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.

Obsession with resilience definition won’t go away

define resilience

Often times when someone mentions resilience, a common question comes up: how do you define resilience? Well it’s fair to say that no watertight definition exists. Having said that, most people have a fairly good sense of what we mean by resilience. Here are 12 definitions to clarify.

 

  • “The ability of communities to continue to function when exposed to hazards and to adapt to changes rather than returning to the original pre-disaster state. – Productivity Commission (Australia), 2015″

 

  • “Resilience is the ability to prepare for and adapt to changing conditions and withstand and recover rapidly from disruptions…[it] includes the ability to withstand and recover from deliberate attacks, accidents, or naturally oc- curring threats or incidents.” Having accurate information and analysis about risk is essential to achieving resilience. Resilient infrastructure assets, systems, and networks must also be robust, agile, and adaptable. Mitigation, response, and recovery activities contribute to strengthening critical infrastructure resilience. – National Infrastructure Plan, Homeland Security, USA.”

 

  • “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.”

 

  • “Resilience is the ability to fully engage in life, recover from challenges, and, as a result, increase the capacity to thrive in the future. As crucial a skill as resilience is for individuals, its impact absolutely translates to the collective: when your work culture actively promotes thriving through times of adversity, the outcome will be better communication, increased productivity and a more engaged workforce.” – Dr. Hal Levine, Chief Medical Officer, ValueOptions.”

 

  • “Resilience is the increasingly critical ability to “anticipate change, heal when breached, and have the ability to reorganize … to maintain [a] core purpose, even under radically changed circumstances.” – Andrew Zolli”

 

  • “Resilience is a weird thing,” Schneier told Fortune in a phone interview earlier this week. “You can’t buy resilience like you can buy a firewall. It’s an emergent property.” – Privacy and security guru and “Data and Goliath” author Bruce Schneier.”

 

  • “Resilience is the ability of a system to cope with change and to respond to a disturbance by resisting damage and recovering quickly. By Philipp Gassner | Special to the Business Mirror”

 

  • “Resilience is the capacity to withstand stress and catastrophe.”

 

  • “Resilience is the long-term capacity of a system to deal with change and continue to develop. For an ecosystem such as a forest, this can involve dealing with storms, fires and pollution, while for a society it involves an ability to deal with political uncertainty or natural disasters in a way that is sustainable in the long-term., Stockholm Resilience Centre”

 

  • “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.”

 

  • “ULI (Urban Land Institute) defines resilience as “the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse events.” This definition was approved by ULI and organizations representing 750,000 industry professionals in the land use, planning, and development fields, including the American Institute of Architects, the American Planning Association, and the U.S. Green Building Council. This definition is part of a statement that also affirms that “the promotion of resilience will improve the economic competitiveness of the United States.”

 

  • “Resilience is about getting ahead of change so that you can survive and thrive.” (Fiorella Iannuzzelli, Director and enterprise resilience lead, PricewaterhouseCoopers)

 

What Resilience Means, and Why It Matters

This article by Andrea Ovans, the senior editor at Harvard Business Review is a must read.  Ms Ovans draws on a range of recent research which makes the slam dunk case for making resilience critical part of any business.  

 

A small but intriguing new survey by a pair of British consultants confirms the importance of resilience to business success. Resilience was defined by most as the ability to recover from setbacks, adapt well to change, and keep going in the face of adversity. But when Sarah Bond and Gillian Shapiro asked 835 employees from public, private, and nonprofit firms in Britain what was happening in their own lives that required them to draw on those reserves, they didn’t point to tragedies like the London Tube bombings, appalling business mistakes, the need to keep up with the inexorably accelerating pace of change, or the challenges of the still-difficult economy — they pointed to their co-workers…READ ON