This blog was originally posted by Jennie Phillips on

Thinking bigger, systems are rarely a single entity but a conglomeration of many sub-systems that impact one another — hence the notion of Panarchy. Unlike hierarchy, which implies top-down control, panarchy implies control from both directions — top and bottom. To demonstrate, Lesley presented a three-tier system (Figure 2) depicting how systems operate together:
Figure 2. Panarchy – Three-Tier System
Largest System: situated at the top and considered the slowest system. The level can be governance.
Example: the decision-making bodies around how the emergency response is managed that are physically remote from the disaster with some on-the-ground presence. Actors could include governments local and foreign, international response agencies (UN-OCHA, World Food Program, Centre for Disease Control)
Middle system: is heavily influenced by the top and bottom systems. This level can be the dominant practice.
Example: the “first responders” whose mandate is to respond to the disaster, either public, private or civil society groups, that are physically present in the disaster area e.g. police, fire, paramedics, Red Cross, or Doctors without borders / Médecins Sans Frontières.
Smallest system: situated at the bottom and operates the quickest. This level can be the Innovators.
Example: the unofficial responders affected by the disaster or wishing to support response operations that self-organize either online or offline to respond to the emergency — the citizen driven response. Actors include: citizens, diaspora, digital activists and digital humanitarians.
Understanding each tier of the system also implies understanding how they affect one another.
Revolt — where the exploitation phase of the smallest system influences the conservation phase of the middle system; when the release of the lower systems initiates a release in the upper system
Example: The Arab Spring, which began in one country and spread to the broader set of Arab nations, destabilized the entire region
Remember — where the conservation phase of the largest system influences the reorganization phase of the middle system
Example: The opportunities for a middle system to recover from the release and re-organize is constrained by the nature of the conservation phase in the larger system. Emergency management training, for example, if heavily legislated will influence the capacity of emergency responders at the middle level and thus impact their ability to re-organize.
Change in Landscape – top down impact on the system, defines the context in which the new lowest sub-systems operate
Example: In a post 9/11 world, governments ramp up funding and programs for emergency management, which yields new opportunities in the lower levels of the system for the creation of new departments, new career options and increased human resources, training programs, etc.
Change in Composition – bottom up impact on the system, influences the nature of the next highest system themselves
Example: The 9/11 terrorist attack itself triggered a ripple affect upwards in the system, forcing middle systems and larger systems to have to respond on an event that unfolded beyond the capacity of the system in ways that were unexpected and unprecedented


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