‧ Maintenance of adequate reserves — for example, seed banks in ecosystems or memory in social systems (which speaks against just-in-time supply services).
‧ Encouragement of innovation and creativity.
‧ High social capital, particularly trust, leadership and social networks.
‧ Adaptive governance (flexible, distributive and learning-based).
These attributes comprise the essentials of a resilient system. However, resilience itself is neither “good” nor “bad.”
Undesirable systems, such as dictatorships and saline landscapes, can be very resilient. In these cases, the system’s resilience should be reduced.
Moreover, it is impossible to understand or manage a system’s resilience at only one scale. At least three must be included — the focal scale and at least one below and one above — for cross-scale connections most often determine a system’s longer-term resilience. Most losses in resilience are unintended consequences of narrowly focused optimization (like an “efficiency” drive) that fails to recognize feedback effects on the focal scale that stem from changes produced by such optimization at another scale.
Resilience should not be confused with resistance to change. On the contrary, trying to prevent change and disturbance to a system reduces its resilience. A forest that never burns eventually loses species capable of withstanding fire. Children who are prevented from playing in dirt grow up with compromised immune systems. Building and maintaining resilience requires a probing of boundaries.
If a shift into a “bad” state has already happened, or is inevitable and will be irreversible, the only option is transformation into a different kind of system — a new way of living (and making a living).
Transformability and resilience are not opposites. In order for a system to remain resilient at one scale, parts of it at other scales may have to transform.
In Australia, for example, the Murray-Darling basin cannot continue as a resilient agricultural region if all parts of it continue doing what they are doing now. There simply is not enough water. So some parts of it will have to transform.
Of course, the need for transformation to create or maintain resilience may also affect the highest scale: If some countries and regions are to remain (or become) resilient social-ecological systems with high human well-being, it may be necessary to transform the global financial system.
Transformation requires getting past denial, creating options for change and supporting novelty and experimentation.
Financial support from higher levels (government) all too often takes the form of help to not change (bailouts of too-big-to-fail banks, for example), rather than help to change.
Resilience, in short, is largely about learning how to change in order to not be changed. Certainty is impossible. The point is to build systems that will be safe when they fail, not to try to build fail-safe systems.
Brian Walker, a research fellow at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia and at the Stockholm Resilience Center, is chair of the Resilience Alliance.
Copyright: Project Syndicate