Why Resilience May Not be Ignored

The word is everywhere. Apparently, I was not alone in thinking this. Search traffic related to resilience has more than doubled since 2004 with Singapore and Australia leading the world in interest.

Resilience Search Global Trends

Resilience may even be pushing sustainability as a movement off the world’s stage. Andrew Zolli, author of Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, argues that sustainability as a movement is meaningless and stale.

Sustainability offers few practical prescriptions for contending with disruptions precisely at the moment where we are experiencing more and more of them. Resilience-thinking, on the other hand, can provide a broader, more dynamic, and more relevant set of ideas, tools, and approaches. As volatility continues to hold sway, resilience-thinking may soon come to augment or splint the sustainability regime altogether.

It seems everyone is calling for a more resilient future.

  • “America has begun the hard work of rebuilding our infrastructure.… We need to repair our existing infrastructure, and invest in the infrastructure of tomorrow including high-speed rail, high-tech schools, and power grids that are resilient to future extreme conditions.” – President Barack Obama, in his proposed fiscal year 2014 budget
  • The nation’s clean water professional associations should organize a coordinated program to synthesize on-going research and more fully define and recommend elements of a program of action on resilience in response to extreme weather events for the nation’s clean water infrastructure. -The National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF) and the Water Environment Federation (WEF) in their recent report titled Water Resources Utility of the Future . . . Blueprint for Action
  •  “Since we seem to lack the will to reduce this threat by cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, we should at least make ourselves more resilient to severe weather”. – Peter Orszag, vice chairman of corporate and investment banking and chairman of the financial strategy and solutions group at Citigroup

What does resilience mean to you? There are numerous academic definitions on the emerging resilience field depending on the context which includes:

  • Ecological Systems. The magnitude of disturbance that a system can absorb before its structure is redefined by changing the variables and processes that control behavior
  • Psychology. The capacity to rebound from adversity
  • Engineering The ability to sense, recognize, adapt and absorb variations, changes, disturbances, disruptions and surprises
  • Individual. Resilient individuals’ possess three common characteristics. These include an acceptance of reality, a strong belief that life is meaningful, and the ability to improvise

These definitions seemed focused on one idea; Function and Recover in the Face of the Change. I know this may sound funny, but in my head I think of Rocky. Yes, Rocky Balboa, the Italian Stallion. Last year I watched all the movies again. I still shed a tear when Mickey died in Rocky III. There is a good quote in Rocky V when Rocky is talking to his son that sums up resilience to me.

“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!” – Rocky Balboa 

You can’t be in the ring and not know where the punches are coming from. A resilient person or system has situational awareness. Last year I wrote about a system gaining situational awareness.  This system is a watershed in my backyard. A passionate group of researchers are working to “wire up” the world’s rivers to provide this awareness (Learn more in this Previous Blog Post).

Just like the Russian Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) from Rocky IV, the perfect system can be often the most fragile, while a resilient system, subject to occasional failure (Rocky), can be the most robust. Resilience is not about super efficiency. It is more about life and life is messy.

Unlike Rocky, we are all in the ring. Some of us are standing along the edge of the ring and others are in the center, but none of us are immune to the volatility. 2011 was a new record year in disaster losses. Earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand caused two-thirds of the economic losses, while weather accounted for 90 percent of the events.

This volatility translates to real money. The cost of repairing Sandy’s damage to sewage treatment plants in New York is reported to be nearly $2 billion. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection also reportedly plans to allocate nearly $1 billion for recovery and repair of facilities, and another $1.7 billion for building resilience into the system.

We may be entering an age where the wheels don’t matter as much as the shock absorbers.

“Inside of a ring or out, ain’t nothing wrong with going down. It’s staying down that’s wrong.” ― Muhammad Ali