Hello Everyone and welcome to the Episode 11 of the series where we will explore the words Resilience and Resilient. ‘Resilience’ is a difficult term for a lot of people yet it is a very important concept in the dialogue around sustainability. We will explain the general meaning of the word and then put into context of the sustainability debate. I am delighted to have Lulu joining me today to help with this episode.
Hi Everyone. Resilience is a noun which means having the ability to return to the original form after a disturbance of some sort. The associated adjective is resilient. So it can refer to a plant which gets blown over in the wind and then regains its upright position after some time.
It can also be used to refer to someone who recovers from an illness or a set back in their life– such as Mary showed great resilience by returning to work after her operation. And we can use it about the economy or a business – for example, the resilience of the business was admired as it recovered from losing its major customer. Victor, can you explain how it is used in relation to sustainability?
The use of resilience in relation to systems grew out of engineering and material science references. The threats posed by climate change have seen the word resilience used in slightly new ways which stretch rather than change the meaning. In any living complex system, change is a central principle and so resilience is now seen as the ability to adapt, flourish and grow through changing circumstances. This is about the ability to retain function, structure and identity and so is a different meaning to ‘returning to its original state’ as defined earlier. Sustainability is about achieving balance. In many ways it could be said that resilience is about living with ‘imbalance’ or constant change. Sustainability starts from the perspective of a functioning system that will continue to run on its own in a balanced way. Resilience, on the other hand, starts with accepting change as an essential part of the system and is about the capacity of the system to minimize the negative effects of imbalance or disturbance. Where sustainability is often about doing more with less to minimize resource use, resilience is about having enough capacity to get through periods of scarcity or drought. It is important to say that the two concepts are not in opposition but offer different perspectives and approaches to understanding how we adapt to change.
The word resilience is used often in relation to different contexts and so let’s describe some of these now.
Natural systems resilience – Resilience is an important area of study within ecology and a lot has been learnt about the topic through observing how natural systems adapt to change or disturbances. We have come to understand much more about how complex adaptive systems work and we are aware of how a system may collapse dramatically once a certain threshold of disturbance is reached which may not be predictable at the outset. For example, we don’t know what percentage of any given fish species can be removed from the seas before a sudden collapse occurs. Understanding natural system resilience can inform our design of social systems to be more resilient.
Enterprise Resilience – particularly for the multi-national corporations. There is increased emphasis on businesses being sustainable and the Dow Jones Sustainability Index speaks about managing risks deriving from economic, environmental and social developments. However, this is driven by a need to provide shareholder value rather than the wider United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and societal needs. Businesses are themselves social organisations and as such they depend on a resilient society. We now have terms such as ‘climate resilient’ and ‘resilience strategy’ being used in relation to some organisations and municipalities and these terms refer to how an organisation has developed a plan or understanding of how to absorb and recover from external unexpected shocks. For smaller businesses the word Resilience is used more in relation to being agile and adapting to a changing market. However, there is also quite considerable interest in how some start-ups, with a focus on sustainability, are adopting new business models in which resilience is a major theme. These models shift the emphasis from sales and growth onto other elements such as principles, values, community and similar issues.
Community Resilience – is about how communities plan for adverse situations be they natural disasters or economic upheaval. The key term is Social Capital and that is the ability for a community to communicate and collaborate together to address any situation. It is not just about a high level political intervention but more about how each level of a community responds to the conditions and interacts with others to bring about the desired result.
There is a lot of talk about building local community resilience in preparation for a future low carbon economy when cheap oil is not longer available. The Transition Town network is a very good example of community resilience in practice working towards a more sustainable future. There is also quite a lot of study and planning around what is called Urban Resilience which is concentrated on big cities many of which are coastal and therefore threatened by rising sea levels.
Individual resilience – mostly this refers to the psychological approach of a personal adaptive capacity which is the ability to effectively deal with setbacks and dramatic changes in one’s life. These changes may be in the realm of family or relationships, career, health, economic well-being or social circumstances. Of course, the drive for sustainability will bring a lot of different types of change and challenges to many us and so the ability to be personally resilient may well prove important.
There is a lively debate about whether or not resilience can be taught or learnt or whether it is an innate attribute or characteristic within an individual. Resilience is something that can be developed within a community as demonstrated by the International Red Cross’ project 1 Billion Coalition for Resilience.
That concludes this episode of the series and we hope you found it useful and interesting. My thanks to Lulu for helping with this today and to you for listening. We hope you can join us for more episodes in the series.