My letter “[Handling crises:] More than 70 ways to show resilience” has appeared in “Nature” (Vol. 518, p.35). Here it is, followed by the original unpublished 2013 paper on which it was based:

Corres Fisher revised

And here is the earlier unpublished paper:

We need resilience – whatever it is.

Resilience is our main hope for survival – but we need two different types, argues Len Fisher.

“Resilience” has become a universal buzzword. We need it, it seems, for personal growth, leadership, and management. We also need it in our IT networks, our power grids and our agricultural systems. Successful organizations need it, and our economies, societies and ecosystems would be in dire straits without it. Or so experts from these different areas claim.

But what is resilience, and why do we need it?

These questions provided an unexpected sticking point for participants at a recent workshop on slowly-developing catastrophic risks, held in Zurich at the Swiss Re Centre for Global Dialogue, and sponsored by the International Risk Governance Council. The meeting brought together economists, ecologists, risk analysts, senior government policy advisors and administrators, and scientists concerned with modeling and predicting future global scenarios. Unfortunately, each had their own idea of what resilience means in terms of practical policies for the future.

Some took the concept as self-evident. Others, particularly from the economic side, saw it as the ability of a system to “bounce back” after stress. This is the description used by the World Economic Forum in its publicity, elaborated in its latest report as “Maintaining system function in the event of a disturbance” or (if the system has the power to adapt and change) “The ability to withstand, recover from, and reorganize in response to crises …”.

The ability of a system to transform was seen as central by many of the ecologists and sociologists, who quoted with approval the description of resilience by the Stockholm Resilience Centre as “the capacity of a system to continually change and adapt yet remain within critical thresholds.” A group of eminent scientists led by ecologist Steve Carpenter, and including the Nobel prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow, have recently taken this further, and define resilience as “the capacity of social-ecological systems to adapt or transform in response to unfamiliar, unexpected and extreme shocks.”

In some of these definitions, there is a focus on protection against disturbance and maintenance of the status quo. In others there is an emphasis on transformation and adaptation to new circumstances. So which is best? Which, if any, can be used to formulate an operational definition for scientists and policy makers to employ to help predict and/or cope with future scenarios? These may involve gradual change, but which may also involve the dramatic changes inherent in natural and man-made disasters, economic collapses, technological revolutions and social upheaval.

I argue that we need both types of resilience in our modern, complex social-economic-ecological world, for very different reasons. For stability and security, we need the sort of resilience that enables a system “bounce back” after stress, or at least to adapt to change at a rate that is compatible with that change. This sort of resilience can, in principle, be built in to modeling, risk analysis, scenario planning and foresight for different eventualities.

But we need to do such prediction-based planning with our fingers crossed behind our backs, because complex social, economic and ecological systems are more than the sum of their parts. They contain a multitude of interacting feedback loops. Some act to stabilize the system and maintain the status quo, while others can drive runaway change if left unchecked.

The dynamic balance between these two types of feedback shifts slowly over time, and can bring a system to a state where a small change in one part can propagate and tip the balance, or where the whole system can “flip” to a different state for no apparent reason. Such “regime shifts” are well known in ecology, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that similar unexpected shifts can occur in our complex economies and societies.

I am not just talking about the effects of isolated “black swan” events, although these can undoubtedly be significant. I am talking, rather, about sudden change and transformation of the system as whole, which sweeps away all of our modeling and scenario planning efforts. The potential for such dramatic change is inevitable in complex systems. It is built in to their very nature. We cannot always foresee it, let alone resist it. Instead, we must learn to accept it, live with it, and even embrace it.

For this, we need the second sort of resilience – the sort espoused by Carpenter and his colleagues, where adaptation and transformation are the keys. It will not be easy, not least because the introduction of a capacity for such resilience into our economic, social and political systems will often require the devolution of power in the cause of flexibility and speed in decision-making. It will also involve present sacrifice to cope with unknown, and often unknowable, future eventualities (the banking network, for example, might be made more resilient by weakening links and cutting ties, but only at the expense of present profits). Such sacrifices of power and immediate gain tend to go against human nature, but we are going to need them, if we are to develop the two types of resilience – the one for stability, the other for survival.


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