• why it’s not resilience.

    by  • April 4, 2009 • The Global Picture • 8 Comments

    Everybody loves resilience. It’s a calm, reassuringly solid word.

    Resilience, n.
    1. The ability to recover quickly from illness, change, or misfortune; buoyancy.

    2. The property of a material that enables it to resume its original shape or position after being bent, stretched, or compressed; elasticity.

    The problem is we are not ever going to return to our original shape or position. There are philosophical reasons for this: you can’t step in the same river twice. There are practical reasons for this: technology and politics are constant change, and technology produces all kinds of acceleration. But, simply, the future, whatever it is, good or bad, is not going to look like the past.

    Resilience is a comforting concept. It says “you can take a licking and keep on ticking.” It says “you will recover and restore your original shape after a crisis.” It’s fundamentally nostalgic. You wish for the way things were, and you put things back that way after the storm has passed.

    My friends, the storm is not going to pass. The storm is called life. We want systems which do not suffer from cascading failures. We want systems which keep working through trouble. We want systems which are easy to fix when they break.

    But we want systems that aggressively and relentlessly adapt to their environments – good and bad – and any opportunity to prosper therein, not just systems that can recover from being whacked.

    Resilience is passive. We need to move beyond it before the concept gets too dug in.

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    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


    8 Responses to why it’s not resilience.

    1. April 4, 2009 at 11:31 am

      But Vinay, I like the word!

      I think it can mean being strong and flexible enough to recontextualise, reframe, redefine, reinvent over time …without snapping. Like Madonna.

      But more to the point, I agree with you, this is not the time for strategically restoring us back to the past, its a time for exploring what we’ve got today.


    2. April 4, 2009 at 11:37 am

      Absolutely agree. Resilience is great, but if we build systems which feature resilience as the primary design goal in a sort of Jeff Vail fashion, it’s not going to get us where we actually want to be. Resilience is one property of the systems we’d like to build, but as I’m seeing the term going mainstream I’m also increasingly aware of its limits 😉

    3. jon
      April 4, 2009 at 3:59 pm


      I take your point that resilience is limited as a label but I think any one word label is going to fall somewhat short of describing the ‘fix’ to a massive set of complex problems.

      But, I think that when you appropriate a word you have an amount of freedom to redefine its terms for your context.

      Maybe what we need is a new label that doesn’t come load with a set of assumptions and meanings so that we are free to define its properties from scratch.


    4. April 5, 2009 at 10:28 am

      Re-silience seems to be about restoring, just like bouncing “back”. So if it’s about bouncing “forward”, then maybe it’s “fo[rward]silience”?

      Just being silly, but you get the point. We need some expert in Latin, Greek, Esperanto or Sanscrit.

      Leapfrogging gave birth to “leapfrogging” and similar idiocies.

      It just needs to become trendy and, yes, the more open in meaning, the better.

    5. April 5, 2009 at 10:29 am

      Sorry, I meant “frogleaping”.

      And re-storing. Or is it rest-oring?

      ah, well!

    6. April 6, 2009 at 1:27 am

      jon, I believe you’re right that *we* get to set terms for the term when we appropriate it for new uses.

      I actually think the debate abt the word itself is a bit of a distraction — Vinay, you know this! But what Vinay has done is remind us that if a corrupted system is resilient, then the corruption (not exactly the word I want, but close) has an opportunity to exploit a crisis and grow in the recoil phase. The problems wit the system can grow bigger when the system bounces back.

      So we do want resilience — we just don’t want total, ubiquitous resilience. In all of this is a critique of the aspects of the system that caused or worsened the crises in the first place.

      This is clever work. But I tend to think Ivan (in the STAR-TIDES discussions) is right — too much is invested in working the word itself. V’s point comes across by-and-by.


    7. April 6, 2009 at 12:28 pm

      I have posted my reponse (edited and extended) from the star tides discussion here for any who are interested.


      This is more than semantic, in my mind. We need discipline for language. It can’t all be about marketing and contextually defining in increasingly rapid continuous cycles. Concepts of these kinds need commitment and rigour.

      Vinay has a great way of reminding us that sometimes we may be losing the plot. Kind of like throwing a malatov cocktail at a barn filled with hay to point out our firemen aern’t ready 😉

    8. April 6, 2009 at 10:25 pm

      (similar post at ilabra.org)


      Appreciate all of the foregone sleep that went into preparation of your diagrams. The concepts you’ve sketched out look great.

      I agree completely on the concept of vision-centered adapation. It gives form to the Buddhist saying: “to get to the far shore, you must come from it.”

      Yet I’d urge a renaming of your Visionary Adaptation meme.

      Many people — in hard times especially — tend to discount ideas with a “visionary” aspect as tenuously related, at best, to dealing with shocks and strains they face.

      The idea of resilience is catching because people are looking for practical ways to survive and surmount the growing stresses.

      “Resilience Plus”, I think, would be a good branding move given these circumstances to speed exploration and acceptance of the Visionary Adaptation meme.

      On a deeper level, I’d like to also suggest a few links that may be of interest. The following connect, as I see it, to your ideas on vision-centered adaptation:

      – Arthur Koestler’s insights on holonic evolution: http://www.panarchy.org/koestler/holon.1969.html

      – The Viable Systems Model: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viable_System_Model

      – Some of my musings on evolution and a triadic, transpecies form of consilience (item 10.3 at http://upliftacademy.org/wiki/index.php?title=GAP2007Essay .

      What do you think? Look forward to continuing the explorations and seeing the vision-centered adapation meme spread.


      Mark Frazier
      Openworld, Inc.
      @openworld (Twitter)
      @openworld (Twitter)

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