Elinor Ostrom and colleagues developed the social-ecological system framework with the aim of synthesizing knowledge to foster a better understanding of the relationship between people, institutions and the environment. Although the framework has facilitated the diagnosis of complex systems; it has thus far struggled to account for the role of history in structuring the range of opportunities and constraints that actors face as they interact with the environment and each other. More recent innovations in measuring institutions and the integration of process-oriented approaches are beginning to provide the tools required to systematically trace the co-evolution of institutions and social-ecological systems. We review the history and development of social-ecological system scholarship, including longstanding concerns regarding the weak inclusion of temporal dynamics. We highlight the contributions of three novel advances – namely the combined IAD-SES framework, the institutional grammar tool, and the power in polycentric governance approach.