Saturday, March 27, 2010

Resilience – what is it?

In National Conference on Resilience I reported that Australia 21 had convened its first national conference, on the subject of resilience and its applicability to complex systems beyond the world of social-ecological systems.

“Resilience” is a term that is on many policy makers’ lips these days, but if it is to have policy relevance it is important that it be defined rigorously, and its consequences, usefulness and limitations derived with equal rigour, so that what we learn in one knowledge domain can be transferred with due care to others.

Australia 21 is fortunate that one of its directors, Dr Brian Walker, is a world authority on resilience.  Dr Walker is a Research Scientist with CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems.  He is the Board Chair of the Global Resilience Alliance. In 2003 he was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal for service to Australian Society in Ecology. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering. He was formerly Chief of CSIRO Wildlife Ecology.

Dr Walker staked out the ground for our conference with a paper entitled Resilience in Perspective, the text of which is reproduced below. The paper may be downloaded as a PDF file from here, and the PowerPoint slides which accompanied the presentation may be downloaded from here.

Resilience in Perspective – Dr Brian Walker

“Resilience” is gaining increasing attention, not just in science but in policy development and amongst practitioners, in all sectors. This rise in interest is not really surprising. It’s a response to an increasing uneasiness about potential looming shocks that would sorely test the coping capacities of nations and of the world. Economic uncertainty, climate change, new pandemics, fanatical terrorism, food shortages and food riots, water ‘wars’ and other serious worries are converging in a way that evokes the feeling Winston Churchill described in the build up to the Second World War as “the gathering storm”. The spectre of being hit by a serious ‘whammy’, and perhaps double or triple whammies, has raised the notion of resilience high on the agendas of many governments, corporations and organisations.

All of these concerns involve the behaviour of dynamic systems; systems that are always changing, sometimes in surprising and unpredictable ways. Ecosystems, organisations, farming regions, countries, people – all of them are complex adaptive systems, which means they are self-organising systems. Change some part of any one of these systems and they respond by initiating changes in other parts, and for most of the time this self-organising, self-regulating behaviour allows the system to keep functioning in the same kind of way. But there are limits to this; limits to how much the system can be changed and cope through self-organising processes. A change beyond those limits causes a change in one or more of the feedback processes that control the system’s dynamics, and the changed feedbacks result in a change in the way the system functions. It then changes towards a
different structure.

The application of resilience ideas in science and society has four main origins – engineering, ecological/biological, psychosocial and defence/security – with organisational resilience appearing more recently. The literature is large and overlaps with that on robustness (see for example Jen 2005). I will not go into it here except to say that some of the differences are important in regard to how useful the concept is - in particular, the difference between the engineering use and the others. Engineering use focuses on a designed amount of resilience, while in ecological, psychosocial, organisational and defence use what is important is how resilience can change, how it can be gained or lost.

This is what resilience is essentially about – the amount of change, or disturbance, a system can undergo without changing to a different way of functioning, a different structure. A definition developed for social-ecological systems, but used more widely for other kinds of systems, is “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and to reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks” (Walker et al 2004). As resilience declines it takes a progressively smaller size of shock to push the system across a threshold. This is the emphasis I am adopting because it’s the one we need to focus on in applying resilience to policy and management, and it constitutes the first of the characteristic features of resilience that need to be understood and included in program that adopts a resilience approach.

Five characteristic features of complex systems that need to be considered in developing a resilience approach to policy and management

1. Maintaining resilience requires continual change. Keeping things constant reduces resilience. A common objective of policies aimed at optimizing some particular product or outcome is to identify an ‘optimal’ state of the system, and then to somehow try and keep it in that particular state. In fact, keeping a system in one particular state leads to self-organised changes that make the system less and less resilient. As an example, preventing fire in a forest in an attempt to keep it in its present state eventually leads to the loss of those species that are able to withstand fire. They are out-competed by species that do not have to channel resources into attributes like thick bark, resistant cell structures and dormant stem buds that enable them to resist or recover from fire. The longer fire is prevented, the more vulnerable the forest becomes to fire. To keep a forest resilient to fire it is necessary to periodically burn it. Immune systems of children protected from contact with dirt do not develop the capacity to cope with it, resulting in later allergies. Maintaining resilience requires probing its boundaries.

1a. A corollary of the above is that resilient systems evolve through time. The self-organised evolutionary change in response to changes in the environment (natural and social) is part of being resilient. The point to make is that resilience does not mean no change. All systems have to change in order to adapt to changing environments.

2. Resilience is maintained by having a high response diversity.
 This means having different ways of performing the same function, each with different capabilities of responding to shocks and disturbances. Pursuing efficiency, narrowly defined, removes apparent redundancies that later can turn out to have been response diversity.

3. Cross-scale and cross-domain interactions.
You cannot understand or manage the resilience of a system by focusing at only the scale of interest. You need to consider, at least, one scale above and the embedded scale below. This is the basis of the concept of ‘panarchy’ (Gunderson and Holling 2002). Increasing resilience at one scale can reduce resilience at other scales. A common example of this is pushing problems up-scale (through seeking short term solutions). The Australian ‘wool mountain’ and the European ‘butter mountain’ and ‘milk lakes’ were a consequence of efforts to make individual farmers resilient to fluctuating market prices, leading to loss of resilience in the industries concerned.

The ecological, social and economic domains in linked social-ecological systems tend to have multiple, interacting thresholds. If one is crossed it can cause either an increase or decrease in the likelihood of others being crossed, leading to a cascading effect.

4. General and specified resilience.
There is a danger in focusing too much on known or suspected thresholds. If all the attention and resources of management are channelled into managing for the identified (specified) resilience and associated thresholds, it may inadvertently reduce resilience in other ways. There is therefore a need to consider both general and specified resilience. General resilience involves such things as diversity (natural and social), tightness of feedbacks and modularity. While it is reasonably straightforward to estimate the costs of maintaining general resilience (some form of foregone extra yield or profit that it entails), it is much harder to estimate the costs of not maintaining it (since it is unspecified).

5. Resilience vs. (and) transformation
Resilience, per se, is not ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Undesirable states of systems can be very resilient (woody weeds, dictatorships, poverty traps, saline landscapes). Also, a system state that once was considered to be a ‘desired’ state can become ‘undesirable’ through changes in external conditions. Where the current state of a system is considered ‘desirable’, and it is possible to avoid crossing a threshold into an alternate, undesirable state, building resilience is the appropriate action. But where crossing such a threshold is unavoidable, or has already happened, then efforts to build the resilience of that state only amount to digging the hole deeper. The need in such circumstances is reduce the resilience of the existing state of the system in order to allow transformation into a different kind of system, defined by a different set of variables and a different way of functioning – a different way of making a living.

Both resilience and transformability are necessary, and given the looming pressures and changes facing the world and individual nations, the question policy makers and planners will increasingly have to face is: “which parts of our (locality, region, country) need enhanced resilience in order to ensure that their present states can continue, and which parts need to be transformed?”

Changes in resilience through time – adaptive cycles.
Societies, ecosystems, organizations - most complex systems - tend to exhibit relatively long periods of fairly predictable change from a phase of rapid growth with high resilience through maturation into a highly inter-connected conservation phase with much increased complexity and little resilience. They become accidents waiting to happen. These long periods are interspersed with short, chaotic periods of release and re-organisation (Schumpeter’s ‘creative destruction’ episodes in economic systems). They are quickly followed by a new growth phase of another adaptive cycle.

Planners and managers largely base their actions on the predominant cumulative phases, yet it is the short, chaotic periods when big change is possible that allow for changes in system directions. Embracing uncertainty and surprise, using crises as opportunities, and even generating a ‘planned’ crisis, are crucial aspects of a resilience approach to planning and management. The phase a system is in determines what kind of policy or management intervention is most appropriate.

A concluding comment and a question

1. Adopting a resilience approach sometimes comes into conflict with current policy doctrines. “Efficiency” is one. But it isn’t efficiency per se; the problem is narrowly defined economic efficiency, calling for removal of so-called redundancies that are in fact sources of resilience. Another conflict that I am encountering is the requirement for precisely defined targets. The need for better accounting of how money is spent on government (and other) programs, coupled with the general increased emphasis on compliance and increased risk aversion, has given rise to what is now virtually a mantra about defined targets and audited progress towards them (“on track, on target, on budget”). Yet, I would submit that instead of asking for evidence that the defined targets are on track in a cost-effective way, a more resilience kind of question might perhaps be: “Have you changed your targets in the past year; and if not, why not?”

Resilience is about adaptive management and, even more importantly, adaptive governance. This puts an emphasis on reviewing and adapting the understanding of the system, and therefore the appropriateness of goals and targets and the rules for use and management. It embraces uncertainty and rather than trying to pick precise targets in an uncertain, changing, and not-very-well-understood world, it is more about deciding where not to go, and allowing the system to self-organise within a range of acceptable trajectories. The challenge to the world of planners and auditors is how to match two, equally legitimate needs: the need for accountability, and the need for the adaptability required to navigate the inherent messiness that keeps the world resilient.

2. The question I posed earlier will, I believe, increasingly confront people in planning and policy development, at all scales: “Where do we need to build resilience, and where do we need transformational change?”

Gunderson, L. H., and C. S. Holling (eds). 2002. Panarchy: understanding transformations in human and natural systems. Island Press, Washington, D.C., USA.

Jen, E (ed.). 2005. Robust design: A repertoire of biological, ecological, and engineering case studies. Oxford University Press, N.Y., 295pp.

Walker, B.H., Holling, C.S., Carpenter, S.R. and Kinzig, A. 2004. Resilience, adaptability and transformability in social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society: 9(2): 3. [online] URL:

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