What is resilience and why does it matter?

Contributor: Will Bugler

Put simply resilience is the ability of a system to absorb shock and carry on performing the function that it was designed to do. The system can be anything from global supply chains to individual houses, from transport networks to local allotments. Resilience is a response to the realisation that we have designed our world to work well, so long as nothing changes very much. Our trains run unless there is bad weather, our energy supplies are secure unless there is an earthquake and our communities hang together until there is cause to riot.

Resilience is different because it anticipates change and understands that major shocks are inevitable in a world that is facing huge challenges like climate change, resource scarcity, biodiversity loss, economic instability and social unrest. Resilience is not about predicting what shocks we will face, or when they will occur, but it is about ensuring that we are prepared for them when they do.

But how do we design our world to be more resilient to unknown future shocks?

Trying to predict exactly what threats we will face has meant that we design our defences in particular ways, but this often leaves them susceptible to unexpected disturbances.

Take a look back at some of some past disasters: The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, The Nuclear power plant disaster at Fukushima and the collapse of financial markets that were once seen as unbreakable and ask yourself; what do they all have in common?

  • Well, firstly they failed because of some kind of disturbance or shock;
  • Secondly, they were part of wider systems that were badly affected; the damage could not be contained easily; and
  • Thirdly they were all unexpected: After each event, dumbstruck experts offered the same excuse; we were well prepared but we simply could not have anticipated x or y.

But the unexpected happened.

So why, with all this uncertainty, do we design the way we live with the assumption that things will stay the same?

Most systems, from food and energy production to transportation have the ultimate goal of being more efficient. Now efficiency, of course, can be a good thing. When it means, for example, not wasting lots of energy by replacing an old component with a newer, more economical one then becoming less wasteful of resources can be helpful. But systems that focus only on efficiency often become less resilient: they become efficient at operating in a stable, unchanging world. Take the system that gets potatoes onto the supermarket shelves for example:

  • Spuds are grown by farmers. Instead of having lots of suppliers growing many varieties of potato it is more efficient to have just a few, large suppliers growing relatively small numbers of varieties of potato.
  • The potatoes are harvested and loaded onto large lorries – larger lorries are a more efficient way of transporting the spuds. Relying on a small number of suppliers means the lorries have to travel large distances to get them to the supermarkets, but because transport costs are a small proportion of total production cost, it’s more efficient to do it this way.
  • Only small stocks are stored in warehouses or storerooms at or close to the supermarkets (can you remember the last time you asked for something that wasn’t on the shelf and the store has it in the storeroom?) because extra staff, refrigeration, and rental costs make storing stock inefficient. Instead, sophisticated computer systems tell the supermarket how many potatoes are being bought and then this number is ordered from the suppliers and arrives ‘just in time’ to replenish the stocks. Very efficient.
  • Large, out of town, supermarkets also rely on people driving their cars fairly large distances to reach them, but as all your shopping can be done in one place, this is efficient for you too.

The ‘just in time’ supermarket system is very efficient, but it’s not very resilient. If a potato virus, damages one variety of spud or a couple of large suppliers have bad crops due to drought, then the system fails. If there are fuel strikes or fuel shortages, then transporting goods by lorry over large distances suddenly doesn’t seem like a very good idea. If there are problems with bad weather like snow, or flooding or any other disturbance to the supply chain then having no stocks at the supermarket leaves the shelves bare: When everything is running smoothly then the system is very efficient, but it is vulnerable and breaks easily too.

Fukushima and the Greek debt crisis were both disasters that were localised but because they were a part of interconnected systems that were not very resilient they had far-reaching impacts. Fukushima provided around 20 percent of Japan’s nuclear electricity and when the power went down factories were forced to close and it cost the economy billions. Greece is a small country and relatively small economy with a population of only 13 million, but when it got into hot water and could not pay its debts, the inter-connected nature of the global financial system meant that the impacts are still being felt by people living on the other side of the world.

But what if we move away from trying to predict all possible threats to the way we live and accept that eventually the unexpected will happen? What if we decided to design systems that weren’t just optimised for the present but that could cope with disturbances and were ready to adapt to changes they face in the future?

Resilience thinking is about designing ways of working that can absorb shock and retain essentially the same functions. Making systems resilient won’t prevent all disasters from happening, but it will reduce their impact and can go a long way to containing them.

So what does a resilient system look like?

Resilient systems are diverse, ecologically sensitive and can rebuild themselves easily if something goes wrong.

Resilience promotes diversity: Diversity is important for resilience because several things provide a similar function. So a resilient energy system, for example, may rely on modular, localised and varied array of technologies, not simply a few large power plants and a centralised grid system. In this way, if something goes wrong then other sources of supply can take up the slack, and any problems are contained to a smaller area. Diversity lends a system its strength.

Resilience is ecologically sensitive: To be more resilient we have to recognise that humans are not separate from the wider environment. All our systems that support our life are, in turn, supported by natural systems that provide us with services like, clean water, nutrients to grow food, even oxygen to breath. Resilience thinking is about understanding these systems and ensuring that we do not degrade them or change the way they work so as to make them shift from a useful state to an un-useful one that does not support human life. This means appreciating things that affect systems over long time scales, but happen very slowly: like leaching of nutrients from a farmer’s fields, at first the farmer can carry on growing crops, then he must add more fertilizers, then yet more until the point where the field is no longer productive.

Resilience is adaptive: As we know, the unexpected will happen eventually. To ensure that we are resilient it’s important that we’re ready when big changes occur. Resilient systems are able to adapt to these changes and are ready to take advantage of new opportunities that arise as old ways of working become impossible.

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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