SO you are interested in resilience?

By Dr Peter Rogers

That’s good. So am I. In fact I’m so interested in it that I’ve spent a large part of the last decade travelling the world and exploring resilience in a range of different contexts. I feel safe in saying that I have learned a lot about resilience, what it can be, what it might be, what it could one day turn into, but I still have no definitive answer as to what resilience IS. How can that be? I would say because there are many different types of resilience. This may be the most important angle I have to share… the type of resilience you encounter in each place that you go to will always depend on the background and experiences of the people to whom you are talking and on the contextual specifics of where they live and work. How you encounter resilience determines its utility.

“That’s nice” you might say “but how does it help me right now?”

Stop for a minute then and think about how you have encountered the term resilience. Think about the place that you work, about where you live. Think about the type of goals that define the parameters of success or failure in the projects with which you are engaged. Those who work in sustainable development or environmental offices will have a different understanding of resilience to those who work in infrastructure development, land-use management, planning departments or equity and social justice. If one works aiding families in times of stress or helping vulnerable demographics amongst our citizenry get access to work, to health care or to other basic services, be it Bangalore or Newcastle upon Tyne you will probably see resilience differently to a member of the Rural Fire Service in Brisbane. Those working with young skateboarders in the city centre of a medium sized post-industrial town and those working to bring relief to war torn areas (foreign and domestic) are all working in different forms of resilience building. This makes it very hard to nail down one way of thinking or of using the concept.

Think bigger, think beyond the organisations that employ us. Think global resilience. When taking this one on it is sometimes useful to give the mind a workout. There is some logical gymnastics required to join the dots here. When thinking globally one must also think locally – I know I abhor the cliché but it fits so well, deal with it. To make resilience work the importance of the local context cannot be overstated. In a global melee to ‘own the idea’ or create what us academics call a ‘grand narrative’ it is too easy to lose sight of the local context within which a person is working. What being resilient means to the inhabitants of a Bangkok slum will be different to a Manhattan high rise, what resilience means to an emergency worker in Melbourne will be different to a local councillor in England. The challenges in each of these examples are rooted in the idiosyncrasy of time, of space, and of place. What does that mean? Well, it seems straightforward to think that London is different to Manilla, that Washington DC is different to Puerto Allegre, or Singapore distinct from Mumbai. Yet in a world of international standards, benchmarks and professional guidelines that inform how we work there is a constant tension, a push and pull, between understanding what works right here right now and negotiating the boundaries of how we are expected to work (and report back to our managers). Another element of tension comes from a perceived need to ‘scale up’ successful projects into a universal tool kit. The idea that one example can be turned into a one-shot fix for making everyone, everywhere, resilient in the same way is not helpful to anyone. What we are finding as we research resilience around the world is that it is not always easy to understand how different communities move through and use the different spaces of a given city at different times – be it time of day or time of year. Not all agencies are able to design comprehensive interventions or projects that pull the local culture, traditions, customs and knowledge of the general population together with the culture and way of working typical of governing bodies – ranging from ethnic tensions to organisational corruption to entrenched resistance to change or the use of rigid tools in the wrong context. Resilience thinking is used to design flexible practices that can be realigned and redesigned to fit the needs of any given context. Just think of the changing dynamics of pressures in Tokyo during cherry blossom season, or Sao Paulo during the World Cup. The lack of contextual understanding between the different organisations and interests before, during and after Hurricane Katrina or in the planning, design and management of the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Such examples created cascading failures in systems felt around the world. Such examples show us how important local knowledge is to understanding the dangers one might, one day, face. The dynamics are thus spread over a wide range of possible stressors and shocks, so resilience activities need to be focussed on the right contextual details to be effective.

In such a world is no longer helpful to look for a universal definition of what resilience is, nor to seek that singular silver bullet that will allow us to fix the problem of a perceived lack of resilience amongst certain elements of the population. What many of us are now seeing develop is the beginning of the real challenge; how do we think differently about what is done under the banner of resilience. What is growing is a general acknowledgement, amongst experts and lay folk alike, that if we are to do this thing properly then different thinking is required. Thinking resiliently informs new opportunities for doing it differently in practice, for harnessing the lessons of the past, existing tools or expertise and using them in new ways. For identifying vulnerabilities and mobilising flexible workers in collaborative partnerships to facilitate creative solutions to wicked problems. Encouraging a different approach to anything ‘across the board’ is a big challenge, so in our own work we are aiming to encourage this in a number of ways. One of those is by building case studies of best practice and sharing an evidence-base with interested parties. The hope is that by stimulating ideas and discussion with high quality research findings we can show where the dividends from being resilient actually are; but more than that we are seeking to develop a collective of collaborative thinkers and practitioners who can steer the trajectory of resilience towards its more positive forms. Yes, despite my advocacy on this issue I also acknowledge that if those using the idea use it poorly then not all aspects of work done in the name of ‘building resilience’ are potentially good.

In future posts I hope to bring you more of our efforts to show the difference and ensure the better versions prevail by reporting on previous, current and future projects, undertaken both with the Global Resilience Collaborative and with other partners across our expanding network. In the next post I will look at urban resilience a little more, touching on the UN ‘Making Cities Resilient’ campaign and the Rockefeller Foundation ‘100 Resilient Cities’ programme.

Peter Rogers is a Senior Lecturer in the Sociology of Law at Macquarie University. He is the former Co-Director of Climate Futures research centre at Macquarie University and author of two books on urban resilience.

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