- 10/4/2023 7:36:02 AM
“Resilience is the Answer of Fragility”
Barış Onur Örs
The global system is becoming increasingly fragile. Over-optimization, centralization, and increasing speed make societies more vulnerable to unforeseen events. With globalization, it's now inevitable for a crisis in one region to spill over to others. The 2008 global financial crisis demonstrated how such fragility could create a domino effect, with the bankruptcy of several major financial institutions sending shockwaves across global economies. Disruptions in energy grids and digital infrastructures can now affect all systems. Cyberattacks or technological errors can lead to the collapse of massive systems. Or natural events, which would typically have localized effects, can easily impact interconnected systems. For example, the volcanic eruption in Iceland in 2010 resulted in a large ash cloud over Europe, significantly disrupting international air traffic. Systems that grow in complexity and are designed for specific purposes become more unprepared for crises or shocks. For instance, the more optimized a supply chain is, a disruption in one part can break the whole chain. The Covid-19 pandemic showcased how interconnected, yet fragile, modern society can be, both biologically and economically.
Resilience is derived from the Latin word 'resilire,' meaning 'to bounce back.' In many contexts, "resilience" denotes the ability of a system - person, community, ecosystem, or material - to recover from crises or adapt to changes. Fragility, on the other hand, comes from the Latin 'fragilis,' which means 'easily broken.' It describes how sensitive a system is to stressors.
In the 20th century, researchers sought to understand why some individuals could overcome adverse events while others couldn't. Concurrently, resilience theory emerged in ecology, emphasizing how ecosystems maintained their functions and structures despite adverse external factors. Both concepts were also utilized in engineering to describe how materials and structures could resist stress.
In the 21st century, the concept of socio-ecological systems, which combines social and ecological resilience, emerged. Resilience was also applied to financial systems, businesses, and supply chains, studying their ability to adapt and bounce back. Cities worldwide began adopting resilience planning to address everything from the effects of climate change to pandemics. Today, the concepts of resilience and fragility are perceived not only as opposites but also tend to exist on a spectrum. A system may exhibit resilience in some aspects while being fragile in others. The contemporary approach emphasizes a holistic understanding, considering the multifaceted nature of a system and its interconnections.
In his book "Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder," Nassim Nicholas Taleb introduced the concept of "antifragile" as an alternative to resilience. For him, while resilient systems resist challenges and maintain the status quo, antifragile systems turn difficulties into advantages and evolve. Taleb believes that creating antifragile systems involves avoiding centralization and encouraging local and individual initiatives. Locality and individual experiences allow systems to diversify and try different strategies. This reduces overall risk and increases resilience. Taleb contends that risks cannot be eliminated; hence the best strategy should not be to minimize them but to think about how to benefit from them. He stated, "The fragile are those who cannot sustain a shock, the resilient are those who can sustain shocks but not thrive from them, and the antifragile are those who thrive from shocks. Resilience is a response of fragility."
Some resilient systems might return to their foundational states after radical changes, but it's not always the case. Resilient systems may have no basis left to return to. Systems may adapt to changing conditions instead of returning to their initial states.
In their book “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back," Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy propose principles for system resilience. Based on principles like tight feedback loops, dynamic reorganization, intrinsic counter mechanisms, separation, diversity, modularity, simplicity, drift, and clustering, one could ask: How can we establish more effective feedback loops between our actions and results? How can we separate ourselves from a resource or make our infrastructure more modular? According to Zolli and Healy, resilient systems fail gracefully. The key to this grace lies in mechanisms like avoiding hazardous situations, detecting interventions, minimizing and isolating component damage, diversifying resources, continuing operations at minimum levels if necessary, and self-regulating and integrating after a radical change. No system is perfect, in fact, quite the opposite: Apparently perfect systems are the most fragile, and a dynamic system that fails occasionally can become the most robust. What's resilient is like life itself: scattered, flawed, and inefficient. But it survives.
Brian Walker and David Salt's "Resilience Thinking" offers an in-depth exploration of the challenges faced by ecosystems and social systems and how they respond. For Walker and Salt, resilience isn't just how a system withstands a particular shock or stress. It's about how a system responds to such shocks or stresses, absorbs these situations, learns, and reorganizes. They highlight points to make social systems more resilient:
Risks of Over-Specialization: Over-specialization can create vulnerability to a specific threat. For instance, if an agricultural community focuses solely on one type of crop, a disease or pest outbreak related to that crop can endanger the entire livelihood of the community. Thus, diversification and polyculture approaches can contribute to a resilient agricultural system.
Learning and Transfer of Knowledge: Resilience is based on learning and transfer of knowledge. The authors suggest that by merging the traditional ecological knowledge of local communities with modern science, more effective strategies for ecosystem management can be developed.
Flexible Management Approaches: Rigid management approaches can make adapting to changing conditions difficult. The authors emphasize that adaptive management is a flexible approach that continuously updates management strategies in response to changing conditions and information.
The Power of Social Networks: In social systems, strong connections and collaboration between individuals can help the community become more resilient against hardships. For instance, sharing of information and resources in a community can ease the community's recovery during challenging times.
Boosting the resilience of a community or organization offers economic, social, and environmental advantages, not just in exceptional situations, but also in everyday circumstances. Judith Rodin has termed this as The Resilience Dividend. According to Rodin, being prepared for extraordinary situations can minimize potential damages, reducing long-term costs. For instance, investing in flood protection systems can significantly reduce costs in potential future flood disasters. For organizations, resilience means the ability to maintain operations during crises, which boosts customer trust and prevents potential revenue losses. Resilient organizations can have a competitive advantage as they can maintain operations during crises. Resilience also promotes a spirit of cooperation and solidarity among communities, strengthening the social bonds between community members and enhancing the overall well-being of the community. Focusing on resilience educates community members about potential risks and how to act against them.
In today's world, where vulnerability is on the rise and unexpected events occur frequently, the concept of resilience is gaining increasing importance. But resilience isn't just about withstanding and preserving; it's about adapting to changing conditions, learning, and growing under new circumstances. Taleb's concept of "antifragile" emphasizes this growth perspective: it's not just about withstanding challenges but growing stronger from them. Also, as highlighted by Walker and Salt, adaptive management, learning, the power of social networks, and diversity are keys to resilience. Therefore, understanding and internalizing these concepts is essential for modern societies to become more resilient against the challenges they face.
Resilience is a concept that allows us to exist not only during crises but at every moment and is a responsibility carried by every individual, institution, and community. Realizing that resilience is not merely a reactive concept in response to vulnerability but also a proactive approach allows us to look to the future with more hope and preparation. If we can't control the changes around us, we can build better boats.
Taleb, N. N. (2012). Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder. Random House.
Zolli, A., & Healy, A. M. (2012). Resilience: Why things bounce back. Free Press.
Walker, B., & Salt, D. (2006). Resilience thinking: Sustaining ecosystems and people in a changing world. Island Press.
Rodin, J. (2014). The resilience dividend: Being strong in a world where things go wrong. PublicAffairs.