Resilience of informal urban food systems: Does a systems thinking approach make a difference?

By | June 3, 2021

Sterk, van de Leemput, and Peeters (2017) help me start off this sensemaking exercise by clearly distinguishing the difference between engineering resilience and ecological resilience with respect to a system. This was useful to establish the direction of exploration for informal urban food systems.

Sterk, M., van de Leemput, I. A., & Peeters, E. T. (2017). How to conceptualize and operationalize resilience in socio-ecological systems?. Current opinion in environmental sustainability, 28, 108-113

Specifically, Sterk et al (2017) state that ‘engineering’ resilience  focuses on efficiency, constancy and predictability, and considers spatial and temporal system dynamics as perturbations to an otherwise stable system. Whereas, ‘ecological’ resilience focuses on persistence, change and unpredictability and, considers system dynamics in time and space as inherent properties of ecosystems.

Clearly, then, the informal urban fresh produce ecosystem is an adaptive, management system (Sterk et al, 2017) and its resilience strategies focuses on managing the effects of unpredictability and change, with persistence. Its practices fit within the definition of ‘ecological’ resilience as opposed to ‘engineering’ resilience. This makes sense since the informal economic system is an organic human one rather than an artificial engineered one. Also from Sterk et al (2017), the below quote applies,

In the context of social–ecological systems, resilience is related to the degree to which the system is capable of self-organization, learning and adaptation (Cummings and Peterson, 2017).

since food systems are intextricably linked to ecological systems, and thus, the human interaction makes the informal food system a social-ecological system given the lack of institutions and industrialization of more formal food systems of the global North.

“[Thus]… resilience is defined as the capacity of a social-ecological system to deal with change and meanwhile continue to develop. This broader view of the concept moves beyond viewing humans as external drivers of ecosystem dynamics but it rather looks at how humans are part of, and interact with the Earth system (Cumming and Peterson, 2017; Kates et al, 2001).” (Sterk et al, 2017)

Previously I framed the informal economic system as a socio-technical system given its adoption of mobile telephony as a critical part of enabling the interconnections and flows of value within the system. Now, one asks whether the informal fresh produce subsystem could be considered a socio-technical-ecological system given the combination of technology as well as the close links with the Earth system.

As a framework, social–ecological resilience has a clear link to the conceptual pillars of sustainable development. Both put social, environmental and economic dimensions, at least conceptually, at the same level of importance. This is justified by the notion that social, environmental and economic systems are intimately linked in the Anthropocene: humanity depends on many ecosystem services, such as clean water and air, food production, fuel, and others. (Sterk et al, 2017)

Sterk et al (2017) go on to offer 7 principles for the resilience of socio-ecological systems from the book edited by Biggs, Schlüter, and Schoon (2015), as shown in the table below.

Sterk, M., van de Leemput, I. A., & Peeters, E. T. (2017). How to conceptualize and operationalize resilience in socio-ecological systems?. Current opinion in environmental sustainability, 28, 108-113

Most of these, if not all, are directly relevant to the case of the informal urban supply of perishable fresh produce, taken a subsystem within the larger informal economic system prevalent in eastern Africa. And, given the systemic approach to resilience building, these principles may be far more relevant than those I’d identified earlier from the literature of food security which were more disjointed given that the review article acknowledged the lack of information regarding market actors in the crucial linkage between the farmgate and the fork.

As can be seen, only connectivity is an overlap, whilst the rest of these principles focusing on participatory skills enhancement of the human actors in the socio-ecological system. Many of the practices of the informal wholesalers can be said to fall within the first two principles already, as a means to enable the continued flow of produce from rural producers and facilitate payments back to them, from the urban consumers. Some, such as slow variables, may not directly apply to the urban side of the farm to fork subsystem. That the value web discovered in both rural agricultural context (with WUR, see Doorneweert et al, 2014) and then observed in similarity in the urban trade context (Bhan and Gajera, 2018) conveys the sense that these are subsections of the informal economic system that links farm to fork, and the informal trade ecosystem to the urban and local food systems.

Sterk et al (2017) also offer a recommendation for Roggema (2017) as demonstrating that it is possible to apply design principles to support sustainability (and thus resilience) based on the concept that socio-ecological systems are complex and adaptive. While Roggema’s focus is on the design of urban spaces (Roggema, 2017), it is not difficult to extrapolate the application of design principles for other complex adaptive socio-ecological systems such as the informal urban fresh produce ecosystem. And, if we extend the description to include the role of the mobile phone in maintaining interconnections within the system to enable flows of produce and payments, as well as information, seen as the purpose of the elements of that system (Meadows, 2008; Arnold and Wade, 2015) then even the socio-technical-ecological system’s resilience can be enhanced by applying design principles.

It is clear that a systems thinking approach offers a more robust and sustainable approach to thinking about the resilience, and thus, food security aspects of local and urban fresh produce ecosystems in the Global South than simply focusing on enhancing the resilience strategies of different actors (elements) in the system.



Biggs, R., Schlüter, M., & Schoon, M. L. (Eds.). (2015). Principles for building resilience: sustaining ecosystem services in social-ecological systems.

Cumming, G. S., & Peterson, G. D. (2017). Unifying research on social–ecological resilience and collapse. Trends in ecology & evolution, 32(9), 695-713.

Kates, R.W., Clark, W.C., Corell, R., Hall, J.M., Jaeger, C.C., Lowe, I., McCarthy, J.J., Schellnhuber, H.J., Bolin, B., Dickson, N.M. and Faucheux, S., 2001. Sustainability science. Science, 292(5517), pp.641-642.

Roggema, R. (2017). The future of sustainable urbanism: Society-based, complexity-led, and landscape-driven. Sustainability, 9(8), 1442.

Sterk, M., van de Leemput, I. A., & Peeters, E. T. (2017). How to conceptualize and operationalize resilience in socio-ecological systems?. Current opinion in environmental sustainability, 28, 108-113

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