Learning and failing

Houston (Texas) was recently ranked third on a list of ‘cities of the future’, based on its economic and human capital potential.  However, only a few years ago the city was affected by a ‘1 in 500 year flood’ three years in row.  The quick succession of these so-called unlikely events gives the concept of extreme weather events a whole new meaning.  In light of this, it makes sense to wonder whether the 2022 Australian floods (predominantly NSW and Qld) could occur next year and again the year after?  Should such a possibility be ignored? What can past lessons teach us that we can ill afford to ignore?

A recent report that looked at the first two decades of this century found that over seven thousand disasters in the period killed 1.23 million people, affected 4 billion people and created nearly $US3 trillion in economic losses.  The Human Cost of Disasters: An Overview Of The Last 20 Years study, conducted by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, only considered events that resulted in at least 10 people being killed, were declared a state of emergency or led to a call for international assistance.  These are staggering figures.  This alone should be enough to get us into gear and to start thinking about resilience with a strategic hyperfocus. 

The report showed that when compared to the preceding twenty years, there has been an alarming increase across all measures.  Perhaps two standout measures are the fact that extreme weather events have nearly doubled, and that major floods have more than doubled in the past twenty years.  Floods are also by far the most prevalent type of event, accounting for 44% of all disasters.  What more do we really need to know if 40 years of data is not enough?   

When considering what can be done to accelerate building a resilient society, there are other factors that come into play as well.  Three of these have been repeated ad nauseum for years as being of critical importance for an effective strategy.  The first is the fact that recovery from disasters can be a decade-long process.  The second are the findings that investing a dollar in disaster resilience saves at least a five-fold amount in recovery cost.  And the third, which is particularly important for Australia, four out of the top five countries affected by major disasters studied by the UN report are in its region; China, India, Indonesia and the Philippines. 

It is perplexing how stubborn we appear to be in moving faster to adopt a culture of resilience, despite mounting evidence and the strength of a business case for transforming to a resilience-informed society. By that, I mean understanding that every single area of our societal functioning needs to integrate resilience thinking into its processes.  There are no safe havens against the far-reaching disruptions and destructions that extreme weather events create.  Especially when they are happening at an increasing rate. 

If the often quoted ‘those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ pearl of wisdom means anything, then the question worth asking is this: where does the appetite for doom come from?  

While there is plenty of data available in our own backyard to examine and learn from, perhaps, given Australia’s tendency to look elsewhere for answers and true insights, it is also worth paying attention to what has been happening in North America.  In practical terms the USA has usually served as a reference point, a model and a benchmark for disaster management agencies in Australia. 

In looking for good sources of learning material, we can examine what happened in Houston (Texas) during a three-year period from 2015 to 2017. 

Hurricane Harvey in 2017 was the fifth major 500-year flood to hit Texas between 2010-17 and the third event in a row in Houston itself.  The events in 2015, 2016 and 2017 (all statistically 1 in 500-year events – i.e., a 0.2% chance of happening in any one year) have demonstrated that ignoring such possibilities today is downright irresponsible.  What’s even more alarming is that in the same 7-year period there were 25 such events in the wider USA. 

Putting the 2022 flooding across NSW and QLD into perspective means a few things.  Firstly, simply hoping that there will be enough time between major events to allow for recovery to be complete is a seriously flawed strategy.  What happens if we see peoples’ homes being demolished only days or weeks after being rebuilt from a previous flooding event?  What happens if people who are still reliving the traumatic emotions caused by the floods are faced with another event that is same or even stronger?  There are many questions that must be considered with renewed urgency. 

Australian studies have shown that there is an increasing trend in the frequency of major flooding events in the region that was affected by the 2022 floods.  This is also consistent with other studies globally.  But perhaps worth noting again are findings from the USA.  A recent study by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) of events that have caused at least $US1 billion in damage in the past 40 years has found that the number of such occurrences has doubled in the last ten years, compared to the preceding decade. 

When all these factors are taken into consideration, it seems that disaster resilience must be reimagined post-haste, and attitudes that guided inadequate investment in the previous decade need to be discarded as a matter of strategy. 

The lack of education about disaster resilience is a real problem.  A lot of so-called educational offerings by governments are simplistic and downright out of date.  People are taught to think of natural disasters as ‘events’.  Most awareness programs, workshops and other similar initiatives do not go far enough in helping communities, businesses and individuals grasp the fact that the natural disasters we are seeing in the 21st Century are a whole new ball game.  Thinking outside the box is good but, in the words of famed Harvard business professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, ‘thinking outside the building’ is probably where we need to go. 

The essence of such thinking lies in acknowledging that we have to accept that natural disasters are complex; not as events in themselves but because of their relationship to economic, social and ecological interconnectedness.  It is not unusual to see people reacting with a mixture of bafflement and/or amusement when we ask them if they are prepared for an event that might take place thousands of kilometres away, or perhaps for a type of event that is not common in their region.  Most people see disaster events as local, immediate and acute.  Naturally then, all responses tend to be local, immediate and acute.  This, despite evidence that clearly tells us that we live in a climate, a new ecology if you like, where such perceptions are damaging.

And this is what needs to be addressed urgently if we want to see a genuine return on any investment in resilience in the long run.  Educational programs need to be redescribed to suit the new reality in which we live.  Getting ready for disasters is not exclusively about ‘readiness’; it is about creating new ways of thriving. 


Creativity has long been integral to society’s ability to cope with major (at times cataclysmic) events, recover and subsequently thrive. Disaster impacted countries and communities are often equipped to ‘Build Back Better’ through engineering projects that protect communities, cities, or regions. These projects are visible, tangible and easily adopted as the best way to increase capacity for communities to be more resilient. Given the increasing frequency of catastrophic events in the past few decades, and alarming predictions for the future, it is understandable that such projects are warranted. Still, these projects often come with noticeable cost and political risks; yet they remain trusted, ‘go to’ solutions popular with the public as well as investors and governments alike. One such example is the recently completed MOSE project in Venice, which was designed to provide significant protection against future flooding in the city. 

It has been well documented that communities and individuals often rely on creative output to make sense of disasters and help digest crises in a way that would prove meaningful and useful in the long term.

Jelenko Dragisic and Caroline Austine

However, it should be acknowledged that engineering projects, which tend to dwarf other efforts, are not the only kind of activities that communities across the globe utilise to prepare, adapt, respond and recover from natural disasters and other similar events. In many parts of the world communities are also embracing ecologically based interventions. Improving wetlands and waterways, and thus adding capacity to mitigate flooding, is proving to be an effective measure with multiple benefits.

Conversely, what has been underutilised is the role of creativity in culture and art as a form of human capacity-building necessary to strengthen social capital and individuals’ ability to recover better from disruptive events. It has been well documented that communities and individuals often rely on creative output to make sense of disasters and help digest crises in a way that would prove meaningful and useful in the long term.

What is needed is both a broader role of art and culture and a more intensely integrated strategy of societal resilience to what is increasingly being recognised as a climate induced cascade of natural disasters. 

While globally there exists a recognised body of practice suggesting an instinctive approach to projects that assist communities understand what resilience may mean, as well as educate the population about how complex threats can be mitigated, there is a largely unexplored opportunity for a systematic approach that is closer in line with engineering, ecological and other programs. A transdisciplinary collaboration of this kind can harness creativity across disciplines, laying the foundation for a more transformative recasting of community platforms – socio-economic, cultural and technological alike.

The thinking behind the entire argument is also informed by a body of research focusing on the role of creativity and resilience. Natural disasters, acts of terror and/or other major disruptions are common areas that artists look to as both a source and focus of their creative efforts. Researchers have concentrated on a broad scope of areas such as characteristics associated with creativity that seem likely contributors to processes of resilience, including personal flexibility, divergent and elastic thinking, high conscientiousness and social expressiveness.

There have been many attempts by culture managers to expand on the idea of civic engagement through projects that explore the role of art and culture in community recovery after natural disasters. A plethora of so-called creative recovery projects have emerged to help communities deal with trauma as well as provide an opportunity for engagement in activities that offer deeper emotional significance – a kind of escape from the brutal reality of cleaning up after disasters and facing an uncertain future.

Creatives across the spectrum have produced works that have been inspired by major events such as Hurricane Katrina, an event that over the past 15 years has become an iconic reference point; symbolising disruptions we are witnessing on an increasing scale and frequency. For example, the television drama Treme is unique in that the entire series is dedicated to the painful and frustrating recovery of a New Orleans community post event.  Hurricane Katrina has also found creatives outside mainstream forms, producing narratives for specialised audiences, such as that found in Josh Neufeld’s graphic novel A.D New Orleans After The Deluge. This work is largely based on the experience of the author who volunteered for The American Red Cross during the response and recovery period. 

Inspired by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, another example is the figurative scroll, “Baptism of Concrete Estuary” by multimedia artist Jave Yoshimoto. This work pays homage to victims and deals with the surge of images that flooded the internet and haunted him in the wake of the disaster.

Projects like these assist communities to reflect on traumatic experiences, create meaningful narratives and in some cases consolidate common culture with a sense of belonging.  However, unlike recent engineering projects such as MOSE, they are not perceived as being as ‘useful’ in climate adaptation. The tangibility of engineering projects appeals to humans’ sense of safety and certainty. What is missing here, however, is the possibility for greater integration of both ends of the spectrum. Creativity as currently applied in the aftermath of major natural disasters could become a vehicle or platform for reorganising the way communities approach risk minimisation and mitigation. Curiously, many engineering projects commence their life through community consultation. The community is often asked to contribute ideas or suggestions that could better inform disaster mitigation projects.  Yet little attention is given to assisting communities to broaden their view, vision and capacity to contribute on the basis of the creative art and culture narrative. Increasingly, there is recognition that art and culture can enable people to think about resilience and natural disaster mitigation in a manner that science and data cannot. 

This paper offers an invitation for collaborative effort in carving out a space for better informed dialogue that reduces the presumption of engineering primacy as the safest option for climate adaptation. Systematic integration of art and culture should form an indispensable part of the overall strategy, flowing directly into local community plans supported by governments and other agencies mandated to provide leadership.


Caroline Austine is a humanitarian professional with 15 years experience in engagement and research. She has developed and managed large-scale engagement projects in various locations worldwide, with a particular focus on disaster-affected communities. She is currently working globally for the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. 

Jelenko Dragisic is a collaboration strategist and disaster resilience planner, Jelenko designed and implemented the largest disaster resilience program in Australia. This award-winning program was based on a large-scale collaboration between corporate, government and NGO sectors. Jelenko is the author of The Collaboration Instinct, a book about strategy and collaboration.

How to build resilience when we lack the right words

By Tonya Wright

This article is part of a series inspired by the Design and Disaster event held by DIA QLD in April this year. To promote discussion and collaboration, the DIA assembled a panel of designers, strategists, and researchers experienced in disaster and resilience building. Each panellist shared their experience of rebuilding post disaster and the need to build resilience pre-emptively into design, if we are going to thrive in a landscape that experiences disasters continuously. These articles aim to go deeper and expand on the important and timely topics raised during the event by each speaker.



Jelenko Dragisic, a Collaboration Strategist and Disaster Resilience Planner, and founder of the Global Resilience Collaborative think-tank and ROADMENDER consultancy, spoke on the vital role strategy plays in building resilience when confronted with never-ending disasters.

Jelenko recognises that “ultimately resilience in respect to business is always a matter of strategy.” Businesses need to move away from conventional approaches and focus on strategy that integrates resilience, collaboration, and disruption management. They need to find a strategic answer that includes re-examination, discovery, as well as crafting new competitive advantage. “One possible starting point could be to ground our thinking in the apparent value that design offers to society,” says Jelenko.

“Design is inevitably informed by language and user experience,” notes Jelenko. However, user experience is often connected to needs which are not always easy to communicate, especially if the language around our needs is not well developed. Jelenko reminds us that “resilience as a concept emerged 400 years ago but it did not bear any relation to human psychological needs as we understand them today.”

For instance, resilience to a nineteenth century ship builder wholly encompassed the quality of materials, such as steel and timber, and their capacity to recoil after pressure. Jelenko believes we can take this historical idea as a metaphor for the concept of resilience today. “The language of resilience is rapidly evolving and very much in response to a scenario where disruption, be it by design or system failure, is the predominant environment.”

According to Jelenko, “clients may not be well equipped to communicate their resilience needs, which simultaneously poses a challenge and opportunity for ‘disruption informed’ design.” So how can we effectively design for resilience when our clients are unable to fully communicate their needs? It is the job of designers to bridge that gap using evidence-based design. As Jelenko says, “the design industry may find its influence more relevant in shaping the experience for its customers in a way that goes beyond responding to explicit and immediate needs. For instance, there is already a well-established and matured degree of evidence indicating what makes individuals, communities, cities, etc resilient.”

But it’s not enough to design for resilience purely on a client basis. It is also up to us as designers, and members of the community, to step up and to use our expertise to inform political policy to help build resilience on a larger scale. Jelenko reminds us that, “equally important would be the capacity to use these insights to engage political processes and influence investment and policies by various levels of government. This could be applied not only to natural disasters but, broadly, to all forms of disruptions including public health emergencies such as the current pandemic.”


Note: Originally published on Design Institute of Australia (DIA) website. Reproduced with permission. For DIA’s Creative Resilience approach read more here.


So, what about recovery then?

(7min read)

By Caroline Austin and Jelenko Dragisic

In ideal circumstances, recovery from a major disaster would be free from aftershocks. But aftershocks are the norm. Hence the question: how well are we equipped for recovery from the current pandemic? This is the time for serious thought.

Firstly, it should be noted that recovery is not easy to define. While a seemingly simple term to grasp, it is used differently in different contexts. In some cases, for example, reconstruction might be a more fitting term. Broadly speaking, recovery can be understood as an overarching process of returning to normal, which encompasses all aspects of life.

The current pandemic of a zoonotic disease is shaping up to be the greatest economic shock of the last 100 years. Professor of Economics Nicolas Bloom believes it could be five years before we reach the level of pre-pandemic economic output and warns that the current event may, in the future, be referred to as the ‘the Greater Depression”.

However, economic recovery from our current pain is expected to happen and a few scenarios on how it could unfold are already being offered, which is not surprising given the number of studies on economic crises. Consumer behaviours are well understood. The larger issue is understanding the impact on broader societal changes. Each culture will interpret the current pandemic in its own way. This is where the results of responses to the pandemic come into play. When things were done better, i.e. when decision makers prepared for the likely scenario of a pandemic and invested in resilience, the decisions tended to dodge the ‘make it up as you go’ scenario.

Humans are incredibly well adapted to act quickly in a crisis. We mobilise fast. That quality will always be there. But the qualities we need to develop are preparedness and long-range focus. This is where our culture needs more work. A lot more work.

While it is clear that during crises decisions have to be made on the spot and improvisation is necessary, this should not be confused with adaptation and agility in the midst of a crisis. Agility is based on anticipation of disruption and prudent investment in preparadness for a host of scenarios. A good resilience plan is not meant to be some kind of ‘super risk management’. Instead resilience should be more about capacity to act adaptively, be agile and capable to deploy knowledge, resources and critical decision making.

We should remember there were plenty of voices declaring that the likelihood of a pandemic such as this was not a question of ‘if’ but rather ‘when’. While many have watched the TED talk by Bill Gates, who used his status to amplify what scientists were trying to tell us for decades, as recently as six months ago global experts were saying that the chances of a global pandemic were growing. In its first annual report published in September 2019, expert independent group, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, stated categorically that “the world is not prepared for a fast-moving, virulent respiratory pathogen pandemic”. Scientists also predict that there will be further and probably worse pandemics.

The upshot is this: executing a well-prepared plan reduces the chance of mistakes that leak into an already costly path to recovery.


As an independent monitoring and advocacy body, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) urges political action to prepare for and mitigate the effects of global health emergencies.

Recovery in our mind is about getting back to normal. Resuming life as we knew it. That has a nice ring to it, but research shows that it is much more complicated than that.

For a start, recovery is a painfully slow and frustrating process. While the link between the scale of a disruptive event and recovery is obvious, another link often ignored is that between the quality of response and recovery.

Perhaps it is worth noting that there is a good reason why recovery is often referred to as a ‘second disaster’. While original disasters tend to affect indiscriminately, the recovery process, unfortunately, can discriminate. In recovery, mistakes are often made, and some miss out. Moreover, recovery is not as heroic an act as responding to shock is. This means that the media also loses interest post-shock, leading to less of the attention that a well-executed recovery process needs.

Regardless, the story of recovery must be told. Why? It is during this time, the frustrating recovery process time, that we lay the foundation for our future capacity to respond to yet another shock.

Next time, the shock is likely to be bigger and more painful. This crisis is offering us a possibility to envision a very different world, and to move on to create it. It is also during the recovery phase that we can make mistakes that have a lasting impact. Things get overlooked, underestimated, ignored, or simply done poorly. The lessons from the virus responsible for SARS is a pertinent example. Vaccines were developed, but not supported to a testing phase. There is little profit in staving off some anticipated catastrophe. Undoubtedly, there is often good work undertaken which does prepare us for the future, but the risk of not getting it right is real.

What happens in the response stage (which immediately precedes the recovery stage) can have far more impact than the original event itself. A tardy response, marked by a lack of good preparation, causes people to make rash decisions with enduring consequences. Humans are incredibly well adapted to act quickly in a crisis. We mobilise fast. That quality will always be there. But the qualities we need to develop are preparedness and long-range focus. This is where our culture needs more work. A lot more work.

We are risk takers. We are also entrepreneurial. And we are downright optimistic. This won’t change. And it shouldn’t change because it is these traits that allow us to create and shape a better world. We can however apply those qualities to appreciate that future disruptions will be more testing. Being entrepreneurial means to adapt better and respond with more foresight. Recovery is very likely going to be a process entangled with events that demand response. The lines between responding and recovering are blurred at the best of times. Our own processes are disrupted.

Another thing that is often ignored is the fact that we assume conditions following a disaster, or any disruptive event, will be normal. We presume there won’t be any additional disruptions that hamper recovery. Here in Australia we should look no further than our recent mega-scale bushfires. Without a doubt, the bushfire recovery work is now further complicated by the coronavirus. This effectively makes recovery significantly more complex, more protracted, less complete and much costlier. We cannot rule out further disruptive events in the future that might just do permanent damage to regions impacted by bushfires. This could shape society beyond what may have previously been reasonable to assume.

The main thing to note is that recovery is becoming something altogether different. It is not a journey to restoring ‘normal’. It is more a process of change, adaptation and innovation towards new possibilities, potentially a society that conceives of a social and political order where profits are not above people. Rather than trying to get back to normal, maybe our plans for recovery should focus on adjusting to turbulence and finding better ways of living with instability.

Taking resilience to another level: how ecologically-based resilience to natural disasters can enhance community and the economy of society

The floods in north Queensland earlier this year (2019) were repeatedly described as a one-in-100-year event. This added a bit to the dramatic narrative effect of the evening news, which, to be honest, was getting a bit tired. We have been hearing about major natural disasters being so rare that we have forgotten to take note of one simple fact: in the 21st century climatic conditions are such that natural disasters of the magnitude we witnessed are not rare. In fact, they are more common than we realise. In 2016, the USA was hit by five flooding events that were each supposed to be one in 1000-year events. In 2017, Houston Texas experienced its third flood in three years. Each flood was supposed to be a one in 500-year event.
The list of supposed rare events breaking all the rules has been growing for years. Therefore, there is very little, if any, value in acting surprised. The real surprise is how much Australia lags in investing in resilience that incorporates better integration of land restoration and conservation as the first line of defense against future catastrophes.
Considering the fact that major events are occurring more often, we need to take look at the cost of these events, which annually add up to hundreds of billions of dollars. Furthermore, the period of full recovery from natural disasters can take years. The final number in the equation stems from repeated findings that investing $1 in mitigation (a part of the resilience approach) saves up to $10 in recovery. The business case for more investment is hard to ignore. The real question then is how this investment should occur to achieve what long-serving previous president of the Rockefeller Foundation Judith Rodin famously called ‘the resilience dividend’.
We have seen many improvements over the years. Here in Australia the narrative of disaster resilience has picked up steam since Tropical Cyclone Larry in 2006. A few years later, the Federal and State governments joined forces in developing the first national disaster resilience plan and commenced investment in range of resilience projects. No doubt many projects have improved our defenses and increased our capacity to recover faster and more efficiently, but the complexity of natural disaster events has also become a larger headache. This is largely due to the fact that often not enough time passes between natural disasters for full recovery to take place. We have also come to realise that old data and thinking is not sufficient. For instance, while for many years we focused on the strength of cyclones and built our defenses accordingly, we have since seen that sometimes cyclones can be weaker but still bring about more damage because they move much slower and dump more water.
A critical element in an approach to better resilience to natural disasters that has not yet been fully realised is the way we mobilise land restoration and conservation following natural disasters. Over the years there has been sporadic interest in working out how to handle revegetation that would be more resistant to any impacts of future events and would recover better following such events.
From time to time, environmental agencies have provided advice on what trees should be planted after cyclones. But there has been no systematic nation-wide approach to development and implementation of standards that would form an integral part of any natural disaster resilience program. Invariably there is recognition within disaster resilience strategies across States that improvements to land management can serve as a buffer to major events. However not enough strategic dialogue has been generated on a national level. More significantly, the current strategies tend to act as a collection of different approaches that cater for different needs. We tend to talk about business resilience to natural disasters as separate from community, and environment. The real connecting point for natural disasters is the land on which all built and social infrastructure is based. It would make strong sense to consider an approach where the starting point for resilience to extreme weather events is based on maximising the capacity of our landscapes to absorb shock and recover faster.
It is unavoidable that flooding, for instance, needs to be improved with a range of mitigating strategies, including civil engineering projects. These activities however need to dovetail in with ecological restoration and conservation activities that specifically address new climatic patterns. Replanting trees after cyclones, floods and fires is one thing. Replanting them while knowing that they may not reach maturity before the next disaster strikes is another ball game. Restoring wetlands and waterways after floods should be developed with resilience of the whole system in mind, including the community and the economy.
Over the years there has been a plethora of projects globally that worked under the principle of ‘build back better’. These approaches, adopted by authorities world-wide, were about making sure that houses, buildings, roads and other infrastructure were built using new standards and guidelines to increase their capacity to resist natural disasters and also make them less costly to repair. The same principle should apply to environmental restoration.
A couple of years ago I spoke to a landowner who cared deeply about his land located near the Great Barrier Reef and his local community that is regularly impacted by flooding events. What stuck in my mind was the fact that, while he praised the water improvement work completed on his property which ultimately helps the Great Barrier Reef, he was keen to explain how those same improvements to local waterways actually reduced flooding to his home and the local community. This is not an isolated case but rather a strong indication that a range of projects that focus on environmental outcomes can be interconnected to deliver a larger impact; a resilience dividend of sorts that is not possible when different projects or initiatives do not work collaboratively.
The concept of resilience was well developed long before it emerged in the disaster management discourse. Ever since Canadian ecologist Buzz Holling’s seminal paper on ecological resilience was published nearly half a century ago, ecologists and earth scientists with a range of specialisations have worked on developing a very rich bank of knowledge that can tell us how landscapes respond to a host of extreme events, and how they recover and thrive against odds. That knowledge should be the basis of a new approach to disaster resilience in Australia as it transitions into an age of yearly floods and fires that are theoretically ‘one in 100-year’ events.

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.


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.


Collaborative resilience building

The past 15 years have demonstrated that resilience and collaboration are the two pillars upon which the future of a city’s capacity to flourish may increasingly be dependent. The emergence of disruptive forces, be they technological, cultural, political or natural, has created an opportunity for an entrepreneurial approach to city flourishing. The key lies in re-imagining the city on the basis of its capacity to reformulate itself as a collaborative system well placed to manage disruption, and allows it to continue to grow. Resilience must be crafted around a collaborative strategy.

Disaster resilience is a multifaceted challenge, but it should not deter citizens from trying to engage with its complexity. Small, simple steps can make a huge difference. Engaging with disasters via a resilience platform is about innovation in the face of disruption. Resilience building is in part about re-imagining cities as collaborative systems that allow for balanced flourishing, whereby multiple factors are integrated into city life.

cost of disasters

The notion of a collaborative city as the backbone of a resilient city should be considered in the light of future scenarios where cities need to balance economic, social and environmental factors in equal measure. Information, knowledge and belief in self-action leads people to understand their own capacity as a resource that can be converted into social capital of immense value. It is of critical importance that serious attention be paid to some limitations of the disaster resilience narrative. The strong responses by global communities to resilience programs is a vital indication that the community does not see resilience-building as being the same thing as disaster management (or disaster mitigation as some prefer to call it).

The links between disaster management and disaster resilience may be obvious and are, in fact, real and should be maintained. However, resilience-building goes beyond disaster management. Its main concern cannot only be the ability of a community to bounce back. The real test lies in the ability of an individual, community or business to continue to grow. Attempting, as a seemingly logical goal, to go back to ‘normal’ is not what resilience-building should settle for. Resilience-building has to work as an interlocking strategy, ensuring that all areas of work are done in tandem and support the collective effort; an effort that can successfully bring about a level of cooperation and collaboration between individuals, the local community,  state and federal governments, big business and other institutions such as churches, universities etc., that can perhaps be described as ‘super-cooperation’. Could it be that Enterprise Architecture (EA) is the tool that can offer the systematic language of collaborative governance needed for a complex partnership to work effectively towards a culture of resilience?

How could EA offer a language-based strategy for building disaster resilience? The answer lies partly in the premise that resilience is not possible unless there is ‘buy in’ from all ‘parties’, using the bottom up approach. Collaboration is a strategy in itself. While partnerships are nothing new, in the case of disaster resilience-building collaborations are very complex because of the diverse range of partners and the roles each can and should play. EA with its well established structural language, protocols and standards, can add value. One of the key impacts of this approach is formation of new ground for a different way to deal with disasters. This would guide the narrative of disaster management closer to everyday life; something that people can relate to. With a stable language we have the potential to deal with disasters with more nerve and order and with less hype and spontaneity.

The result can be a higher likelihood of an increase in the number of parties that are stable and persistently involved in disaster resilience-building. This is one of the most critical impacts the disaster resilience strategy can achieve; a shift to the culture of resilience. Disasters are complex, semi-permanent situations which require major effort. Governments are not equipped, nor in fact best placed to deal with disasters alone. Additionally, governments cannot be expected to provide exclusive leadership in disaster resilience-building. While those factors are detrimental in the current situation with EA as a basis, a new, more sustainable approach could emerge that brings a larger degree of participation in the form of resources from multiple parties.

Effective consideration of the role Enterprise Architecture could perform in transitioning the present situation to a new collaborative framework requires a detailed understanding of the current state of play. Consideration should be given to the fact that current understanding of disaster management is not as clear cut as it may have been a decade ago. One major factor is the emergence of a global consensus that resilience has to be enhanced in order to make response to major disasters sustainable. Considering the global cost of disasters (one of the highest recorded costs was in 2011 with damage bill being close to US$400) it is vital that our understanding of disaster management be reviewed.

The emergence of the resilience discourse has created a new narrative of collaboration between responding agencies and the general public. A crucial part of the growing trend of collaboration between the two spheres has led to better outcomes (e.g., faster clean up, as was seen with the Mud Army in Brisbane, Australia) but also conflicts, tensions and blurring of the accountabilities and expectations (‘Occupy Sandy’ received far better recognition for its local community’s work than many formal authorities). The process of re-imagining the way forward requires integration of two distinct narratives.

Disaster management and resilience are fundamentally two sides of the same coin. One is formal and legislated; the other is informally organised. It is critical that a common language of collaboration be agreed upon with special focus on devising a formula of interoperability that recognises both capacities and limitations. In practical terms the cost of disasters will continue to rise until there is a clear understanding that the degree of disruption is part of an ‘unresolved uncertainty’ which must be addressed within the culture of resilience. Resilience in this context forms the basis for a collaborative system that allows all agencies to innovate and grow, despite disruptions.

Author: Jelenko Dragisic, Founder – Global Resilience Collaborative

How Art and Design makes us more disaster resilient

By Caroline Austin and Jelenko Dragisic

Most people will interact with art and design in some shape or form every day.  Knowingly or not, art and design shape our lives much more than we might think.  John Berger, in his influential book, Ways of Seeing, confirms our visual navigation of the world as a central component of today’s contemporary landscape, underlining the central role of art and design in our lives.

What inspires creative practitioners is what inspires us all to do things to make our lives better.  Artists and designers are great at doing something most of us can’t; creating an art or design practice that captures our emotional and intellectual lives and taps deep into our value and belief systems.  We can appreciate works of art partly because they resonate with our inner beings; they allow us to make meaning of things, that we often lack the words, or any other means for that matter, to express.

Panel from Graphic Novel by Josh Neufeld, exploring the experience after the hurricane Katrina

Panel from Graphic Novel by Josh Neufeld, exploring the experience after the hurricane Katrina

Interestingly, natural disasters, acts of terror and/or other major disruptions in our lives are often areas that artists look to as both a source and a focus of their creative efforts.  It is through this link between art /design and major disruptions, as well as a broader spectrum of creative output, that we can examine some of the many artistic sensibilities common to creators of things we all gravitate towards at some time or another. Metzl (2008) writes that there are several characteristics associated with creativity that seem likely contributors to processes of resilience, including but not limited to personal flexibility (Meneely & Portillo, 2005), divergent / elastic thinking (Torrance, 1995), high conscientiousness and social expressiveness (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Getzels & Jackson, 1963) and awareness of self, expressiveness (Barron, 1969).

Natural disasters impact on people because they disrupt many, if not all, our needs roughly along the lines of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  Regardless of how current this well understood model of human needs is today, its relevance remains strong given that most people can understand how we humans function.  In most cases we are guided by needs that start with food and shelter and slowly graduate to our higher intellectual and emotional needs, such as self-actualisation.  Restoring these needs after a major flood or an earthquake means we look to different things for help.  An essential part of such a process is our ability to reflect on the events after they pass and to try and create a narrative that fits in with our belief system; and one that reinforces our values and our way of functioning as psychological beings.

Listening to a piece of music can be a powerful way of building resilience for those who have experienced a devastating event.  A musical performance can bring people together; uniting them through a shared experience and creating a sense of community.  Together with music, other creative forms of expression like film, television drama, sculpture, painting, literature, graphic novels, performing arts and so on have provided rich ground for artists and creators of all persuasions to explore large devastating events and help individuals and communities to cope, recover and continue to thrive.  Art and design can also carry powerful messages related to resilience and can be potentially be transformative or re-directive. (Fry, 2009)

The past 10-15 years have seen a significant increase in the frequency of natural disasters globally.  More significantly, the effects of many of those disasters have had larger global impacts because of increasing interdependencies.  Decades ago any form of art chronicling these events would have been only locally relevant; now they are afforded global relevance and are of interest to a much larger audience.  Given that many disasters are global in impact, a work of art that deals with local disasters can become globally appreciated.  Somewhat ironically, natural disasters then create a space for connectedness and concern for one another globally more effectively than what otherwise would be the case.

Take for instance the TV series Treme, which lasted for four seasons starting in 2010, five years after Hurricane Katrina.  The series explores a diverse set of issues which affected the New Orleans community after the infamous disaster.  As a drama it explored many things that have not been well understood or explored in media coverage following the disaster.  The limitations by which traditional and emerging media operates translated into a perhaps limited understanding of how the residents of New Orleans and surrounding areas were affected.  Treme, as a drama, was critically acclaimed and conveyed a story that many felt was true and vital.  Similar examples of sinetrons (soap operas) in the Asia Pacific region weave issues of resilience throughout their narratives and have the ability to reach of millions with their message and inspire a sense of community.  Indonesia, the supermarket of disasters, is one such example with an increase in recent years of dramas exploring issues of adaption in the wake of the many disasters across the archipelago.

But one did not have to follow a TV series to learn the story of Katrina.  There were other forms of expression.  Graphic novels have also become a vital means of creative expression resonating with diverse audiences.  The importance of Josh Neufeld’s A.D New Orleans After The Deluge lies largely in the very experience of the author who volunteered for The American Red Cross during the response and recovery period.  Neufeld initially blogged about his experience, which later led to serialisation of an online graphic novel by SMITH magazine, and subsequently to the release of a printed version that was praised for its raw emotion and depiction of truth.  It is worth noting that graphic novels and comics often draw many artists to write/draw stories about natural disasters or other major catastrophes such as the 9/11 terrorist attack.  Many of these stories reveal information, events and situations that rarely attract mainstream media without diminishing the power to move us.

Art has been used to tell stories about natural disasters forever really.  Look at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cave paintings for instance.  It’s not a new thing.  What may be new is the meaning that art presents, perhaps to new audiences.  It captures different interpretations of events from say those that took place centuries ago.  Artistic sensibilities and trends are different today. Disasters also impact us differently.  All these things come into play when we consider forms of art we feel close to and how they can best tell the story of an event or experience of disruption.

It is not always simple to define where art starts or stops and where other disciplines take hold.  The case in point is this year’s Venice Biennale which featured installations by Kashef Chowdhury and URBANA that combine architecture and art focusing on events such as floods.  This unique manner of presenting built spaces allows for a more interactive way for people to get closer to the idea of what some communities (in this case in South East Asia) face with regular flooding events.  Likewise the work of Fiona Hall responded to core concerns around the persistent role of human development in nature’s demise.  Hall’s work highlights the interdependency of disruption today to the intersecting concerns of global politics, world finances and the environment.

Adding artistic elements to contributions for the Biennale may also help people see more than what evening news programs (and increasingly less often) are able to present.  Art may help us to see natural disasters in a fresh way, which is important as we are becoming increasingly immune to these events over time.

Disasters have inspired many people to seek creative ways to express their inner sensibilities.  One interesting example is the work of Dakota Sandras who recycles materials found in the debris after natural disasters and turns them into works of art.  Another is “Baptism of concrete estuary”, inspired by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, by painter and multimedia artist Jave Yoshimoto.  The figurative ‘scroll project’ (42 inch-by-30-foot) as explained by Yoshimoto is a homage to victims of the 2011 disaster and deals with the surge of images that flooded the internet and began to haunt him in the wake of the disaster.  The list of similar art projects is seemingly endless.

A combination of the increased rate of natural disasters over the past three decades and the ease with which these stories can be shared globally has created an almost permanent source of artistic inspiration, which conversely is starting to appeal to global audiences that seek to better understand disasters and, more importantly, shelter their lives from what can be an overwhelming experience.



Caroline Austin, Director Communications, The Global Resilience Collaborative

Caroline has extensive experience in emergency communications, management and strategy in the not for profit / humanitarian sector gained in a variety of senior level positions. She has developed and managed large-scale communications, partnership and development projects in various locations worldwide, with a particular focus on disaster-affected communities. She has a particular interest in the role of technology in supporting resilience communities and has developed and managed projects that support this objective.


Jelenko Dragisic, Founder, The Global Resilience Collaborative

Jelenko is the founder/editor of ResilienceReporter.com, a seven day a week resilience news, analysis and resource portal focusing on making resilience a recognisable topic for the general population.


Are Australians prepared for one of the world’s largest earthquakes?

California is a not exactly a crow’s flight away from Australia.  But in the connected world it’s not crows that cause disasters.  Rather, it’s the digital entanglement of our economic systems.  In 2005, when the infamous Hurricane Katrina hit North America, it caused oil prices to rise.  This, for Australia’s car dependent lifestyle, meant a little bit of (manageable) pain.  However since the 2008 GFC, things have changed and oil prices now matter to us a bit more.

The Uniform California Earthquake Rapture Forecast, which is considered the most authoritative in the US, provides estimates of magnitude, location and likelihood of earthquakes.  Its latest modelling indicates that, while the likelihood of a ‘medium’ sized earthquake (under 7.5 on the Richter scale) occurring in California remains the same as per previous patterns, there is now an increased likelihood of a ‘larger’ earthquake (over 7.5 on the Richter scale).


The next big Californian earthquake will undoubtedly impact on Australia and the world.  What this means precisely is a matter for deep analysis.  More importantly, how much do the Australian public, business, governments and our expatriates living in California know about this almost certain event and how prepared is everyone?  The impact will be both economic and social.

The seriousness of the impending threat was the focal point of the National Earthquake Conference (held in May 2016) where the Director of Southern California Earthquake Centres, Thomas Jordan, stated rather ominously that “the San Andreas fault, in particular, looks like it’s locked, loaded and ready to go”.  Consecutive modelling has shown that the impact would be staggering.  Hundreds of lives could be lost, tens of thousands of people could be injured and tens of billions of dollars would be lost due to destruction of property and infrastructure, and ongoing economic disruption.

This earthquake region is home to thousands of Australian expats.  It is also a major trading partner with Australia.  These things alone are enough to make this looming Californian earthquake a major ‘Australian’ natural disaster.  It could in fact have a larger impact on Australia than some of the major disasters we have experienced over the past decade.  The main difference would be that we wouldn’t be able to do much in terms of responding the way we would if it took place on our soil.  Therefore, we need to think about resilience differently.  Specifically, how can we act resiliently when the event that disrupts our lives takes place beyond our borders?

It is not completely out of bounds to think that, when the earthquake hits, our governments (particularly the federal government) would have to set up a response co-ordination centre not too dissimilar to the ones we set up when a natural disaster occurs on our soil.  In fact this is a real possibility, because the public would demand that we respond to the concerns of tens of thousands of people in Australia, including the large American population that lives here.  Given our family and social ties (friends), economic transactions, security threats, environmental impact and so on, it is unlikely that we will simply settle for news coverage as an adequate response.

At the risk of sounding cold, brutish and perhaps even trivial, (which is what ‘money-talk’ can sometimes be) I would point to the strong business ties between Australia and California.  These long-standing ties have been further strengthened over the past decade with the signing of the Free Trade Agreement.  As CalChamber (California Chamber of Commerce) states, “Australia is California’s 13th largest export partner. California is the largest state exporter to Australia, with more than $3.4 billion in exports from California to Australia in 2015”.

With economic ties come social and cultural ties, which are critical for a host of additional reasons that are impossible to express in dollar values.  The key thing is to approach the expected earthquake as a disaster that will disrupt and hurt our families, our friends, and our trading partners in the region.  Some of that disruption is also likely to hurt us here in Australia, although how that will unfold is not yet clear.  We would do well if we conducted some of our own modelling, connected more strongly with the Californian authorities and stakeholders. and created a resilience plan that first and foremost engages the Australian public, businesses and governments on all levels.  In a global world there are no ‘local’ disasters.  Pretending otherwise is precisely the opposite of what a resilient society is about.


About the author

Jelenko Dragisic is the founder of the Global Resilience Collaborative (GRC), a collaboration strategist and disaster resilience developer. As founder/director of ROADMENDER a collaboration strategy consultancy, Jelenko advocates a view that future enterprises will be critically dependent on their collaborative strategy.

Recalibrating Resilience (Guest Blog by Robert Aurbach)

The Global Resilience Collaborative welcomes the latest guest blog contributor Rob Aurbach whose wealth of experience in areas of personal injury system design, rehabilitation, resilience, and disability management adds another dimension to resilience discipline. 

I’ve been writing since 2008 about why some people recover uneventfully while others with similar injuries sink into despair and dependency. Insight based upon discoveries in neuroscience has led to the development of a working understanding of why and how system created disability and secondary psychological overlay to claims occurs.

Rob_illustration_for_blogIt always seemed to me that the opposite side of the same coin was individual resilience.  Some people are able to “bounce back” from challenges that cause others to crumble.  But the literature around resilience didn’t seem helpful – it shed no real insight as to how resilience worked, or even what it was.  And the training based upon the research failed to be realistically adaptable for many people – there is a high level of rejection of the popularly touted strategies.

The same approach that helps us understand acquired disability behaviour leads to a more robust understanding of what individual resilience is and how it works. Moreover, it shows us that different people have different resilience skills, and that development of those skills can be individually tailored to achieve greater acceptance and uptake.

A three-part article describing those findings appeared in the professional column at Workcompcentral (URL below).   Accompanying it is a free web app on my website that allows you to test your preferences among the resilience “styles” so that you can choose wisely when developing new tools for your resilience tool box.  The potential for more tailored interventions for injured people (and the stressed claims managers and service providers that deal with them) is significant.

Key points:

  • Individual resilience research has been based upon correlation studies across populations
  • Such research doesn’t define the operational mechanism, or provide tailored individual recommendations. High rejection rates of suggested approaches follow.
  • An approach to understanding individual resilience based in contemporary neuroscience creates an understanding of the operational mechanism of resilience that allows us to account for the wide variations amongst resilient people that we observe in the world.
  • Classification and testing of individual preferences amongst “resilience styles” allows a person to select new resilience skills that are sufficiently acceptable to overcome rejection and facilitate habituation.
  • Testing resources are available for free, online.

Join me in reviewing the article and the web resources. I hope that you find it helpful.  I’d love your feedback and your help in advancing the promise of individually tailored resilience development.




About the author

Rob_AurbachRob spent 15 years as the chief legal and policy development officer for an American statutory compensation authority. During the last decade Rob has assisted 10 governmental entities in reviewing and improving their workers’ compensation systems as a consultant.  In Australia, Rob has worked for various public and private clients, including Deakin University, WCD Workers’ Compensation Solutions, Comcare, the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, the Department of Employment and WorkCover NSW.

Rob’s research focus has been on understanding why some people recover from physical and psychological injury as expected, while others do not. He has written more than 50 articles and book chapters and speaks internationally on personal injury system design, rehabilitation, resilience, and disability management.