by Judith Curry
The concept of resilience encourages us to ask a different set of questions about the way we manage our resources-and therefore ourselves. – Brian Walker
A universal definition of sustainability is elusive – the Wikipedia article provides some definitions and history.
A few months ago, Andrew Zolli wrote a provocative article in the NYTimes entitled Learning to bounce back. Some excerpts:
FOR decades, people who concern themselves with the world’s “wicked problems” — interconnected issues like environmental degradation, poverty, food security and climate change — have marched together under the banner of “sustainability”: the idea that with the right mix of incentives, technology substitutions and social change, humanity might finally achieve a lasting equilibrium with our planet, and with one another.
Yet today, precisely because the world is so increasingly out of balance, the sustainability regime is being quietly challenged, not from without, but from within. Among a growing number of scientists, social innovators, community leaders, nongovernmental organizations, philanthropies, governments and corporations, a new dialogue is emerging around a new idea, resilience: how to help vulnerable people, organizations and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions. Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.
It’s a broad-spectrum agenda that, at one end, seeks to imbue our communities, institutions and infrastructure with greater flexibility, intelligence and responsiveness to extreme events and, at the other, centers on bolstering people’s psychological and physiological capacity to deal with high-stress circumstances.
For example, “resilience thinking” is starting to shape how urban planners in big cities think about updating antiquated infrastructure, much of which is robust in the face of normal threats like equipment failures but — as was just demonstrated in the New York region — fragile in the face of unanticipated shocks like flooding, pandemics, terrorism or energy shortages.
Combating those kinds of disruptions isn’t just about building higher walls — it’s about accommodating the waves. For extreme weather events, that means developing the kinds of infrastructure more commonly associated with the Army: temporary bridges that can be “inflated” or positioned across rivers when tunnels flood, for example, or wireless “mesh” networks and electrical microgrids that can compensate for exploding transformers.
We’ll also need to use nature itself as a form of “soft” infrastructure. Along the Gulf Coast, civic leaders have begun to take seriously the restoration of the wetlands that serve as a vital buffer against hurricanes. A future New York may be ringed with them too, as it was centuries ago.
Hurricane Sandy hit New York hardest right where it was most recently redeveloped: Lower Manhattan, which should have been the least vulnerable part of the island. But it was rebuilt to be “sustainable,” not resilient, said Jonathan Rose, an urban planner and developer.
“After 9/11, Lower Manhattan contained the largest collection of LEED-certified, green buildings in the world,” he said, referring to a rating program for eco-friendly design. “But that was answering only part of problem. The buildings were designed to generate lower environmental impacts, but not to respond to the impacts of the environment” — for example, by having redundant power systems.
Based on these insights, these researchers have developed training regimens, rooted in contemplative practice, that are already helping first responders, emergency-room physicians and soldiers better manage periods of extreme stress and diminish the rates and severity of post-traumatic stress that can follow.
There’s a third domain where resilience will be found, and that’s in big data and mobile services. Already, the United States Geological Survey is testing a system that ties its seismographs to Twitter; when the system detects an earthquake, it automatically begins scanning the social media service for posts from the affected area about fires and damages.
As wise as this all may sound, a shift from sustainability to resilience leaves many old-school environmentalists and social activists feeling uneasy, as it smacks of adaptation, a word that is still taboo in many quarters. If we adapt to unwanted change, the reasoning goes, we give a pass to those responsible for putting us in this mess in the first place, and we lose the moral authority to pressure them to stop. Better, they argue, to mitigate the risk at the source.
Unfortunately, the sustainability movement’s politics, not to mention its marketing, have led to a popular misunderstanding: that a perfect, stasis-under-glass equilibrium is achievable. But the world doesn’t work that way: it exists in a constant disequilibrium — trying, failing, adapting, learning and evolving in endless cycles. Indeed, it’s the failures, when properly understood, that create the context for learning and growth. That’s why some of the most resilient places are, paradoxically, also the places that regularly experience modest disruptions: they carry the shared memory that things can go wrong.
“Resilience” takes this as a given and is commensurately humble. It doesn’t propose a single, fixed future. It assumes we don’t know exactly how things will unfold, that we’ll be surprised, that we’ll make mistakes along the way. It’s also open to learning from the extraordinary and widespread resilience of the natural world, including its human inhabitants, something that, counterintuitively, many proponents of sustainability have ignored.
[W]e need approaches that are both more pragmatic and more politically inclusive — rolling with the waves, instead of trying to stop the ocean.
Resilience and urban planning
For those working on sustainability projects, the urban planners especially liked the ability of a resilience framework to break through the problem of adopting ’sustainability’ as a concept. As one participant noted, resilience as a frame is:
“more understandable and effective than sustainability. Substitute risk for resilience and if you articulate the risk, decision makers understand the concept, but they will not understand sustainability no matter how you define it. But if you quantify risk and resilience, it gives you the kind of approach that, plus the framework, provides quite a powerful tool.”
Resilience as a metaphor also helps to break down the urge to think linearly. It challenges the blueprint planning or the “survey-analyze-plan” tradition of thinking. Because thinking about resilience requires thinking about the entire system of moving parts at once, linear thinking doesn’t bear up well.
But resilience as a concept also comes with some problems–namely, it turns on change. And people hate change. And if people hate change, politicians hate change. People also hate complexities and uncertainties, which are inherent in any attempt to deal with a lot of moving parts, as resilience thinking must. So within this system, the authors ask, “how do planners frame complexities and uncertainties so as to render them governable given the wicked dilemma that we must act anyway?” In effect, planners must assume change and explain stability instead of assuming stability and explaining change. Not an inviting prospect, especially when politics are in the mix–and they always are in urban planning.
JC comments: Over the last 5 years or so, I have been framing my research and applications related to extreme weather events around the concept of resilience. I viewed resilience as a concept that was orthogonal to sustainability, and realized that infrastructure designed for sustainability may make it more vulnerable to natural hazards. Zolli’s essay makes the argument that sustainability and resilience are tied to two different world views, and I find his argument convincing. Resilience thinking is associated with systems thinking, uncertainty, and wicked problems. Resilience is arguably a concept that has broader political palatability than does sustainability. Resilience thinking seems to be a particularly good match for dealing with extreme weather events, which is arguably associated with the greatest impacts from climate variability and change.