Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

The Resilience Dividend

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Illustration: Watercolor and ink by Black Elephant Blog author (All Rights Reserved)

Island nations have been in the news alot lately, and not just because of the cyclone that hit Vanuatu recently.  There is new interest in islands and the subject of resilience.  It turns out that on this subject, conventional wisdom–as so often is the case–is not quite right.  Islands aren’t always more vulnerable and less resilient, according to some experts who will be speaking at an upcoming event, “Islands as Champions of Resilience,”sponsored by by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies in Washington, D.C.  At this event, the speakers will discuss replacing the prevailing notion of island nations as victims of climate change to “champions of resilience.”  I know of some people right now in island nations who would be very interested in these proceedings…

And since we have just discussed the concept of resilience in my class, and some people I know are presently preparing materials related to resilience, here are some notes on the subject.  This is a big subject and likely to spill over into a future post or two.

Rodin book coverIn her new book, The Resilience Dividend, Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, defines resilience as “the capacity of any entity–an individual, a community, an organization, or a natural system–to prepare for disruptions, to recover from shocks and stresses, and to adapt and grow from a disruptive experience.”  She notes that ideally one becomes more adept at managing disruption and skilled at “resilience building.”

The “resilience dividend,” according to Rodin, refers to new capacity that results from becoming more adept at managing disruption; as a result, one is “able to create and take advantage of new opportunities in good times and bad.”  Thus resilience is most definitely not about snapping back to the status quo ante.  It is not like a plastic ruler bent and then let go.  Instead, Rodin writes, resilience is “about achieving significant transformation that yields benefits even when disruptions are not occurring.”  The capacity for building resilience is one of the most urgent “social and economic issues” today, she writes, “because we live in a world that is defined by disruption”.  These disruptions run the gamut, from cyber-attacks, new strains of virus, a storm, economic surprises, a structural failure, civil disturbances, and so on, notes the author.

While there is nothing new about disruption, there are three disruptive phenomena that are “distinctly modern,” according to Rodin.  These are:  urbanization, climate change, and globalization.  These three factors are “intertwined,” she writes, and affect each other in a “social-ecological-economic nexus.”  And, “because everything is interconnected–a massive system of systems–a single disruption often triggers another, which exacerbates the effects of the first, so that the original shock becomes a cascade of crises.”  Rodin writes:  “A weather disturbance, for example, can cause infrastructural damage that leads to a public health problem that, in turn, disturbs livelihoods and creates widespread economic turmoil, which can lead to a further degrading of basic services, additional health problems, and even political conflict or civil unrest.”

According to Rodin, any entity can build resilience but “too often…resilience thinking does not really take hold until a galvanizing event or a major shock–such as Superstorm Sandy–brings the need into high relief.”  She describes her goal for her book as to help frame and contribute to the process of resilience by proving a template for thinking about, and methods for practicing, resilience.

Five Characteristics of Resilience

Rodin identifies five characteristics of resilience:

  • Being Aware
  • Diverse (different sources of capacity)
  • Integrated (coordination of functions and actions across systems)
  • Self-regulating
  • Adaptive

Being aware is first because without awareness you have no idea what your strengths and weakness are, what threats and risks you face…and have no concept of all the aspects of a situation, which can include “the infrastructural elements, human dynamics, and natural systems–and how they interconnect.”

Being aware is not a static condition because circumstances can change rapidly with proliferating secondary effects, Rodin writes.  The fluidity of the operating environment for most of us requires what she calls “situational awareness”–which she defines as an “ability and willingness to constantly assess, take in new information, reassess and adjust our understanding of the most critical and relevant strengths and weakness and other factors as they change and develop.”  Rodin describes several methods for enhancing situational awareness, and references what psychologists call “mindfulness,”  Mindfulness is described as “a flexible cognitive state that results from drawing novel distinctions about the situation and the environment.”

In order to be mindful, says one of Rodin’s sources on the subject, one needs to be able to develop “new mental categories, to be open-minded, receptive to different and new perspectives and new information, and to focus on processes rather than outcomes.”  In this way, a “mindful” person is “more able to understand situations as they actually are, not as you assume they should be or always have been” and “thus to respond more quickly and appropriately.”

All this is enormously relevant to people in any field anywhere, given the complexity of the systems that make up modern life and what many are finding is the inadequacy of most inherited frameworks for dealing with that complexity.  Future posts will come back to this subject as it is both central to what we are learning our class this semester and useful material for various projects of mine.

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