Abstract: This paper is framed as a conceptual contribution to the Desert Knowledge CRC analysis of settlement viability. Within this brief, it addresses systematic dimensions of discrete settlements, and the dynamic social and spatial systems that connect them at local and wider regional scales. It makes particular reference to central Australia, and observes that in this context, a systems model of remote settlement needs to examine processes at a scale above the individual settlement. With a particular view to understanding the circumstance of desert Indigenous settlements, two key lines of discussion follow. First, viability analysis is discussed as the study of minimum conditions under which a settlement economy is self-reproducing, or retains functionality given certain resource inflows. In government and non-government investment decisions, cost-benefit analysis links valuation procedures with settlement viability as assessed by investors. For this reason, decision-makers often demand uniform quantifications of value in desert settlements. This situation leads discussion to a second concern, namely the conceptual issues involved in measuring and recognising the value of desert activities, desert resource flows, or ‘capital’ stocks, social and financial. Together, these two themes suggest the case for a substantive approach to settlement economy. Such an approach would draw the focus away from allocation decisions that assume static conditions, towards a closer view of the dynamic processes and practices of settlement livelihood activity. Static models lend support to a misguided view that, largely irrespective of types and levels of settlement activity, viability is driven by the efficient governance of settlement resources.