What is resilience?

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 thinking 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.

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.

For an extended version of this explanation of resilience see the article What is Resilience and Why Does it Matter?

Watch a video on Community Resilience from our friends at Cultivate Ireland:

Surfing the Waves of Change is an animation exploring the idea of community resilience using the metaphor of a surfer to explain how communities can make themselves more resilient in these changing times. This project is supported by The Carnegie UK Trust, Comhar Media Fund and Trocaire.