Much talk is made about resiliency as a social strategy in the face of uncertainty. But is this the right metaphor for the 21st century?
Resiliency is an often used term in climate, ecology and social sciences, taken to denote a sense of flexibility or endurance. The dictionary defines resilience as the ability “to recoil or spring back into shape afterbending, stretching, or being compressed,” or to “be able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions : the fish are resilient to most infections.” It is thus often associated with the term flexibility.
A good image of resiliency is the reed, which bends in the face of massive pressure and then bounces back to shape.
The French word for sustainable is ‘durable’. The two terms have something in common. Sustainable is often defined as “the ability to maintain a certain level or rate,” whilst the English word “durable” can be defined as “the ability to withstand wear, pressure, or damage.” Thus resistance to change or the maintenance of a current state or form is implied by both.
A good image of durability then, is the oak tree, which can withstand massive amounts of pressure and remain unchanged.
The corporate and military sectors make much use of the term agility, which can be defined as “the ability to move quickly”. Agile comes from the Latin agilis, meaning “nimble or light, easily moved.” Agility is thus associated with the concepts of change. Like resilience, agility is also related to flexibility, but more so in the sense of change or transformation.
A good image for agility then, is the gymnast, who can quickly reconfigure themselves in the face of massive pressure, in a way which balances or relieves this pressure.
Which is the most appropriate metaphor for the future?
Given the “perfect storm” of change many argue we are facing in the coming decade, which of these three concepts makes the most sense for 21st century governance?
Do we want organisations that are resilient, i.e., that will be able to bend and flex in the face of stress, and then return back to their current form? Perhaps, but what exactly is its current form, and isn’t this changing all the time? And what if the current form of our governments and organisations are dysfunctional and maladaptive? Is it desirable to hope for some kind of stability in the face of massive change?
Or do we want systems which are durable, i.e., resistant to large amounts of pressure and stress, doing their best to maintain their current structure and relationships? Isn’t this perhaps what we already have; a system resistant to change? And what happens in the classic children’s story about the Oak and the Reed?
Or finally, do we want a system which are agile, i.e., it can actually change and transform itself in new ways when facing times of stress; like a gymnast, ultimately morphing into some entirely new balance of tension and force? Isn’t this perhaps the most desirable metaphor to use? Doesn’t this take into account the evolutionary, indeed, co-evolutionary nature of the world?
Which kind of organisations do you want for the future? Resilient, durable, or agile?
The point of this post is that none of these words describe a “best strategy” and that each can be appropriate at different times. Large organisations bring stability to our lives through their very slowness, whilst many small ones come and go with extreme agility. The term “resilience” is often held by some to be the holy grail of social qualities for all organisations. Yet resilience isn’t always the most appropriate attribute in all cases, especially when change is necessary or desirable.
In their recent newsletter on Resilience 2.0, International Futures Forum‘s Graham Leicester (@graham_iff) writes, “What if there is no ‘normal’ for the global system to revert to? [A recent] seminar explored this deeper notion of resilience: the transformation of the global system to a new level of viability, fit for the emerging world.”
I like this notion of resilience “beyond stability.” On Twitter @indy_johar suggests a new word is needed to describe the combination. My humourous suggestion was “duragibilient“. Do you have any other ideas for words which go “beyond resilience”?
In response to this post, Vinay Gupta (@leashless) pointed me to a brilliant post he wrote on this subject, entitled “Beyond Resilience: Visionary Adaptation“. In it he argues that the resilience model necessitates a return to normal state after disruption, whilst an adaptive model results in an improved state. His “Revolutionary Adaptive Model” results in an improved state unimaginable before the event. Haiti is an excellent example of this, providing an opportunity to evolve to a new preferred state as a result of visionary adaptation.
The point is to avoid fetishising resilience, especially when “resilience” can often be a pretty term for maladaptive rigidity traps (Carpenter and Brock, 2008) preventing evolution and positive change.