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Designing Ecosystems for the Future

What is the compelling question or challenge?

How can we better understand, predict, manage and design ecosystems of the future by taking a highly interdisciplinary, collaborative and convergent approach across science and engineering fields?

What do we know now about this Big Idea and what are the key research questions we need to address?

The rate and magnitude of ecosystem change is moving into an unprecedented state space, while the human population continues to grow. Traditional concepts of ecosystem management, conservation and restoration are falling short in this new era of the Anthropocene, in part because they rely on disciplinary norms and a focus on historical, “pristine” systems as the gold standard. The future of ecosystem science and management will need to embrace and work to better engineer and design ecosystems; in particular, by fundamentally rethinking how we define and measure success. The ideas of ecological engineering and novel ecosystems are not new. “Ecological engineering” was coined in the 1960s to describe “environmental manipulation by man using small amounts of supplementary energy to control systems in which the main energy drivers are still coming from natural sources” (Odum et al. 1963). The definition has evolved over time, with the emphasis shifting to combining ecosystem function with human needs. Similarly, since its first use by Chapin and Starfield (1997), the concept of the “novel ecosystem” has gained traction among ecologists who wish to describe ecosystems so changed by human disturbance that they have no historical analog. And yet, these potentially radical concepts have led to relatively mundane scientific inquiry, primarily within the field of restoration ecology, and unimaginative management and restoration approaches. Co-opting and reshaping these concepts with an infusion of research that combines paradigms, approaches, and theories from a broader array of scientific and engineering disciplines - and intentionally blurs the boundaries between the natural and built environment - is a Big Idea that could change our ability to sustainably inhabit the planet, benefitting both nature and people.

The convergence research required for this Big Idea to succeed must draw from advances in ecology, engineering, physics, earth science, sociology, psychology, economics, geography, computer science, mathematics, and systems thinking, with no boundaries placed on what constitutes a “natural ecosystem” and no judgement on unrecognizable “designed” ecosystems. The key research questions that we need to address to advance this idea include:

  • What can we learn about the functioning of ecosystems, their ability to provide services to people, and their likely future states, when drawing on a broader range of disciplinary expertise to understand ecosystem dynamics?
  • Can a natural ecosystem and its functioning be broken down into component pieces from an engineering perspective, allowing us to think about which components need to be preserved in their current or historical state, and which components should be redesigned to work better for the future?
  • Can we design and maintain ecosystems that will provide more services in the climate of tomorrow?
  • How can we better blend the built environment with nature to achieve human well-being and a sustainable earth system?
  • Retrospectively relooking at our current state of food and energy production systems from a fresh perspective and convergent approach, what does their development suggest, both positively and negatively, about avenues of ecosystem management?
  • What are the cultural, social, and psychological barriers to envisioning out-of-the-box designed ecosystems that are better adapted to the future?
  • Can we design and engineer ecosystems to be adaptively dynamic rather than simply resilient to environmental change, and will that improve the flow of ecosystem services?
  • What are the consequences for biodiversity of a more interventionist and aggressive approach to ecosystem management?
  • Do historical states provide particular services (or combinations of services) that are difficult to replicate in designed ecosystems that lack equivalent evolutionary history?
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