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.