From the banking crisis to earthquakes, from the Arab spring to major floods, we have seen many disasters and disruptions, year after year. Given the risks of climate change and the grand challenges of feeding nine billion people, the potential of disruptions is not expected to diminish soon. It is like riding your car close to a cliff. First of all you try to mitigate the risks by steering skillfully. But then you realise that you might need your airbags pretty badly. Thus, adapting to the risk of not able to avoid going off the cliff. Therefore, adaptive strategies to cope with unforeseen shocks and surprises are very welcome. Andrew Zolli and Anne Marie Healy wrote a terrific book in which they present many stories that highlight the recurring principles of the concept of resilience.
The toolkit of resilience
Zolli and Healy come up with a basic set of principles form a powerful vocabulary for evaluating the resilience or fragility of the big systems around us: cities, economies, ecosystems, infrastructure alike. These principles help us think critically of how to improve the resilience of systems.
Interoperability: dynamically reorganizing
Resilient systems behave like living organisms. They have embedded countermechanisms that lay dormant until a crisis occurs. Scaling the response to appropriate levels allows them to tackle situations quickly and bring the system back to a healthy state. Tight feedback loops trigger immediate and often accurate responses.
Modularity: de-intensifying or decoupling
Isolating parts of a system prevents the whole system being affected by a crisis. When a power grid breaks down, decoupling the grid in isolated islands limits the disruption to only a few units while the rest is still running. This means localizing operations and reducing dependencies. For instance, the pressure on water supplies made manufacturers of apparel think of ways to use less water intensive approaches to production. Hence, a way to decouple production from intense water usage. Diversifying the resources needed to accomplish a certain task is a similar strategy.
Simplicity: diverse at the edges, but simple at the core
At the centre, a resilient system is elegantly simple. Basic structures or basis code language form the general design of each unit. From the outside however, the system may look complex due to all the different subsystems that diversify from this one principle. DNA, a four letter code language, is the basis of all live forms. Utterly simple at the core, but wildly complex in what it has generated. The modular units of resilient organisations are often nothing more than a small group of people dedicated to a task, interlinked to the whole but self-organized to the max.
Flocking and swarming
Modular component parts, arranged in networks, connected by open protocols, this is what creates a swarm. It has been called wisdom of crowed or distributed intelligence. This makes the system sense its own state, sense the state of its environment, anticipate disruption, dynamically modulate its scale in response, and localize or decouple its operations when needed. Note that the previous principles are all incorporated in the idea of the flock or swarm. And although no single entity is absolutely in charge, centralized authority is not necessarily out of the picture. This is instead carefully balanced with the right kinds of local empowerment and self-sufficiency.
Having resources in close proximity of each other is what kick-starts economic, creative and intellectual activities. The special mixture of clustered diversity builds innovation hubs like Silicon Valley, but also old-grown extremely resilient forests.
Further characteristics of resilient systems
Related concepts: robustness, redundancy, initial state recovery
Resilience is not the same as robustness. This is usually conceived as a hardiness of a system. But robust structures such as ancient monuments, won’t put themselves back together when knocked over, as what happened with the Afghan Buddha statues. Redundancy is also something differently. While highly resilient systems are often redundant to some extent, redundancy is also costly, often hardly used and puts much pressure on a system. Lastly, resilience does not always equate with recovery of a system to its initial state. Resilient systems may not have a baseline to return to. They may reconfigure themselves continuously and fluidly adapt to ever-changing circumstances.
It is not that resilient systems never fail. Instead, modest failures are essential. They allow the system to release and reorganize some of its resources. Modest forest fires redistribute nutrients and create opportunities for new growth without destroying the system as a whole. Failing gracefully is a strategy to avoid dangerous circumstances, detecting intrusions, minimizing and isolating component damage, diversifying the resources they consume, operating in a reduced state if necessary, and self-organizing to heal in the wake of a breach.
Messy, but in for survival, like life itself
Resilient systems are never perfect. It can be messy, inefficient and sometimes redundant. But it survives. Resilience is close to nature. Resilience is rooted in our beliefs and values, in our genes and experience, even in our character and most critically, in our habits of mind. That, we can cultivate and change.
Trust and cooperation
Considering the resilience of groups, there is a critical role of trust and cooperation. In resilient groups people collaborate when it counts. Strong communities, successful informal networks tend to be rooted in deep trust, to contend with and heal disruption. It builds on the authenticity of real relationships, which is why efforts to superimpose resilience from above are often unsuccessful.
Zolli and Healy discovered another interesting aspect of resilient systems. There was almost always a special type of leader at the core of it. Frequently behind the scenes, they are brilliant in connecting constituencies, weaving various networks, perspectives, knowledge systems and agendas into a coherent whole. These leaders promote adaptive governance. They were able to connect formal institutions and informal networks to collaborate in response to a crisis.
Lessons from resilience
The recurring themes carry valuable insights that are worth considering to anyone operating in a system.
Working on strengthening parts of the system may weaken other parts and thus threaten the system as a whole. On the opposite, when working from the connecting whole, efforts in one part of the system may unlock greater resilience in another part.
Multi-level, multi-modal thinking
Some parts of the system move quicker than other parts. Synchronizing the forces of different aspects of the system improves the response to stresses. Note that translational leaders have a special eye for the multi-level complexity of systems.
Closeness to nature
Life itself is in a state of constant dynamic disequilibrium. The short term efficiency gains always need to trade with the possibility of surviving hypothetical future emergencies. Living systems are also cyclical. A rapid growth phase is followed by a conservation phase, then a release phase and finally a reorganization phase to allow the cycle start again.
Importance of networks
Networks provide a common reference point, a focus of trust and the nodes in a network enable fast and efficient interaction. Networks are fluent and interconnect in different ways to form a bigger system. The modular design of a networked system means that there is
no central leader of networks. The small scale of such networks makes them agile. The many-to-many ties in the bigger network allows the network to grow, even if some units won’t survive.
Why things bounce back
Zolli and Healy provide a rich volume of stories with wonderful insights of how resilience works in practice. Because there is no general way to implement resilience into a system, one of the main messages of the book is to take a fresh look through the lens of resilience. Then see how to encourage adaptation, agility and co-operation. This brings us to a different way of being in, and engaging with the world. Thus, a fruitful place for translational leaders who elegantly orchestrate (from behind the scenes) a system to bounce back in the phase of disruptions.
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