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.


The dangers of declaring your business resilient

Telstra considers itself resilient. Late last week its CEO Andy Penn was quoted in Business Day (Telstra outages hits NBN and ADSL services across Australia) declaring that a review of its network found that Telstra has ‘incredible strength and resilience’. It should not be surprising that the word resilience is applied liberally in media releases and public comments by businesses everywhere. In fact not using the word may immediately raise concerns by those paying attention as to the real business acumen of a given enterprise The moment a feature of business becomes desirable it also becomes marketable. Such is the case with resilience. Businesses are fast off the mark to declare their resilience.

seinfeldIt would be foolish to assume one can determine how resilient a business is by looking only from the outside in. A lot can be gleaned by looking at a business from the customer’s perspective, competitor’s perspective, investor’s perspective, business analyst observer’s perspective and so on. The real conclusion though can only be drawn when every aspect is examined, including any internal factors, often hidden from public view. Telstra’s internal review may indeed have reached an agreeable position, and its leadership may have satisfied their own standard of resilience. That being said, the simple fact is this: there is no mandatory business resilience standard which can be used to judge Telstra’s self-branding of resilience against what may be acceptable to its customers. More importantly, a business can declare publicly that it is resilient all it likes, but that quickly raises more questions than if the business was more reserved in the way it manages its image.

I only refer to Telstra as a recent case of a business that is trying to manage its services in light of the ongoing frustration it manages to deliver to its customers. It is certainly not an inspiring business as we look to future challenges. What is interesting is that a company of such a scale has not yet realised that resilience in business is a whole different ball game today than it was two decades ago. It is not a small part of business strategy: it is a strategy in its own right. Among the well credentialed talent that makes up Telstra’s Leadership Team, there is a missing link; a Chief Resilience Officer. The structure of the team clearly reflects on a business model that has been around for a while; i.e. someone in charge of finance, someone in charge of sales, someone in charge of marketing, and so on. There is no specific leader dedicated solely to resilience. The assumption here would be that resilience is just a part of operational strategy. This is a major flaw in the thinking of most businesses today; not recognising that resilience is more than a passing issue, but rather a discipline of as equal value to competitive business as, say, finance and marketing.

It has been noted that business leaders do recognise that resilience is important and in fact the majority believe that resilience offers a competitive advantage. A very good reference point can be found in ORGANISATIONAL RESILIENCE: Building an enduring enterprise, a study published in The Economist not that long ago. Here is a direct quote from the report: “Some 88% of respondents say that resilience is a priority for their businesses, and 80% say that resilience is indispensable for long-term growth. Moreover, 61% say resilience is a source of competitive advantage. Yet only 29% say that resilience is “fully embedded in their organisations and a clear factor in success”, and only 44% expect resilience to be fully embedded in three years’ time. These results suggest that there is a gap between aspiration and performance.” The report is a reminder that there is a major gap between what has been said about business resilience and the actions necessary for businesses to be able to better deal with disruptions. As a customer who pays thousands to Telstra for its service, I expect it to be resilient. I expect it to know what resilience means. The only way I can judge is by the quality of service they provide.

Looking at the recent Another Telstra Event (what else can it be called) I reach for some comic relief by remembering Seinfeld. In one episode Jerry is frustrated with the customer service at a car rental. After learning that the car he reserved is not available and thus offered a different car he makes his point, which goes something like this; ‘You know how to take the reservation. You just don’t know how to hold the reservation. You see it is the holding of the reservation that makes it work.”

About the author

Jelenko Dragisic is the founder of the Global Resilience Collaborative (GRC) , a collaboration strategist and disaster resilience developer. As founder of ROADMENDER, Jelenko advocates a view that future enterprises will be critically dependent on their collaborative strategy. The formation of GRC was borne out of years of observation and analysis that clearly identifies that resilience in a systematic manner is not possible without a collaborative approach involving a broad range of disciplines.