Resilience not just about prevent collapse; it finds innovation in the ashes of crises

Contributor: Will Bugler

The news wires were a-buzz last month as they excitedly announced that scientists have found the Higgs Boson, which is known as THE GOD PARTICLE and was found by crashing atoms together in a giant doughnut under Switzerland called the Hardon Collider (or something similar). Now that is sexy science! But is this ‘big’ science distorting our appreciation of other forms of scientific development?

As ‘resilience’ has become more mainstream – appearing in reports by development banks, UN bodies, business journals and newspapers – much of what has been written focusses almost unremittingly on parts of the theory that prevent a system from collapsing (or, more accurately, from moving from one stable state to another). The danger here is that resilience is framed as a theory that is only concerned with consolidation: its methods cast as prudent, but essentially an anathema to progress; a concept that urges us to be backward-looking and value old techniques over new technology. Such a reputation would be wholly undeserved, as one of the most important aspects of resilience is its ability to turn crises into a catalyst for innovation.

Professor Carl Folke, Science Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Director of the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, frequently uses a metaphor from the art world to illustrate how resilience can lead to innovation. He writes that:

“In the 1930s Henri Matisse was commissioned by the American art collector Alfred Barnes to produce a major painting for his private gallery near Philadelphia. Matisse was thrilled: he rented an old cinema in Nice, where he lived at the time, and spent a year completing the work, a dance triptych. He was thrilled with the result. But when the piece arrived in Merion, Barnes wrote to Matisse explaining an unfortunate error: his collaborators had taken the wrong measurements, so the painting did not fit on the gallery wall. The difference in size was marginal, and Matisse could easily have tweaked the triptych to fit the wall – a technical fix. But instead he rented the cinema for another 12 months to complete a new painting with the right dimensions. Moreover, since he felt that mindless duplication was not real art, Matisse considerably changed the concept, effectively creating a whole new design. And in this process of reworking the piece, as he experimented with forms that would capture the dancers’ rhythmic motion, he invented the famous “cut outs” technique (gouaches découpés), what he later labelled “painting with scissors.” Whether consciously or unconsciously, Matisse had turned a mistake into an opportunity for innovation. The new triptych not only pleased Barnes, but also served as the stylistic starting point for what would later become Matisse’s most admired works.”

What makes resilience such a powerful concept for our time is its power to catalyze renewal. Today economic, social and environmental systems all around the world are showing signs of collapse or decline; increasing resilience is about learning how to turn crisis into opportunity.

Governments and economists often appear to be transfixed by the past. The Eurozone’s floundering attempts to stabilise are, fundamentally, based on the premise that economies will be able to return to something very similar to what they were before the financial crisis took hold. In contrast resilience is resolutely forward looking: it rejects the idea of simply patching up the flawed structures of yesterday. A resilient system is inherently adaptive; it does not see a problem or a crisis as a bad thing but it uses it to be a springboard for transformation. If, for example, the world financial system was resilient, the crisis of 2008 (or even the earlier recession in the 90s) would have sparked a period of reorganisation that would have seen fundamental change: continued deregulation and market speculation would have almost certainly been stopped.

The planetary boundaries and social boundaries concepts offer an invaluable framework for understanding the global crises that face humanity. For 10,000 years humans have enjoyed the relatively stable climatic conditions of the Holocene period; it is in this context that our complex societies have developed. All the evidence suggests that this epoch is now coming to an end. The future will not be like the past, yet a stable environment is taken for granted in political strategies, international development plans, and investment decisions.

The upshot of this is that reactions to crises and external shocks frequently amounts to ‘tinkering around the edges’ – minor behavioural adjustments that almost always encourage technical quick-fixes to eliminate immediate problems. The extent to which this has become ingrained the cultural psyche can be seen in media coverage that frequently casts the environment as a fringe issue; the preserve of a special interest group called ‘environmentalists’ – often with the emphasis on the ‘mentalists’. The concept of resilience smashes this perception, showing the links between the social and the ecological: the truth is that there are few things more humanitarian than ‘environmentalism’.

Understanding that human and environmental systems are interlinked and interdependent is fundamental to resilience thinking. It is a cognitive leap that many are yet to make. As well as those who believe that humans can control environmental systems through technology (a theory that has been spectacularly unsuccessful in the past) there are others who have not yet made the connection. Many conservationists still see the environment as something that should be saved from humans and espouse preserving it in some sort of unchanging state that conforms to socially constructed ideas of what is ‘natural’ or ‘wild’. The reality is that – as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus was saying in 500BC – the only constant is change.

One can speculate that the fact that resilience has come to prominence at this time has much to do with the fact that systems are currently failing and change is badly needed. One example of a system at the point of transformation is energy. Moving from hydrocarbon-based fuels to renewable energy sources is vital for both economic and environmental reasons; fossil fuel prices will continue to rise, driving up food and commodity prices and straining economies, and burning the fuels themselves drives climate change. A resilience perspective not only recognises the need for change, but encourages support for new innovations that could revolutionise the energy system. Resilience also guards against innovations that run counter to the basic principal that human and environmental systems are interlinked: the sudden rush to turn food-producing farm land to grow biofuels is a classic example of how innovation can be destructive when allowed to be driven by the market alone.

Far from protecting the status quo, policy makers must create favourable conditions for innovation to flourish; new ways of thinking must be given the space and support to challenge the established order. Carle Folke sums up the resilience mindset as “Do not be alarmed by unexpected events, prepare for them, and make use of them to improve negative circumstances.” The Higgs discovery has shown that the human appetite for discovery has not dimmed; but it is vital that we do not confuse scientific complexity with progress. Resilience offers the potential to break from the past, revolutionise the way we approach energy, transportation, food supplies, economics, politics and our relationships with our neighbours: what could be more exciting than that?

Will Bugler is Editor at Get Resilient, he has worked within the ‘Adapting to Climate Change’ department at Defra, Friends of the Earth, and for the UK government’s advisory body on climate change issues; The Energy and Climate Change Committee.

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