Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty, urban sketching

The Path Ahead

Unseasonably warm weather and bright light this weekend added to the joys of walking through the fall colors wherever we were.  People strolled in the streets everywhere including in this neighborhood of Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, where the scene (below) in the private garden attached to a historic mansion demanded to be painted.

old-town-alexandria

Illustration: Watercolor and gouache, “The Path Ahead,” on Fluid Cold Press 4″ x 6″ watercolor paper by the Black Elephant Blog author

At every turn in this colonial-era town not far from Washington, D.C., it was impossible to ignore the symbols of our rich history as a still great, if troubled, nation. And it was impossible to forget that this very week,  we will be facing a most consequential election .

And yet, when literally everything is on the ballot, the path ahead  couldn’t be more clear.  As one young voter wrote in an opinion piece today, this moment “can be a moment of all those who  hope for a better future, who believe in American leadership and who know that our best days are still ahead.”  Clearly, current and future generations here and abroad depend on us to engage constructively, and not cynically, with this moment, and thereafter to engage similarly with the process of governing.  There is no other path ahead.

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

“Creativity, Inc.”, Innovation, and an “Energy Miracle”

At last, we are underway with our classes at the university, with the onset of a “Spring” semester which, delayed by some wintry weather, has so far not felt very spring-like.  With inclement weather, though, it’s been easier to get some work done on projects related to what we are covering in class, and a chance to compose a blog post on some of this. Hence, this post is a bit less about sketching present every-day scenes and more about designing alternative frameworks for the future.  (The eventual goal is to combine both in an accessible format for different audiences.)

Illustration:  Watercolor and pen and ink study for "Waiting for Spring" by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink study for “Waiting for Spring” by Black Elephant Blog author

We have moved rapidly through diverse science and security-related issues and zoomed across the land masses of the planet to understand different climatic zones, the extent of challenges to arable land, and how incidents or policy changes at a local or national level–even on the other side of the world– can have global impacts. Not yet a month into the semester, therefore, we are confronting the realization that past experience will no longer be a reliable guide to managing many looming challenges, including the necessary transition to no-carbon and low-cost sources of energy.  Innovation thus is inescapably urgent.

None other than Bill Gates, who describes himself as an “impatient optimist,” admits that “time is not on our side” when it comes to globally applicable means of reducing carbon emissions to zero.  He puts his hopes on a “miracle” in energy R& D even as it’s plain to see investment in energy research by developed nations remains far below that in other areas.  (Gates says that the scale of innovation needed requires government investment as it involves risks that the private sector is poorly equipped to assume.) Conventional approaches to problem-solving in this area simply will not work.

energy research OECD

Illustration:  OECD chart

Already in our class there is focus on the social,  institutional, and cross-boundary aspects, as well as cognitive and psychological facets, of the problem. (It seems that, even this early in the semester, we are beginning to hear more readily the overly specialized or “silo’ed” limitations in the thinking on offer at some conference panels around town.) What does it take to harness innovative ingenuity on a global scale?  What can we learn from those who have studied processes of innovation and creativity?  Where do these subjects enter most conversations and efforts about transitioning rapidly to a low-carbon, or no-carbon, energy system?  While proposals on the global “table”, as it were, have merit, how to ensure that the collective “we” is not “betting the farm” on a strategy that will not pay-off?  Whose responsibility is it to even consider these things?  (Such are the issues we are dealing with in the classroom.)

Innovative approaches to solving complex problems, including developing the “energy miracle” Bill Gates has called for, require more than technological investment and novel financial arrangements.  They require organizations to invest in developing and sustaining creativity and strategic thinking in the workplace.  But who knows how to do this?  And have we any idea on how to be creatively collaborative across myriad institutions?  It seems that much of the material published on these topics is aimed at managers or, less often, educators.  But that may be too late for most people.  The concepts  involved must be introduced earlier in people’s careers so they have time to evaluate and internalize them with their peers. Thus such material is worked into our course at the graduate school level where students typically already have a few years of professional work experience. Understanding the obstacles to innovation–and its “fuel,” creativity–is fundamental to making progress on the complex problems, (especially “super-wicked” problems s0-called because they require the engagement of society as a whole), of today.

In many workplaces, however, the efforts of talented people are typically stifled in “myriad unseen ways,” according to Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation in his book, Creativity, Inc., Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration,  (Random House, 2014).  Despite constant emphasis (belatedly in many cases) these days on the need for innovation (and creativity, and disruptive breakthroughs), rarely is any thought given to how such creative work is nurtured, evaluated and sustained…to say the least.  So it seems timely to take a few notes from the book, Creativity, Inc., to see how these issues are dealt with in an industry (producer of the films, “Toy Story,” “Up,” and “Ratatouille,” among others) that most everyone assumes exemplifies the best of creative workplaces.

Catmull credits his experience as a graduate student at the University of Utah, where he received his Ph.D in 1974,  with introducing him to the importance of leaders who understand how “to create a fertile laboratory.”  Much of the research in the university’s computer science department was funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the Department of Defense (now known as DARPA).  The university laboratory leaders understood “they had to assemble different kinds of thinkers and then encourage their autonomy.” Catmull writes that the most valuable thing he gained from the university “was the model my teachers provided for how to lead and inspire other creative thinkers.”  One of the lessons from ARPA that stayed with Catmull was:  “When faced with a challenge, get smarter.”  He thus knew that, in order to “attract the sharpest minds,” he needed to put his own insecurities away.  When starting out as the lab director at the New York Institute of Technology while still in his 20s, therefore, one of his first hires was someone who seemed to Catmull more qualified to lead the lab than he was.

Catmull’s book is the story of his journey in learning to sustain a creative work environment.  Nearly every page contains a memorable lesson applicable in other fields, such as:  “Always take a chance on better, even if it seems threatening.”  The challenge for him and his colleagues in the mid-1970s was to solve technical problems involved in applying computer animation to the film industry.  There were a few companies working on these problems and most, Catmull writes, “embraced a culture of strictly enforced, even CIA-like, secrecy.”  By contrast, Catmull and his colleagues decided to share their work with the outside world instead; his view was that “we were all so far from achieving our goal that to hoard ideas only impeded our ability to get to the finish line. [emphasis added]”   (Might this view be relevant as well to the energy challenge mentioned at the start of this post?)  Catmull notes that the “benefit of this transparency was not immediately felt” but that the “relations and connections we formed, over time, proved far more valuable than we could have imagined, fueling our technical innovation and our understanding of creativity in general.”

As his project teams grew, Catmull had to move his organization from a flat team-like structure to more of a hierarchical approach.  He realized that his team at the New York Institute of Technology actually functioned more “like a collection of grad students–independent thinkers with individual projects–rather than a team with a common goal.”  Catmull describes the influence of “Starwars” and George Lucas on the field of computer animation, and traces the trajectory of his own career, and long partnership with Steve Jobs, through the lessons he learned along the way.

To give some sense of these lessons and their broad applicability, here are a few from the book:

  1. “There is nothing quite like ignorance combined with a driving need to succeed to force rapid learning.”
  2. Books with advice like “Dare to fail” divert people from addressing “the far harder problem: deciding what they should be focusing on.”
  3. “Being on the lookout for problems…was not the same as seeing problems.”…”The good stuff was hiding the bad stuff.”
  4. “Originality is fragile.”
  5. “We realized that our purpose was not merely to build a studio that made films but to foster a creative culture that would continually ask questions.”
  6. “Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture…was a day-in-day-out, full-time job.”
  7. “Ideas come from people.  Therefore, people are more important than ideas.”
  8. “The hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms.”
  9. “…without the critical ingredient that is candor, there can be no trust.  And without trust, creative collaboration is not possible.”
  10. “The key is to look at the viewpoints being offered, in any successful feedback group, as additive, not competitive.
  11.  “By resisting the beginner’s mind, you make yourself more prone to repeat yourself than to create something new.  The attempt to avoid failure, in other words, makes failure more likely.”
  12. “The pressure to create–and quickly!–happens at many companies…and its unintended effect is always the same: It lessens quality across the board.”
  13. “When we put setbacks into two buckets–the “business-as-usual” bucket and the “holy cow” bucket–and use a different mindset for each, we are signing up for trouble.”
Unexpected 1

Illustration: Watercolor wash and pen-and-ink sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

Dealing with “The Hidden”  Catmull’s book is exceptional for its sophisticated treatment of many tough management issues that arise in virtually any field, including learning to see “hidden” issues in the corporation and, just as important, realizing that just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they do not exist.  He says that one of his core management beliefs is “If you don’t try to cover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill-prepared to lead.” He also emphasizes that our ignorance about randomness affects our ability to face the unknown.  Catmull writes, for instance:

“We are quite adept at working with repeatable events and at understanding bell-shaped variance…[But] how can we think clearly about unexpected events that are lurking out there that don’t fit any of our existing models?  Catmull notes that there is a “human tendency to treat big events fundamentally different from smaller ones.”   This sets us up for failure, he explains, because we fail to realize that some of the small problems have long-term consequences and are, therefore, “big problems in the making.”

In another excellent section, “Learning to See,” Catmull describes how he hired an art teacher to come in to the organization to teach everyone “how to heighten our powers of observation.”   People who draw better than the rest of us, he says, “are setting aside their preconceptions” and everyone can learn to do that.  His point is that there are ways of learning to overcome biases while considering a problem.

In Sum:  It is easy to forget that the lessons in this book are derived from managing computer graphics and animation laboratories and not from the daily occurrences in organizations closer to one’s own experience.  It is thus relevant for people trying to move their organizations into a mode that makes the most of the talent within, and without (!)–or outside–, them. Understanding the forces that block our inspiration and effective creative collaboration both inside and beyond our organizations today  is key to moving forward on the many formidable challenges (some of them metaphorical“black elephants” ) facing the globe. (This is why, earlier on this blog–such as here and here and here— there has been a focus on the work of various experts regarding the barriers we face to even thinking effectively about these problems.)  Facing as many unconventional and complex challenges as we do today, it’s safe to say there are not enough books like this one and, for many people, not enough time to read and absorb them.  Some of the needed changes might not be “news-worthy” but still hugely impactful: Learning to draw, counterintuitively, may be part of the solution at the societal level, to inculcate ways, per Catmull, to overcome our ingrained biases and to sidestep cross-cultural barriers.

 

 

 

 

 

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Innovation, Risk, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Driving Innovation on the Fuel of Creativity

When Bill Gates says, as he did recently, that we must “drive innovation at an unnaturally high pace” to transition to a globally-applicable non-carbon source of energy in time (to save the planet), it raises the question (or ought to) of what’s involved in doing that?  If creativity is the “fuel” of innovation, how does one go about gaining and sustaining that fuel source?  Do we wait, in a comfortable sunny spot, for inspiration to hit us?

Zoo sketch 1

Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, graphite and bistre ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Sometimes we think of creativity as something that occurs to us when we are relaxed, doing something routine like driving through a toll booth or even–or most likely–when we are doing nothing at all…  Is that what we must accelerate?  Or are there more reliable means of spurring and sustaining innovation (and creativity) ?  There have been a number of books on this subject, including on the need for “entrepreneurial states,” but in fact there’s been little noticeable tie-in of this material to the renewable energy challenge Gates and others are highlighting.

With the onset of a new university semester (as soon as suitable paths to class are plowed through the snow) looking at some of these issues, and investigating what it means to be innovative, or creative, in the workplace, this blog soon will turn to the experience of Pixar Studios as related by its co-founder, Ed Catmull, in Creativity, Inc.:  Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, (New York, Random House, 2014).  Some of what he has to say may surprise you but all of it is relevant to all of us when tied to prospecting for pathways to a sustainable energy future.  How to sustain a creative work environment is the challenge, and the theme, of this book–to be highlighted here soon.  Given that the author is from Pixar Studios, it comes as no surprise, but still is surprisingly fascinating, to see that he has a lot to say about art, sketching, paying attention, and hand-drawn approaches to animation.  Coming up next…

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Reading in a New Fiscal Year

Lake scene 2

Illustration: Watercolor and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Today begins a new month, a new fiscal year even, and fall is in the air. Since every now and then, someone asks what I am reading, I have turned my attention to the question myself.  Some books on innovation have been covered earlier on this blog, particularly here.   But, why begin with innovation if we are not sure where, when or why, it matters?  Context can be helpful.

Upcoming on this blog, therefore, will be a few brief overviews of some important, and possibly even provocative, books which provide fresh optics on historical contexts, and which were published in the last year.  Some of these books review how we got to now and make suggestions for how to move forward.

These include:

The Shape of the New:  Four Ideas and How They Made the Modern World, by Scott L. Montgomery and Daniel Chirot.

Fields of Blood:  Religion and the History of Violence, by Karen Armstrong, an expert on comparative religion.

This Changes Everything:  Capitalism vs. The Climate, by Naomi Klein, who may be familiar to some for her investigation into “disaster capitalism.”  This book is so sweeping “and of such consequence,”  in the view of The New York Times,  that it is “almost unreviewable.”

But, to lighten the load, some fun reading is also in order.  I recommend:

Illustration: Painting by Giovanni Boldini (1888) - Wikipedia

Illustration: Painting of Madame Marthe de Florian by Giovanni Boldini (1888) – Wikipedia

A Paris Apartment, by Michelle Gable, a book which also came out last year. It is based on the true story of an apartment the contents of which came to light in 2010, 70 years after its tenant had hurriedly left Paris.

Illustration: Self-portrait of Giovanni Boldini (1892), from Wikipedia

Illustration: Self-portrait of Giovanni Boldini (1892), from Wikipedia

In the apartment among antiques and other valuables, which had been untouched or unseen by anyone in all this time, was an original painting of a beautiful lady. Martha de Florian, by Giovanni Boldini.  Boldini was a contemporary of Edgar Degas, whose life and works was discussed earlier on this blog, in mid- and late-19th century Parisian artistic circles.

The painting depicts Madame Marthe de Florian whose diaries also were in the apartment when it was opened in 2010.

The novel, A Paris Apartment, recreates this true story in a fictional modern context.  The author has a fresh writing style which makes the most of her talents for creating realistic dialogue and alternating between periods of time separated by more than a century. Boldini himself–not to mention Madame de Florian–come alive here in a story that includes other better known figures of their time.  All this…a true story…and a fictional story…because of one real-life dusty old apartment filled with stuff no one wanted for nearly a century.

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Ottawa Outlooks

Last week, an unusually good workshop on “Climate, Defense, and Security” occurred in downtown Ottawa sponsored by the Canadian Defense Association.  The purpose of the workshop was to assess the security risks or threats of climate change impacts.  The speakers and the audience deftly covered a wide range of relevant, forward-looking themes in the half-day allotted to the workshop.

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink of the War of 1812 Monument at sunset in downtown Ottawa by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink sketch of the War of 1812 Monument at sunset in downtown Ottawa by Black Elephant Blog author

I was one of several invitees to attend. The audience was composed of former Canadian diplomats and military officials, academics, members of the media and a few representatives from European embassies, notably UK, Germany and France.  The format featured a panel of three speakers, followed by audience Q&A with the panel, and a luncheon at the French Embassy.  (The morning session was introduced as “on-the-record.”)

stone journal notes 2

Illustration: Photo of notes pages in a stone journal

I jotted down key points I heard in a new “stone paper” journal I’d picked up out of curiosity at the gift shop in the National Gallery of Canada.  (Stone paper, as the name suggests, involves no trees and is made of “crushed stone.”  It has a different texture and is heavier, of course, than a paper journal.  Is it, therefore, more environmentally friendly?  I don’t know enough about it to say for sure, but it is fun to try out.)

These key points were:

  • Crisis is the “new normal.”  We don’t know what will hit us; “that’s the essence of crisis.”
  •  Climate change is a “ubiquitous complication” which is “not directed at you” and, therefore, “very difficult to understand with the tools that we have.”
  • Considering climate change impacts as a “national security issue” does not make sense in a German context where security issues are seen as
    collective” ones.
  • We are facing “governance issues.”  There is “virtually no leadership” on these issues.
  • “The pace of climate change is much more rapid than anyone was predicting 10 years ago.”
  • Defense agencies can be very much part of the solution, if they can be engaged in reducing fuel consumption.
  •  Since the Industrial Revolution, we have now pierced through what has been the highest level of CO2 emissions [ever]:  We are going into a place where we haven’t been in 400,000 years.
  •  The processes of climate science consistently underestimate the rate and scale of these changes.
  • “It’s not just what has to be done but who has to do it.”  There must be “mini-lateralism” in addition to multilateralism.
  • We are failing at assessing risks.  (An audience member recommended a new report out from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office:  “Climate Change:  A Risk Assessment.”)

Ottawa itself looked its best in the bright September sunlight, a wonderful gift for those with some time to walk around.  I wondered if the workshop signaled some sort of shift in the climate around the issue of climate change.

Illustration: Watercolor, pen and ink, and gouache depicting fountain in Confederation Park in downtown Ottawa by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Sketch in watercolor, pen and ink, and gouache depicting fountain in Confederation Park in downtown Ottawa by Black Elephant Blog author

The last time I was in Ottawa in September was on 9-11-2001 when the geostrategic climate suddenly changed dramatically, in ways we are still living with today.  On the visit this week, the weather was seemingly similar to the day I recall with such heaviness 14 years ago: brilliant blue skies and buildings gleaming in the sunshine.

It was a real pleasure to be able at last to stroll around the city and take in the many gorgeous sights, from the locks along the canal (of both varieties: canal locks and locks locked to the railings of a pedestrian bridge over the Rideau Canal) to sculptures, fountains, the Byward Market, and an independent bookstore (they still exist!) on Eglin Street.

Illustration: Photo of locks on pedestrian bridge over Rideau Canal in downtown Ottawa

Illustration: Photo of locks on pedestrian bridge over Rideau Canal in downtown Ottawa

Some of the sculptures brought me to a standstill, including the one of Canadian jazz legend Oscar Peterson on a corner next to the National Arts Center, where the sound of his piano playing (coming from speakers around the sculpture) soothes your nerves while you’re waiting to cross the street.

Illustration: Photo of sculpture of legendary jazz musician, Oscar Peterson, in downtown Ottawa

Illustration: Photo of sculpture of legendary jazz musician, Oscar Peterson, in downtown Ottawa

Despite all the sights competing for my attention, I managed to get a few sketches started while exploring, adding color later.

It remains to do be seen what will be done about the climate challenges identified at the workshop, and by whom.  Given the shortcomings of traditional approaches highlighted in the workshop, some innovations in governance, science, and diplomacy seem necessary to cope with the novelties involved in understanding the risks and threats related to climate change impacts.

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Uncategorized

AntiFragility in a World of Disorder

In today’s class, we discussed the topic of forced or “distressed” migration in connection with environmental stresses or shocks and–whether or not related to environmental issues–violent conflict.  We quickly discovered there is almost no issue which is not connected to this issue of distressed migration.  From food security to public health, and drought to early childhood education, a complex web of factors must be considered.  (Indeed, even recent findings in neuroscience on the relationship between cognitive development in children and poverty had a place in our discussion.)  The students concluded that even very local issues have global consequences. They debated ways to soundly approach the complexity of the issues involved.

Fountain 2

Sketch: Pencil and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

The relevance of the topic, given news headlines these days, was obvious.  Some students emphasized the importance of adaptability, or resilience, in home countries for dealing with stresses and disasters.  Sometimes, however ,the stresses are too large, too many, and too frequent–and the basic functioning of the country too weak–for needed adaptation. It is mainly in such cases, when few other options exist, that people take the step of leaving their homes in search of a better future.  (These issues, said the students, include internally displaced people who must move elsewhere inside their country and exiles or migrants who are forced to leave, and who may even face the prospect of being “stateless.”)

Whether these people are called exiles, migrants, or refugees–or something else–sometimes depends on what international law covers, or not.  But, labels aside, these are people, said the students today, who probably would not be leaving their homes if they did not have to.  With more frequent and extreme weather events alone, however, freedom of mobility and opportunities for migration are poised to become larger issues around the world, observed some in the class today.

In connection with the issues of “anti fragility” or resilience, one might say that distressed migration occurs when countries become vulnerable and overextended.  While, in class, we consulted the work of known experts on human migration issues, outside of class literature unrelated to that specialized area can help reframe the issues involved.

For instance, the emerging concepts of “fragility” and “anti fragility,” as applied by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the book Antifragile, can help consider issues of migration (not the subject of his book) in different lights.  According to Taleb, systems such as societies and economies sometimes become fragile because “top-down” approaches make them so.  He writes: ” If about everything top-down fragilizes and blocks anti fragility and growth, everything bottom-up thrives under the right amount of stress and disorder.  The process of discovery (or innovation, or technological progress) itself depends on anti fragile tinkering, aggressive risk-bearing rather than formal education.”  In other words, highly static societies–even seemly highly stable ones–can be highly fragile, or subject to breakdowns.

Following such logic, it appears that nation-states can become more fragile due to policies imposed on them either by internal or external actors.  According to Taleb, in heavily top-down systems, this fragility sometimes can be masked, sometimes for a long time.  Some societal systems, he writes, “become antifragile at the expense of others by getting the upside (or gains) from volatility, variations, and disorder and exposing others to the downside risks of losses or harm.”  The masking of this fragility equates to what he calls “blow-up risks,” writing:

“…as we discovered during the financial crisis that started in 2008, these blowup risks-to-others are easily concealed owing to the growing complexity of modern institutions and political affairs.”  In his view, a few are benefiting from “anti fragility at the expense of the fragility of others.”

He also says that the “rare events” or “black swans”–(that are, in part, the subject of this blog)–paradoxically are increasing largely due to the increase of more complex man-made systems.  While technological know-how may be increasing, these same advances are “making things a lot more unpredictable.”  Modernity itself “makes us build Black Swan-vulnerable systems,” he writes.  And societal tendencies to focus on things we can estimate and measure encourage us to mistakenly think that we can calculate the risks and probabilities of shocks and rare events.  As he explains, we can’t but that doesn’t stop people (and entire industries) from convincing themselves and others that we can.

As the book, Antifragile, itself is composed of seven books, there is little point in trying to capture all of its key points in a blog post.  For purposes of this blog, the main thought in the book to explore further has to do with the interactions of complex systems leading to an increasing number of “rare events,” also known as unpredictable “Black Swans.”  Taleb writes: “The odds of rare events are simply not computable.  We know a lot less about hundred-year floods than five-year floods–model error swells when it comes to small probabilities.”

The students today were considering what makes countries more, or less, adaptable (or, to approximate what Taleb is addressing, “anti-fragile”) on the assumption that forced migration does not occur if solutions to problems are readily found at home.   Understanding how societies become and remain adaptive–particularly in a world of more frequent “rare events”–seems fundamental to finding more effective ways to deal with issues related to forced, or distressed, migration.  The real-life urgency of these issues for many people close by and far away is clear. In class, we will continue to grapple with the concepts involved and consider where things might be headed under different scenarios.

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Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

The Resilience Dividend

coyoacan3

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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