systems that are working very hard to secure resources to maintain viability of structures and processes at that particular scale. However, it is also possible that each system level could be undermining the viability of systems at lower and/or higher scales.

Indigenous solutions in the Guiana Shield

The systems we are particularly interested in within Project COBRA are two indigenous communities: Tumucumaque, Brazil, and North Rupununi, Guyana. In COBRA, one of the challenges is to identify indicators of community viability, and how these are being affected by what is happening at higher scales of organisation (regional, national and international). In particular, we are focusing on the effect of financial mechanisms that distribute funds for protecting ecosystem services. These funds are being made available at the international level and we are particularly keen to analyse how these are working their way through various scales of organisation and how these will ultimately affect the viability of indigenous communities.

In particular, indigenous partners in the Guiana Shield are using a system viability approach to provide information on the best practices supporting the survival of their particular communities as represented through the six orientors. We will then see how initiatives at other scales are having an impact on these best practices. The table attached provides an example of indicators which have been used to assess the viability of the family.

Through visual methods

In order to do this in an accessible way, indigenous partners are recording examples of these indicators using video and photographs which are then uploaded on the project’s Media Gate. The goal is to disseminate their solutions to other communities, to policymakers and civil society organisations and, ultimately, encourage more people to look into indigenous solutions for ideas on the sustainable management of natural resources.


QUICK DOWNLOAD: Check out the English version of the COBRA Handbook for Practitioners.