The climate crisis, resource shortages, social fracturing, economic disparities, natural disasters, and other events have given us plenty of reasons to want to steer society in a different direction. For years, we've seen different theories on how to best do this. Climate adaptation, the circular economy, transition theory, the bio-based economy, and other approaches compete for the same space and attention. Despite their important role and message, they are only part of the solution. As a virus outbreak suddenly brings the world to its knees, our priorities have become clear, and one approach stands out like a lighthouse in the mist: resilience.
We live in an increasingly fragile world with complex inter-dependencies and increasingly insidious uncertainty. We all now know how we dealt with the virus, but the next big challenge may blindside us even more - the future is always unknown.
Building resilience ensures the capacity to deal with the unexpected. In sustainable development, it should underpin everything from policy making to city planning, and industrial production to healthcare. Increased resilience in cities, countries, and internationally is the only way we can face uncertain future. Things like 100% circular, climate-adaptive cities and renewable energy all help, but if our social systems are not resilient, the next global event will see us topple again.
Moving beyond a buzzword
Resilience isn't a new concept, nor an ideology, software, or a guru-driven belief. The study of resilience became popularized in the ‘60s and is a well-proven and documented field which has grown in popular use over the past decade. The best way to understand it is through complex systems analysis.
It is a scientific conceptualization that helps to determine the 'survivability' of a system. As such, it deals with how systems are connected, and how those connections 'react' to exeternal influences. In that light, Resilience can be broken down into sub-components such as connectivity, transparency, redundancy, and flexibility.
There are experts across the globe devoted to complex systems thinking and understanding how resilient systems and their interaction are. The tools they use such as systems, networks, and causal loop mapping, can be applied to help pinpoint and measure how resilient a process is or can be. The open-source framework Symbiosis in Development (SiD) is an accessible toolkit to work with the concept and that we will use below.
Understanding the different layers of resilience may be intimidating at first, but the truth is that it is used every day by architects, managers, policy makers, scientists, and engineers around the world. In fact, by looking at exponential curves on COVID-19 cases every day, and diagrams on intensive care bed distribution and such, we are all now more familiar with the level of abstraction where resilience plays out. For better or worse, corona provides the perfect exemplary case for planning for resilience.
For example, Germany has 32 IC beds per 100,000 inhabitants. The Netherlands has 8. While Germany was criticized by the OECD last year for being 'inefficient', this is now an enormous blessing for Germany and the Netherlands. More than 100 Dutch people were treated in an IC in Germany at the peak of the outbreak. A wonderful case that exposes one of the core fallacies of neo-liberal management that dominated the last 30 years. It does not take societal resilience into account, but mostly focuses on efficiency. 'Efficiency' is a systemic network parameter of resilience that seeks an optimum, not a maximum. Maximize efficiency, and your resilience collapses. This is what happened in the Dutch healthcare system (and others). The Dutch drive for 'efficiency' at the expense of its total resilience has failed its healthcare system, and the citizens that depend on it.
Examples like this are everywhere you look, from how we plan our cities, to food production, energy, essential supply chains, education, health, and related policies. The interesting thing about integrating resilience as a key measure is that aspects such as the circular economy and climate adaptation come in through a side door in the process of resilience analysis. However, this time, they are placed in relation to each other, and it is possible to indicate priorities between them. This means that resilience is a higher-level, overarching concept that can be used to manage layers beneath it, analyze, relate and evaluate them, and figure out concrete steps towards improvement.
It now becomes our challenge to start integrating the concept of resilience into our societal ambitions. And of course, as others have said, the systemic upheaval of Corona is the perfect opportunity to get our foundations straight. Adding resilience as a main KPI to all our major societal systems would be one of the best changes we could implement, for the sake of humanity (and our ability to thrive long-term). There is still a lot to develop, learn and experiment with in that department, but we already have existing tools to get us moving in the right direction.
Applied to your specific field, the Symbiosis in Development (SiD) framework helps you understand, manage, design, and integrate resilience. The SiD framework is free, open-source, and ready for implementation in governance, design, management, and planning. It also combines and helps to integrate aspects such as the circular economy, climate adaptation, and social justice. SiD places these in relation to each other, and the overall system’s resilience. While SiD extends beyond resilience, you can start by investigating its take on resilience specifically, and follow your interests from there. The main body of SiD is a free digital book to dive in deep, about 460-pages deep. There is also a quick guide that provides a birds-eye view.
There's plenty there to get you started on your own, but contact us if you are in need of guidance. All SiD materials, books, and learning materials are freely available in digital form from the thinksid.org website. If we can together integrate resilience into all of our societal systems, be it in companies, institutions, or governance, we’ll be one major step closer to a truly sustainable, livable, and thriving world that can last in the reality we live in.
Click here to visit Think SiD.org to access open-source SiD documentation, quick guide and SiD book
Click here to read "When resilience is more important than efficiency" by Martin Reeves and Raj Varadarajan
April 24, 2020