What is Adaptive Capacity?

The term “adaptive capacity” arose in the environmental science literature to characterize an ecosystem’s ability to withstand catastrophic shifts brought on by natural disasters or changes in climatic conditions.

Importing the term to program implementation, we know that changes not be catastrophic to throw things off course and that disruptions are a predictable and routine feature we face whenever translating plans into real-world action. Syntegral therefore defines adaptive capacity as the individual and organizational ability to translate knowledge and critical thinking about complexity and adaptation into context-sensitive implementation behavior.

Understood in this way, adaptive capacity is a key program learning outcome and underpins better-known concepts such as “adaptive management” and “scale-up.” The figure below shows how the three ideas are related: scale-up systems and mechanisms (the focus of most work in scaling up methodology) tacitly rests on ideas of adaptive management (techniques for modifying program implementation in response to new information) which, in turn, rest on the presumption that implementers know why and how to adapt proactively rather than reactively.

ACapacity-AM-Scale-up Triangle .png