• Toby Sinclair

What is Adaptive Capacity? A short guide and description

Updated: Sep 14

Adaptive Capacity

3 Bullet Summary

  1. Adaptive Capacity relates to a systems ability to respond to a stress trigger. This response could be for protection, safety or to take advantage of a new sudden opportunity. Therefore it is not always a “negative” response. Likely organisations with greater adaptive response will have greater success.

  2. Adaptive Capacity is widely used within Climate Change context. Especially with regards to the ability for local communities to adapt to the sudden changes forced on them by climate change (Videos below are good examples)

  3. Leveraging the power of networks seems to be a key enabler of Adaptive Capacity. In particular, informal networks are described many times as a way to build adaptive capacity within a system.

2 Bullet Quotes

  1. “Broadly speaking it may be described as the ability or capacity of a system to modify or change its characteristics or behaviour so as to cope better with existing or anticipated external stresses.” [4]

  2. “Adaptive capacity is strengthened by the existence of networks and mechanisms that encourage participation and prevent marginalisation.” [6]

1 Bullet Action

Nw with you a better understanding you may want to:

  • Explore what influences the adaptive capacity within organisational systems

Adaptive Capacity is discussed more in the organisational design principles that embrace complexity


Broadly speaking it may be described as the ability or capacity of a system to modify or change its characteristics or behaviour so as to cope better with existing or anticipated external stresses. [4]

Adaptive capacity relates to the capacity of systems, institutions, humans and other organisms to adjust to potential damage, to take advantage of opportunities, or to respond to consequences. [1]

The term adaptive capacity refers to an organization’s ability to change:

  • in response to changed circumstances— survival—and

  • in pursuit of enhanced results—creation. [3]


In the context of coupled socio-ecological social systems, adaptive capacity is commonly associated with following characteristics:

  1. the ability of institutions and networks to learn, and store knowledge and experience.

  2. creative flexibility in decision making, transitioning and problem solving

  3. the existence of power structures that are responsive and consider the needs of all stakeholders. [1]

Adaptive capacity is strengthened by the existence of networks and mechanisms that encourage participation and prevent marginalisation. [6]

Local Adaptive Capacity Framework [5]

In addition to above:

  1. Adaptive capacity is also a function of current population health status and pre-existing disease burdens. [7]….. So therefore….

  2. Adaptive capacity is also a function of current organisational health status and pre-existing disease burdens.

Organisational Context

Adaptive organizations are acutely conscious of their interdependence with their environment and their need to leverage capacity, resources and allies from outside the organization. They look not only to adapt nimbly to their environments but also, when possible, to adapt their environments to them. [3]

Organizational performance—the “ability to allocate resources, innovate, adapt, and solve problems, both routine and radical—is related to … organizational architecture.” Those who have studied complex systems, such as the social and institutional ecology that revolves around organizations, have discovered that these systems have a specific architecture: Unlike organizations, that architecture does not take a corporate form. It often isn’t even formally structured. That architecture is networks. [3]

Like other capacity building efforts, adaptive capacity is not a summit that can be conquered and a flag planted. It is something organizations pursue in an ongoing manner through measures that embed the four attributes of adaptive capacity —external focus, network connectedness, inquisitiveness and innovation—inextricably in the corporate culture. [3]

Questions to explore Adaptive Capacity [6]

  1. What is the nature of the system/population being assessed?

  2. What are the principal hazards faced by this system/population?

  3. What are the major impacts of these hazards and which elements/groups of the system/population are most vulnerable to these hazards?

  4. Why are these elements/groups particularly vulnerable?

  5. What measures would reduce the vulnerability of these elements/groups?

  6. What are the factors that determine whether these measures are taken?

  7. Can we assess these factors in order to measure the capacity of the system population to implement these measures?

  8. What are the external and internal barriers to the implementation of these measures?

  9. How can capacity constraints be removed from key barriers to adaptation?

Assessment Example [6]:

Narratives from in the field:


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adaptive_capacity

[2] https://climate-adapt.eea.europa.eu/knowledge/tools/adaptation-support-tool/step-2-4

[3] https://altruvest.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Article-24-Making_Change_How_to_Build_Adaptive_Capacity.pdf

[4] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/200032746_Vulnerability_Risk_and_Adaptation_A_Conceptual_Framework#:~:text=Many%20definitions%20of%20adaptive%20capacity,existing%20or%20anticipated%20external%20stresses.

[5] https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/6353.pdf

[6] https://www4.unfccc.int/sites/NAPC/Country%20Documents/General/apf%20technical%20paper07.pdf

[7] https://www.who.int/globalchange/environment/en/chapter11.pdf?ua=1

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©2020 by Toby Sinclair.