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(2) Resilience: Not being but becoming

Updated: Dec 17, 2019

Why do some cities die, and some strive? Why some companies fail, and other grow? Why do some people recover from trauma faster than the others? Why do some species evolve and other get extinct?

Those questions are answered from different perspectives in numerous fields of science. Interest to me has been to grasp underlying principles underneath those answers.

I have learned that it is useful to interpret the reality as a constantly changing system. Ability to cope with the change may be the key factor that makes some cities, companies, species, states, humans, world-views strive, and other decay.

Knowing how to let change flow freely while we use it as a “recourse” might be our finest instrument. Not the instrument for mere survival, though. It’s a fine instrument to create resonance inside our deepest selves and reality, so we can truly enjoy the human experience.

Chinese symbol for crisis shown is a combination of the characters for danger and opportunity.

Why resilience? Why are you insisting on using it when talking about coping with the change, and why would we want to engage with that term?

I don’t thing anyone should engage with any term just because someone says it is important. Some concepts work for you, some don’t. Sometimes you hear a sentence, a term, in a background, and you can’t get is out of your head. It conquers you. That is a good moment to look at is more closely and ask what can that concept do for you.

Great. Let's explore what can resilience concept do for us.

Let’s get a consensus on what the R word actually stands for first.

Resilīre is derived from Latin roots, and means ‘to spring back, rebound’ to some earlier state of being. It was being used to describe nature’s ability to recoup after damage from fire, flood, or wind, or human capability to recover from a change in health, or financial security.

But, you soon encounter the problem with that definition. You realise that restoring any system to a prior point of existence following a disturbance or traumatic experience makes a lousy bet, because whole new collapse always waits behind the corner. That’s why the system must evolve, not just respond to new circumstances, due the constant exposure to change. Our everyday experience creates the necessity that we must see ourselves and our environments as part of a dynamic continuum.

Constant evolving is the key? Can we learn to a better way?

I think we can. Firstly, I would advise to look beyond the way we interpret the reality in our everyday life. We have internalised throughout our lives the “Newtonian world view”, which understands the reality as very well ordered mechanical apparatus, whose performance we can explain, predict and direct with mathematical rules and control systems. That belief implies that the system goes through alterations, but will still always return to either the old or a new stable state, to its equilibrium. It believes in equilibrium like in a deity, and it is not questioning its existence.

Based on this thinking of the system’s resilience through its equilibrium state, Simone Davoudi, author of the book The Resilience Machine, has generated three broad conceptualisations of resilience, from a wide range of disciplines: engineering, ecological, and evolutionary resilience.

Engineering and ecological resilience agree on the idea of existence of a “stable equilibrium”. Imagine any system like a nice, round bowl with a ball in it. When the ball is peacefully on the bottom of the bowl, we call that equilibrium state. But, ball refuses to just stay on a bottom, just like our reality refuses to just stay still, and it jumps up and down, left and right, sometimes out of the bowl, in all possible directions, and we call this “disturbance” in the system.

Engineering resilience has the emphasis on return time that takes to get back to equilibrium, on efficiency, constancy and predictability, which are crucial for optimal engineering design. In other words, engineering design wants the ball after disturbance sitting back in the bottom of the bowl in a least time possible, with a least spent energy. The bowl can stretch and grow to keep the ball in the system, all the way to its thresholds, but the goal always remains the same, and that is getting back to equilibrium state.

For example, the resilience of a material refers to the tendency of the material to return to its original state after being stretched, bent or compressed.

Right. But that’s not the only way to deal with the equilibrium. Ecological resilience proposes multiple equilibria, so disturbances can flip a system into another, new stability domain. While engineering resilience aims for efficiency of the specific function, ecological resilience intends to maintain function, even when the function itself could change. If we want to continue the bowl analogy, that would mean that we forget about one single bowl, and try to efficiently create new bowls that can catch a ball and keep it in the bowl in a new equilibrium.

Both engineering and ecological resilience approach focus mostly on emergency responses, measured by indicators such as the length of time needed for damage reduction and reaching (new) stability.

One approach is to get back in the equilibrium state, another to create new equilibrium after disturbance. Is there the third way?

Yes, and that one is dropping the concept of equilibrium in a first place. Evolutionary resilience goes beyond the idea that stability remains over time and rather sees how to build long-term adaptive capacity.

Instead of viewing resilience as a return or jump forward to equilibrium, it stands for ability of complex systems to adapt in response to disturbances. That kind of evolutionary change that characterises natural and human systems, since its beginnings, is at the core of evolutionary resilience idea.

From this point of view, there is no such a thing as an equilibrium, there is just constant change and adaptation to the change. You can turn the whole concept around and see that each moment, each state can be seen as a state of equilibrium, because it’s perfect response to the reality of that moment.

This evolutionary resilience worldview opens the new territory of discussion, about who wants to evolve, and towards what.

It is a wast territory indeed. Although it would be interesting to generally discuss evolution in terms of subject and object, I would like to narrow it down now, and speak about how this concept helps to cope with the challenge of protecting human well-being within ongoing changes to the environment and human society. This example will help see the power of this concept in its full light.

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