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Recognising the 3 Warning Signs of a “Weak Resilience” Plan

Updated: Sep 7, 2020

With climate change, ongoing pandemic, and other dramatic and destructive social and ecological tragedies all around the world, the need to build resilient and adaptive urban processes and infrastructures has become urgent.

The confusion about the term resilience and the complexities that planners are facing make this task hard to reach. Here is the check list of three common errors to avoid, and actions to undertake, that can help planners and practitioners increase the options for resilient outcomes.

Finding solutions within raging change

Let me describe common experiences in daily routines of professionals tackling above mentioned challenges.

It is 11pm, and I am mediating a online conference workshop on programming resilience in urban and regional planning processes. Urban development practitioners, scientists, public officials, and students from four continents decided to dedicate six hours in front of their Zoom interfaces to get closer to understanding how to make their cities and regions resilient.

Some of them are trying to find effective solutions for developing a housing system for people which livelihoods were destroyed through pandemic regulations. Others look for the ways to use digitalisation for increasing the quality of people’s mobility, especially the ones living in the city ghettoes or slums. There is an nongovernmental organisation seeking to actively include underrepresented, marginalised citizens in the next urban renewal plan, and another one in process of making plans to implement right infrastructure to mitigate the heat island effect.

They earn their everyday bread to deliver solutions, which are supposed to work within the raging changes, like increase in extreme weather events, pandemic regulations, migrations and urbanisations.

Variety of their efforts is addressing one fundamental question: How do we build resilient and adaptive urban infrastructures and systems within disruptions and change?

It’s not a simple task building a resilient city. When seeing resilient city as a system that copes with, and even strives in the rapidly changing environment, while being constantly whipped by the new crisis, we can all agree we wouldn’t waste to much thoughts on which outcome to bet on.

On the workshop’s end, already deep in the night, we had no final answers, but we certainly got few insights into the endlessness of challenges and variety contexts in reaching our goals.

What I came up from experiences gathered that night, is conclusion that there are three early signs of weakness of the projects’ resilience.

They are easily detectable, and avoiding them can actually help navigate the project within the dense complexity of the tasks.

Let’s start with the warning sign which is most crucial, but the hardest to detect.

Warning Sign 1: Ignoring or staying paralysed in front to the complexity of the city’s system.
To do: Breaking down the complexity of the city system into the simplicity of the component that we understand.

Cities are, like weather, water molecules, or world economy, complex systems. We can’t understand these complexities in total, even if we had all the relevant data, and all the data processing power in the world. That is because those systems are constantly changing, as well as relationships and causalities within, which makes it almost impossible to calculate the relevant variables, and to manage feedbacks.

Cities are interconnected systems, and when everything is connected, everything matters. In order to understand that, we don’t need to think further than the explosive reaction chain caused by recent pandemic regulations on various components of human lives. Recent studies are throwing light on data about extreme increase in unemployment and homelessness, inaccessibility to health services, domestic violence, drug addiction, and depression increase, increase in gun sales, but extreme decrease in premature births.

Understanding that we can’t map, and with reasonable certainty predict the system’s main variables, what can urban planners do to make our cities strive in the change?

I am fond of the zen quote “Chop wood, carry water”. It suggests that essence of living a good life is contained in the art of breaking life down into the simplicity of the present moment. Not just that is a best advice so far that I have heard to navigate the complexity of my own life, it also clears up the way to navigate any other complex system. Yes, even to navigate our cities.

In a language of city planning, that would mean: when creating a strategy, plan or a project, break processes down into the simplicity of the components where you have a clear understanding, and possible control of the activity. Instead being overwhelmed by the system’s complexities, which can lead to delaying the action, or towards neglecting the complexities that make us rush towards half tailored solutions, we can focus on the circumstances in front of us, fulfilling the simple needs and actions in the domain we actually have control over, while being aware of the big picture.

That would mean that we could try, instead of losing our resources on impossible task of making the whole city system resilient, to make resilient one of the system’s component. As the resilience of the whole system “works” in the same way as the resilience in the component of the system, this approach could be our best bet to deliver effective, long term solutions.

Warning Sign 2: Ambiguity around direction, scope, aims and objectives.
To do: Navigating the component of the city’s system toward clear goals, by answering six big resilience questions.

Resilience thinking is allowing valuable perspective: We don’t need to understand all the past, current and future complexities in our cities. It is enough to be clear on overall aims, and specific objectives in the single component of the system that we do understand, and have a certain amount of control on.

I am adapting the framework from Sara Meerow’s and Joshua P. Newell’s (2016) deeply perceptive academic discussion about resilience, to propose the “check list” in order to help articulate needed aims and objectives. Before designing strategy, plan or project, let’s make sure that we’re clear on the following issues:

For whom are we building resilience?

Who determines what is desirable? Whose resilience is prioritised? Who is included and excluded for the system’s component we’re dealing with?

For what are we building resilience?

What disruptions and change should the urban system be resilient to?

What networks and sectors are included?

For when are we building resilience?

Is the focus on long term or short term adaptations and/or transformations?

Is the focus on the resilience of present or future generations, species or habitats?

For where are we building resilience?

Where are the spatial boundaries of the system’s component we’re dealing with? Is the resilience of some sites or habitats prioritised, at other areas’ expense?

Why are we building resilience?

What is the overall goal of building resilience in the component of the system?

Is the focus on process or outcome?

How are we building resilience?

What are right indicators, instruments, tools to understand vulnerabilities and to build adaptive capacities?

When we have clarity on that, the resilience framework steps on the scene, with its full light and glory, offering the practical ways forward in our strategies, plans, and projects, by guiding us to navigate the elements we actually can control, and of which I’ll talk in the next section.

Warning Sign 3: Rigidity in planning and processes, attachment to predetermined aims and goals.
To do: Not controlling, but navigating system’s component through the cycle of change by using resilience enhancing principles.

First thing to do after we’re clear with the answers in last step, is to let them go, or loosen them up, so they don’t lock us up in the rigidity.

Unlike rigid systems, resilient systems are networked in a way to allow novelty and experimentation. The capacity of such a system to learn, grow, adapt, and invent novel new patterns, when presented with a obstacle, is much higher than of the ones that are locked in rigid order, like a machine-robot, totalitarian regime, or a top-down control bureaucracy. Associated in this way, the agents have both autonomy and freedom to choose, and also to create patterns of connectedness that flexibly narrows their options.

To sum it up, all resilient systems have the same underlying principles that allow them to be resilient. Those are ability to learn, and self organise through an optimal structure of the relationships between the elements of in the system.

Those somewhat abstract principles can be translated in a practical guidelines for developing any action, project, or strategy within our urban systems. Those guidelines include ensuring optimal connectivity, diversity and redundancy between the actors, ability to identify feedbacks and manage slow variables, continuously broaden participation, and ability to learn and experiment.

How can this principles be of use for my workshop participants, for their real world projects?

Most of the scientist and practitioners from the beginning of this story were concerned with making various strategies and projects, where the needs and knowledge of the local people can be systematically heard, merged with the “expert knowledge”, and steered to co-create their cities.

This intentions can be carried forward in as many ways as there are intentions. By adopting the resilience framework, professionals can design those projects based on resilience principles.

After we are clear on the outcomes, and determine the scope of the component of the city’s system, it is time to tailor the activities in accordance with the resilience principles.

Let’s take a look how can we tailor appropriate participatory processes and plans, by following resilience principles:

* Principle of optimal connectivity

Actions dealing with enabling optimal formation and strength of interactions of social actors for increasing information-sharing, and developing the trust necessary for inclusive decision making processes.

Principle of high diversity

Ensuring high diversity of knowledge systems, actors, social groups or institutions, to provide more ways to respond to change and disturbance.

Principle of high redundancy

Allow and include redundancy of included knowledge systems, actors, social groups or institutions, to buffer capacities in case of loss.

Principle of supporting constant learning processes

Ensuring and stimulating mechanisms for constant improvement of existing knowledge, to be able to update knowledge, and adapt to changing conditions.

Principle of supporting experimentation

Ensuring and stimulating mechanisms by allowing constant, never ending re-evaluation of existing values and routines, and letting new understandings and new knowledge in a system.

Principle of continuous participation

Enabling active engagement of relevant stakeholders in the decision making processes, to support transparency, knowledge sharing, trust building, the legitimacy of decisions, and learning.

Principle of identifying changes and managing feedbacks

To avoid system thresholds or to facilitate systemic transformations, it is good to design processes that are able to act on information about key changes in the system’s component, and ensure mechanisms to provide feedbacks.

Regardless of whether wanted outcome is sustainable social housing or fair public transport, implementation of renewable energy, circular economy on a city level, or any other, if we want a participatory process which contribute to a city resilience, we would need to use those resilience “principles” to navigate them with.

It is interesting to notice how this guidelines for directing processes and plans on urban scale correspond with steering our individual agendas too: It is all about understanding what parts of our realities we can, and what parts we can’t control, about having the clarity about our direction, and focusing on the principles rather than maintaining the control.

In this sense, resilience is an approach, a way of thinking, that presents a perspective for guiding and organising our thoughts, policies, and projects.

I’m curious, what are biggest challenges in following those resilience principles, in your experiences?

Which ones are the hardest to pursue?

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