Resilience: Enabling New Patterns, New Agency

I’ve been reading with great interest the posts of John Robb and Jamais Cascio related to resilience. Both make the case persuasively that in a world of black swans, global system shocks and instability, resilience (in communities, institutions, systems) is necessary not only to remain viable, but to thrive.

Jamais offers a clear definition of resilience:  the capacity of an entity–such as a person, an 
institution, or a system–to withstand sudden, unexpected shocks, 
and (ideally) to be capable of recovering quickly afterwards.

I’d like to extend the idea of “recovery” a bit.

I find the significance of the concept of resilience in its adaptive and transformative power—in its dynamic to generate novelty during crisis.  Resilient systems, communities, organizations recover by reorganizing, and possibly even transforming.  (John Robb’s reference to the T-1000 reassembling (through scale invariance) to continue to attack the Terminator is a nice visual of this.)

Fritjov Capra (The Web of Life) argues that a property of all living systems is their capacity to generate new patterns during times of critical instability. Brian Walker et. al., writing in Ecology & Society, emphasize adaptability and transformability as important related attributes of resilience.  They describe resilience as the “capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change” (italics mine).  Sometimes the system transforms.  It creates “untried beginnings from which to evolve a new way of living when existing ecological, economic, or social structures become untenable.” They give an example of the transformation of a rangeland ecosystem from many cattle ranches to a few conservancies managed collectively for ecotourism.

For communities, having the capacity to reorganize and transform to a more viable system seems to be critical for long-term success.  Community resilience is an adaptive practice, enabled by generative capacities to sense, learn, create, and re-organize.  These capacities will support a community’s efforts to generate novel solutions that maintain its distinct identity and wellbeing as it is connected to the global system and subject to global forces.

I think four trends are converging to drive a creative explosion of ways that communities can develop resilience–their capacity to reorganize and generate novel solutions and strategies:

•    Amplification of sensing and cognition through participatory digital media.  New digital media, from camera phones and sensors to social media such as Twitter and wikis are enabling people to create, filter and track data streams more effectively as well as make sense of it.  Citizen science projects, for example, use mobile sensors to amplify a community’s ability to capture environmental data.  Data visualization applications and collaborative gaming are ways to make sense of vast amounts of data.  This amplified capacity could help detect system threshold points (like its getting too big, or too polluted, or too leveraged).  This could help avoid system failures and recognize them more quickly when they do happen.

•    Super empowered groups as a modular social infrastructure.  The ease of affiliation and group formation has increased tremendously with social media. I see this trend as an intersection of Clay Shirky’s ideas in “Here Comes Everyone: The Power of Organizing without Organizations” and David Reed’s point that group forming networks grow exponentially and can rapidly scale as members co-create their own value.   Communities now can grow very user-centric social infrastructures to catalyze collective action and cooperation around issues and needs that matter to them.  The Transition Towns movement exemplifies this as self-organizing groups in communities across the world have quickly adopted Transition Culture ideas and have started to act collectively in their own meaningful ways.  The Interra Community Change Card (a shop local project) shows how social networks comprised of merchants, producers, and residents can boost local economies.

•    Democratized fabrication and the emergence of community-based micro-economies.   Efforts such as TechShop and MIT’s mobile FabLab program have the potential to transform the productive capacity of communities.  Equipped with 3D printers and computer controlled machine tools, these open fabrication centers amplify the capacity of communities to design, prototype, and fabricate stuff – objects, parts, components.  Community members and local organizations like senior centers or schools, and local artisans can create their own micro economies, repair networks, and production webs.  South Bronx residents used the FabLab tools to make furniture and irrigation pipes.

•    The rise of know-how networks and exchange of practical knowledge.  Opportunities to share, and learn from, practical knowledge is unleashing DIY behaviors and creative capacity in various domains.  Local expertise can attain global recognition and support and local organizations can reap the benefit of others’ experience, experimentation, and insight. Some key areas of growth are: artisan networks that share how-to knowledge and instructions like Instructables; open educational resource networks that exchange curriculum methods and lessons such as Curriki and OER Commons;  and R&D and design networks.

Together these four trends can enhance the resilience of individual communities through flexible platforms in various domains (education, food, health, finance) and could begin to create an interconnected web of pioneering communities with increased local agency and more suited to the volatility of the global system.

NOTE: I will be exploring more of these ideas in an upcoming paper published by the online journal of the Institute of Creative Technologies.

2 thoughts on “Resilience: Enabling New Patterns, New Agency

  1. Pingback: Resilience: some critical questions « Nomadologies

  2. Pingback: Healthy Cities 2.0 « Nomadologies

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *