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Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (Autonomous University of Barcelona)

Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems: the Nexus between Water, Energy and Food

Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (Autonomous University of Barcelona) via Coursera


In this course you will become familiar with the ideas of the water-energy-food nexus and transdisciplinary thinking.

You will learn to see your community or country as a complex social-ecological system and to describe its water, energy and food metabolism in the form of a pattern, as well as to map the categories of social actors.
We will provide you with the tools to measure the nexus elements and to analyze them in a coherent way across scales and dimensions of analysis. In this way, your quantitative analysis will become useful for informed decision-making. You will be able to detect and quantify dependence on non-renewable resources and externalization of environmental problems to other societies and ecosystems (a popular ‘solution’ in the western world). Practical case studies, from both developed and developing countries, will help you evaluate the state-of-play of a given community or country and to evaluate possible solutions. Last but not least, you will learn to see pressing social-ecological issues, such as energy poverty, water scarcity and inequity, from a radically different perspective, and to question everything you’ve been told so far.

Part of the results and case studies presented have been developed within two projects: MAGIC and PARTICIPIA. However, the course does not reflect the views of the funding institutions or of the project partners as a whole, and the case studies were presented purely with an educational and illustrative purpose.


  • Introduction
    • Welcome to our course on the sustainability of social-ecological systems! Before getting started, we suggest you take a couple of minutes to read the information about the course and about the platform as given below.
  • Module 1. Introducing the basic concepts
    • In this first week we will look at the nexus from a different perspective: What is the nexus? Why is it getting all this attention right now? Is it just a buzzword, or something more? We will start by explaining what the nexus means in terms of complexity and propose the basic concepts needed for a metabolic analysis of the nexus. It might take a while to get your head around these concepts, but they are essential to understand what comes next. Finally, we will give examples of “elephants in the room” in the sustainability discourse – to show you that mainstream narratives are not always right.
  • Module 2. Acknowledging the poor quality of existing quantitative analyses
    • This week is all about narratives, framing and complexity. You will see how different narratives affect quantitative assessments, and why numbers aren’t always right. We will delve deeper into the theoretical basis of complex systems, and propose alternative ways of doing sustainability analysis, through the use of grammars.
  • Module 3. The challenge of food accounting
    • Having introduced the basis of metabolic analysis and complex systems, we will now focus on the different elements of the nexus, starting with food. We will start by answering some seemingly basic questions: what do we mean by food, and how can it be accounted? Which qualities of food can and cannot be accounted for in terms of numbers? Practical examples will guide you along the way, and by the end of the week you will see why the current agricultural system is unsustainable to its core.
  • Module 4. The challenge of energy accounting
    • This week we will look at energy. As we did for food, we will start by looking at the problems of energy accounting, and setting a framework to allow us to carry out energy analyses across levels and scales. You will see why energy accounting is one of the most problematic aspects of sustainability, and through the example of the Energiewende we will explore how this affects policy.
  • Module 5. The challenge of water accounting
    • This week is all about water. By now you should be familiar with the concept of grammar, and we will see how building one for water can help in dealing with its many dimensions. Through the example of an analysis of the Mauritius Islands, you will become familiar with the many aspects of water accounting, and by the end of the week you will understand the importance of water in nexus analysis, especially when it comes to policymaking.
  • Module 6. The metabolic pattern of social-ecological systems across multiple scales and dimensions
    • We talked about scales and dimensions a lot, and this week we will explore and understand these concepts better. You will learn to account for human activity, an essential fund that is often left out from quantitative analysis, and how GIS tools can be incorporated with the methods you have learnt so far. This week is heavy on theory, to prepare you for week 7 which is all about applications.
  • Module 7. Applications of MuSIASEM 2.0
    • How can the theoretical concepts explained so far be applied to practical examples? After introducing the basic building blocks of relational analysis needed for our applications, we will look at two real case examples: a nexus analysis of vegetable production in Almeria, and of a wind-powered desalination plant in the Canary Islands. By the end of this week you should be able to build processors and set up nexus analyses.
  • Module 8. Time for "something completely different": from the Cartesian dream to quantitative story-telling via evidence based policy
    • We are ending the course with something a bit different (thanks to our guest lecturer Andrea Saltelli). This week we leave quantitative assessments behind, and take some time to reflect upon why it is important to do analyses in a different way. We will introduce the concepts of post-normal science and quantitative story-telling – this will allow you to think deeply about how you frame your analyses in the future.

Taught by

Mario Giampietro, Andrea Saltelli and Tarik Serrano



5.0 rating, based on 1 Class Central review

4.5 rating at Coursera based on 85 ratings

Start your review of Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems: the Nexus between Water, Energy and Food

  • I have taken more than 5 MOOCs so far and this one is perhaps the best.
    It does not only give new concepts and ideas but also provides the tools to really understand them and put them into practice

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