Resilience is trending.  Touted as the answer to virtually every problem it is used, and too often misused, in all sorts of ways.  “Bouncing back” from some disturbance is probably the most common.  And that is NOT resilience.

Bouncing back to just like before means that nothing was learned.  Resilience is about changing in response to the disturbance; changing the ways various parts of the “system” are connected, emphasizing some and de-emphasizing others.  It’s the capacity to absorb disturbance and re-organize so as to keep functioning in much the same kind of way – to have the same identity. In systems terms this means staying away from threshold levels beyond which the system’s internal dynamics cause it to move away from, rather than back towards, what it was like before.

What is resilience?

Resilience, then, is about learning and changing so that the system, whatever it is – an ecosystem, a city, a business, you – can better deal with that kind of disturbance in the future.

Protecting something, keeping it safe, is another misconception.  Children who are prevented from playing in dirt grow up with compromised immune systems and suffer allergies later in life.  To be resilient in their environment, organisms must be exposed to it, with all its variations.  In fire prone areas, ecosystems protected from fire gradually lose the species that are able to tolerate it, and when one inevitably happens the effect is devastating.  To be resilient to fire the ecosystem needs to be burned every now and then; but not too often: probe the boundaries, but don’t cross them.

Forest fire
In fire prone areas, species that tolerate fire are eventually lost if totally protected from fire – the ecosystem loses its resilience

Sometimes it isn’t a misconception about resilience, but rather lack of awareness, such as the role of cross-scale interactions. You cannot understand or manage the resilience of a complex system at one scale. All complex systems function at multiple scales and the interactions between them are critical to resilience.  But as many readers will know, it’s hard to get organizations defined at a single scale to accept this, let alone consider multiscale programs. 

“An important attribute of resilience is the ability to respond quickly to shocks and changes”

There are other misconceptions but research on resilience is identifying a number of attributes that confer resilience.  An important one that is frequently under-appreciated is having a high response diversity; different ways of doing the same thing but with different responses to different disturbances.  Because they do the same thing, having more than one way is often misconstrued as redundancy, to be eliminated on the grounds of inefficiency.

Another important attribute is being able to respond quickly to shocks and changes. This is often lacking or even suppressed in social systems, like having too many steps and approval processes that supposedly promote safe operating procedures – witness the correlation between the speeds of response and the severity of infections in the recent COVID-19 pandemic.

It is also essential to have reserves, of all kinds, and to be modular – having the right amount of connectivity in the system.  The latter is a Goldilocks problem: being fully connected makes the system vulnerable to something bad getting in – a disease, a bad idea – which then spreads rapidly through the whole system. Too little connectivity slows down responses, limits the sharing of reserves, good ideas and novelty and the ability to self-organise when needed.

Sometimes, trying to foster resilience is the wrong thing to do. When a catastrophic change is looming, trying to adapt simply amounts to digging the hole deeper. Resilience in a broad sense then involves deliberately transforming into a different kind of system – one with a different identity, in tune with the new environment and delivering the services needed by those who use it.

The noise and the music

So, how much variability should there be in a system? The history of ecological research reflects endeavours to find predictable, tight relationships with an assumption that this is the way ecosystems evolved, making them efficient and successful, and therefore resilient. Discovering how the process actually plays out, however, reveals a quite different result, as described in “Finding Resilience”.  An excerpt from one of the stories in the book captures the essence of how resilience works:

This is how these ecosystems have evolved; it is how they are able to persist. It is the very lack of clear-cut one-on-one relationships – the overlapping fuzziness and uncertainty in the way they are structured and in how the different plants and animals relate to each other – that makes them and the communities of plants and animals resilient. The physicist Richard Feynman’s famous quote ‘Imagine how much harder physics would be if electrons had feelings!’ beautifully captures the fact that ecosystems just don’t behave like physical systems. The organisms in an ecosystem have complex behavioural responses to the environment and to each other, and so they are always changing, often unpredictability. And this continual change is not just characteristic of them: it is essential for their continued wellbeing and for keeping the ecosystems in which they live functioning in the same kind of way. In physical systems the variance is regarded as background ‘noise’, and physics envy – the quest for elegant equations to describe ecosystem dynamics – can get in the way of seeking ecological understanding. What’s noise to the physicist is music to the ecologist.

Finding Resilience, Brian Walker, 2019, CABI

It is appropriate to end this blog with a comment on the implications of all the above for policy and management.  The dynamics of all complex adaptive systems are inherently uncertain and trying to design and steer such a system toward some preferred state is bound to fail. Resilience is about keeping options open, learning how to guide (or shepherd) a system along a trajectory of “good” states and avoid crossing into “bad” ones.  Both the learning and the doing need to be part of both policy and management.

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