Defining Resilience…oh no, not again

If resilience was easy to define we probably wouldn’t care about it as much. It is rare these days for people to talk about resilience without descending into a discussion about its proper definition.  Oftentimes, one of several arguments would lead to someone proposing that a more suitable word needed to be used to better capture what is meant when we speak about resilience.  Those who concern themselves with resilience are familiar with some attempts already put forward to find an alternative term.  Antifragile comes to mind as one example.

I think that an obsession with definition and terminology is not unique to concepts such as resilience.  In fact, all important things that we deal on a daily basis are hard to define. What is life? Love .. Happiness .. Culture? Every aspect of our daily life is influenced by culture, for which there are hundreds of definitions in existence, and yet nobody has managed to find an alternative term nor impose an exclusive definition.  Instead, we collectively use a variety of definitions which still manage to share the same meaning.  My point is this – contested concepts are also engaging concepts, which puts them in a really good position.

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Resilience can be defined in many ways.  Sometimes the definitions fall short of actually stating what resilience is: instead they tend to describe the phenomenon and hope that the implied will be a clear and shared understanding.

For years I used defined resilience only to help me maintain consistency when implementing different resilient projects.  I have never been keen on trying to promote it as the definition.  It was only used as a reference point, which really is necessary if any kind of resilience project is to be designed.  So I felt that resilience could be “a strategy of acquiring, producing and utilising resources to advance to a desired position, which in most cases is close to the equilibrium an individual, community or any human related system maintains on a regular basis”. The key elements of this possible definition are resourcefulness, confidence and sense of purpose. All three elements should be seen in relative terms. For instance confidence is not absolute but relative to an individual or group’s circumstances.  The relative factors determine the starting point for all action.  This definition, which admittedly is not poetically expressed, works for me as it focuses on the key things that matter in resilience.

However, I am mindful of somewhat more elegant definitions by countless others.  Here are some definitions of resilience that I came across over the years starting with perhaps the earliest one by C.S Holling:

“A measure of the persistence of systems and of their ability to absorb change and disturbance and still maintain the same relationships between populations or state variables.” – C.S. Holling,

“Resilience is realized when a disruption is unfolding or cannot be avoided. It is the system’s potential for adaptive action in the future when information varies, conditions change, or new kinds of events (even external shocks) occur.” – Jan Erik Karlsen and Rosalind M.O. Pritchard, “Resilience – The Ability to Change” in Resilient Universities: Confronting Changes in a Challenging World.

“The ability of a social or ecological system to absorb disturbances while retaining the same basic structure and ways of functioning, the capacity for self- organization, and the capacity to adapt to stress and change” – Resilient Cities 2014

“Resilience is the capacity of a system to continually change and adapt yet remain within critical thresholds.” – Stockholm Resilience Centre

“Building disaster resilience is the term we use to describe the process of helping communities and countries to be better prepared to withstand and rapidly recover from a shock such as an earthquake, drought, flood or cyclone.” – Department for International Development, UK.

“The ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions. Comment: Resilience means the ability to “resile from” or “spring back from” a shock. The resilience of a community in respect to potential hazard events is determined by the degree to which the community has the necessary resources and is capable of organizing itself both prior to and during times of need.” – The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.

“Disaster resilience is ‘the capacity to prevent, mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from the impacts of disasters.” – Council of Australian Governments, National Partnership Agreement on Natural Disaster Resilience, 2009.

“When applied to people and their environments, ‘‘resilience’’ is fundamentally a metaphor. With roots in the sciences of physics and mathematics, the term originally was used to describe the capacity of a material or system to return to equilibrium after a displacement.” – Fran H. Norris Æ Susan P. Stevens Æ Betty Pfefferbaum Æ Karen F. Wyche Æ Rose L. Pfefferbaum

“Resilience is considered the ability of a community to respond to and recover from disasters. It includes those inherent conditions that allow the community to absorb impacts and cope with an event, as well as adaptive processes that facilitate the ability of the community to learn, re-organize, and change in response to a threat.” (source: http://www.ansi.org/news_publications/news_story.aspx?menuid=7&articleid=3989)

“The capacity to react to and manage or even prevent risks and shocks to which households, groups, and communities are exposed” (Tanner and Mtasiwa, in Resilience Cities)

“Resilience is an ability to adapt, recover and grow stronger from adversity. Highly resilient people are happier, heathier and better equipped to deal with uncertainty and change.  The good news is that resilience can be learned.”  Dr. Rose K. Gantner, author of Workplace Wellness: Performance with a Purpose.

“Disaster resilience is generally considered to be the ability to “bounce back” from the effects of a disaster. This involves the ability to recover quickly once the disaster event has occurred, but it also can be influenced by the ability to resist the initial impact of the disaster.” Christopher W. Zobel, R.B. Professor of Business Information Technology in the Pamplin College of Business.

 

… and so on.

 

It doesn’t take much to notice that these definitions carry certain common elements.  Some tend to be defined in a rich metaphorical language, others seem to indicate a desire to appear grounded in hard science and some are almost slogan-ish.  To be fair, they all deserve a good mark.  The reality is that they are all actually grounded in facts.  Nuances are always possible and are probably best expressed when resilience is part of a strategy for any system or entity such as a business, city, community, country etc.

In my experience over the years and particularly when developing resilience projects, I found that one of the key features of resilience is the presence of an active agent. For a system to be resilient it needs the active agent to respond by recovering and proceeding along its natural path.

For instance, if you build a massive concrete wall and try to knock it down you may or may not succeed, but either way you would not describe it as being resilient. Should the wall not be destroyed is not a property of resilience but resistance. If you do manage to knock it down what is missing is an active agent in the concrete which is needed for it to react to force.

 

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