Thinking resilience – navigating a complex world

By David Salt

Our world seems to be coming unstuck at the moment. Climate fuelled weather extremes – floods, droughts, heatwaves and fires – are crippling large parts of humanity. Many people are grappling for answers; What do we do? Why haven’t we already done something about this? It’s not like we haven’t been warned (repeatedly and with comprehensive detail by our climate scientists and others).

I believe many of your problems lie in our inability to deal with the complexity of the world around us (my last two blogs discussed this very thing – we can’t fix this because it’s complex and complicated vs complex). One way of better appreciating that complexity and navigating a way through lies in the area of resilience thinking.

The word ‘resilience’

The word ‘resilience’ is now common in many vision and mission statements. But ask the people who use these statements what they think it means and you get a range of different answers, most of which relate to how something or someone copes with a shock or a disturbance.

Concepts of resilience are used in all sorts of disciplines, but it has four main origins – psycho-social, ecological, disaster relief (and military), and engineering.

Psychologists have long recognised marked differences in the resilience of individuals confronted with traumatic and disastrous circumstances. Considerable research has gone into trying to understand how individuals and societies can gain and lose resilience.

Ecologists have tended to describe resilience in two ways; one focused on the speed of return following a disturbance, the other focused on whether or not the ‘system’ can recover. People engaging with resilience from the perspective of disaster relief or in a military arena incorporate both aspects (ie, speed and ability to recover). Indeed, there is a lot of commonality in the understanding of resilience in the three areas of psychology, ecology and disaster relief.

In engineering the take on resilience is somewhat different. Indeed, engineers more commonly use the term ‘robustness’ with a connotation of designed resilience. It differs from the other three uses in that it assumes that the kinds of disturbances and shocks are known and the system being built is designed to be robust in the face of these shocks.

Resilience thinking

The ‘resilience’ that is being invoked in vision and mission statements relating to Australia’s environment is largely based on the idea of ecological resilience, and it’s all about the ability to recover.

The science underpinning our understanding of ecological resilience is often referred to as resilience thinking. The definition of resilience here is: the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize so as to retain essentially the same function, structure and feedbacks – to have the same identity. Put more simply, resilience is the ability to cope with shocks and keep functioning in much the same kind of way. 

A key word in this definition is ‘identity’. It emerged independently in ecological and psycho-social studies, and it is both important and useful because it imparts the idea that a person, a society, an ecosystem or a social-ecological system can all exhibit quite a lot of variation, be subjected to disturbance and cope, without changing their ‘identity’ – without becoming something else.

The essence of resilience thinking is that the systems we are dealing with are complex adaptive systems. These systems have the capacity to self-organise around change but there are limits to a system’s self-organising capacity. Push a system too much and it changes its identity; it is said to have crossed a threshold.

The systems around us that we depend on (and are embedded in) are linked systems with social, economic and bio-physical domains, operating over multiple scales. To understand what enables these complex systems to retain their identity, what keeps them resilient, we need to appreciate the linkages between these domains and scales. We also need to understand how the system is behaving within each domain and scale, because over time these components go through their own cycles (known as adaptive cycles) in which the capacity for change (and the ability to hang on to their identity) shifts.

Many ideas, many insights

Resilience thinking involves all these ideas. It is the capacity to envisage your system as a self-organising system with thresholds, linked domains and cycles.

Each of these ideas take a bit of explaining, something I’ll attempt in upcoming blogs (for a good guide, see Resilience Practice*). However, when you begin engaging with ideas relating to a system’s resilience, you begin to appreciate the world in a different way.

Some of those insights have been for me that no-one is in control, and you can’t understand a system by understanding the components that make it up – complex systems have emergent properties (for example, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts).

We also need to appreciate that the narrower concept of ‘efficiency’ – ie, holding a part of our system in a state that delivers optimal returns (eg, food or fibre) without considering interactions with other domains or scales – leads to a loss of resilience, making it less likely that these systems will continue to deliver into the future. Efficiency is important but, by itself, it is not the solution to the challenge of sustainability.

We live in a complex world facing enormous challenges. Too much of our efforts so far have been directed to command-and-control approaches, techno solutions and improving efficiency. If the problems we were dealing with were simple and tractable, such approaches would work well. Unfortunately, our current approaches to sustainability are not working at all, and the problem is growing significantly.

Could it be we’re trying to solve the wrong problem? We’re managing a complex world as if it were a simple system.

*Walker B & D Salt (2012). Resilience Practice: Building Capacity to Absorb Disturbance and Maintain Function. Island Press. Washington.

Banner image: Forests begin their recovery after Australia’s Black Summer of 2019/2020. (Image by David Salt)

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