Origins of the term

The term resilience was introduced into the English language in the early 17th Century from the Latin verb resilire, meaning to rebound or recoil. There is no evidence of resilience being used in any scholarly work until Thomas Tredgold introduced the term in 1818 to describe a property of timber, and to explain why some types of wood were able to accommodate sudden and severe loads without breaking.

Four decades later, Robert Mallet further developed this concept of resilience as a means of measuring and comparing the strength of materials used in the construction of the Royal Navy’s fighting ships. Prior to Mallet’s work, most of the Navy’s fighting ships had been built of wood, but with the advent of the steam engine much interest was being shown in the suitability of iron for a warship’s hull.

Mallet developed a measure - the modulus of resilience - as a means of assessing the ability of materials to withstand severe conditions. He defined it as the energy required to rupture a material as a result of a force being applied. In a report to the Admiralty in 1856, Mallett used the concept to explain why “in bronze guns the expansion is so great and the resilience, or power of elastic recovery, so small that in extreme cases …. the gun becomes permanently lengthened.”

In 1973, Crawford (Buzz) Holling first introduced the concept of resilience to ecology and the environment.  He promoted the use of systems theory and modelling, and is credited with the introduction of ecological economics, the adaptive cycle, panarchy (understanding transformations in human and natural systems) and resilience to ecology and evolution.

Over the past two decades, the term resilience has evolved from the disciplines of materials science, the ecology and environmental studies to become a concept used liberally and enthusiastically by policy makers, practitioners and academics. The UK Government has rewritten its civil contingencies law, doctrine and plans around the concept of resilience. Universities have established resilience centres, institutes, research programs and offer resilience degrees. And business schools have embraced the concept to explain why and how organisations must adapt their strategies to meet the requirements of an ever-changing business environment.

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Resilience Origins and Utility paper (PDF 93KB)

 

 

Ecological resilience

There is agreement in the literature that Crawford (Buzz) Holling first introduced the concept of resilience to ecology and the environment.  He promoted the use of systems theory and modelling, and is credited with the introduction of ecological economics, the adaptive cycle, panarchy (understanding transformations in human and natural systems) and resilience to ecology and evolution.

In his 1973 paper, Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems, Holling defined the resilience of an ecosystem as the measure of its ability to absorb changes and still exist. He compared and contrasted the concept of resilience with the notion of stability, which he defined as the ability of a system to return to its equilibrium state after a temporary disturbance; that is the more rapidly the system returns to its equilibrium, the more stable it is. He concluded that resilience and stability are two important properties of an ecological system.

Some ecologists, such as Richard Klein, argue that ecosystems are dynamic and evolve continuously in response to external influences taking place over a period of time. In a conceptual study of the resilience of the Dutch coastline, Klein points out that coastal systems are continually changing, so no original or equilibrium state exists. Moreover, the changes are not isolated events from which the coastal systems may not recover, but are ever-present and occur at different times and in different ways.

In spite of its lack of specificity, the concept of resilience is considered useful in understanding the behaviour and improving the management of ecosystems. Academic networks and organisations such as the Resilience Alliance and the Stockholm Resilience Centre aim to advance our understanding of complex social-ecological systems and generate new insights and tools to improve the management practices and long-term sustainability of ecosystems.

The Resilience Alliance (www.resalliance.org) is a global network of scientists and practitioners from a wide range of disciplines who collaborate to explore the dynamics of social-ecological systems. The Stockholm Resilience Centre (www.stockholmresilience.org) is a joint initiative between Stockholm University, the Stockholm Environment Institute, and the Beijer International Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

 

Resilience of individuals

The term resilience has been used for over two decades in assessing how well individuals cope in traumatic situations. Early work by Norman Garmezy, Michael Rutter and others focused on the resilience of children, but it has broadened to encompass the ability of adults to manage abnormal situations, particularly their involvement in war, disasters and even ‘routine’ abnormal events such as major traffic accidents.

George Bonanno defines adult resilience as “the ability of adults in otherwise normal circumstances who are exposed to an isolated and potentially highly disruptive event such as a death of a close relation or a violent life-threatening situation to maintain relatively stable, health levels of psychosocial and physical functioning …. as well as the capacity for generative (i.e. capable of reproduction) experiences and positive emotions.”

Recent studies of adult resilience following bereavement and exposure to terrorist attacks and in response to natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina have provided substantial data to assess the different categories of reaction by adults to highly disruptive events.

Some researchers suggest that resilience represents just one of a number of categories of reaction by adults following exposure to trauma or severe stress. These categories of reaction include:  resistance, resilience, recovery, relapsing/remitting, delayed dysfunction and chronic dysfunction. This categorisation of the response of individuals post-trauma is not accepted by all, indeed there is still much debate on the usefulness of the concept of resilience in such circumstances.

There are, however, two important areas of agreement in the literature regarding the resilience of individuals. The first is the issue of adaptability. Individuals who are able and willing to adapt are more likely to reduce their risk of being exposed to similar disruptive events, or at least to reduce the impact of such exposure; resilient individuals are likely to be able and willing to adapt. The second is the issue of transient dysfunction. Resilience does not preclude dysfunction or distress; indeed the absence of dysfunction or distress in an individual suggests resistance rather than resilience. It is now commonly accepted that some dysfunction or distress is a normal reaction to an abnormal event. However, dysfunction or distress is temporary, followed by a return to normal functioning.

Community resilience

Assessing the resilience of communities is a complex process as it involves the interaction of individuals, families, groups and the environment. There are many theoretical models which address this concept. Most focus on the issues which reduce the vulnerability of communities, such as information and knowledge, supportive networks, shared community values, and the community’s ability and willingness to adapt.

Vulnerability arises from the intersection of human systems, the natural environment and the built environment. The most obvious factor contributing to community vulnerability is its proximity to hazards such as coasts, floodplains, seismic zones, highly combustible forests, industrial contamination, or to explosive remnants of war such as minefields. Poorly constructed buildings, inadequately maintained public infrastructure and the density of the built environment also increase the vulnerability of communities.

Equally important is the economic health of the community, which is closely tied to commercial and industrial development. Finally, there are demographic and social characteristics of residents that make some communities more vulnerable than others. The social vulnerability of communities is borne from inequalities which affect access to resources and information, the ability to absorb the impacts of hazards and disasters without government interventions, housing choice and location, and the political marginalisation of impoverished residents.

The resilience of communities is dependent on social interaction and collective action based on networks of relationships, reciprocity, trust, and social norms. A number of researchers promote the concept of capital as a means of assessing the potential of a community to demonstrate resilience to disruptive hazards. The attraction of using a capital approach is the ability to measure the capital of a community, and hence its potential resilience to cope with future disruptive events.  For example, the elements of social capital (trust, norms and networks), economic capital (income, savings and investment) and human capital (education, health, skills, knowledge and information) can be used as indicators of community resilience.

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Understanding Community Resilience (PDF 109KB)

Organisational resilience

The concept of organisational resilience was first used to describe the need for companies to respond to a rapidly changing business environment. Gary Hamel and Liisa Välikangas showed great foresight in their paper on The Quest for Resilience published in the Harvard Business Review in September 2003 by predicting a global economic crisis later in the decade that would lead to the collapse of a number of iconic US companies. They argued that successful organisations were those who understood the dynamic nature of their business environment (competitors, technology, the availability and cost of finance, taxation, government policy, and their customers’ needs and expectations) and who were able and willing to adapt to sudden and large changes to the environment. In this regard, Hamel and Välikangas argued that successful organisations should evolve like resilient eco-systems, constantly adapting to reflect the changing external environment.

Resilient organisations should have: flexible staff and adaptable supply chains; a range of products which satisfy a range of customers; and agile organisational structures. Hamel and Välikangas and others argue that large companies which rely on legacy products and traditional customers are not resilient and will suffer most in an economic downturn. As with failing eco-systems, organisations which do not adapt will collapse, to be replaced later with new and more efficient organisations which are better suited to the new environment.

Over the past two years the concept of organisational resilience has changed its focus as organisations in the private and public sectors have redefined the extent and scope of the threats facing them. As our society becomes more complex and interdependent we are becoming more vulnerable to disruptive events from a broad range of threats and hazards. If not properly managed, a disruptive event can escalate into an emergency, crisis, or even a disaster. It can taint an organisation’s image, reputation or brand in addition to resulting in significant physical or environmental damage, injury or loss of life.

The need for resilience is particularly important for organisations providing utilities and transportation and those operating in the financial sector. The availability of essential services during and following an emergency, crisis or disaster is dependent on the ability of organisations providing utilities and transportation to survive through a disruptive event. Therefore, enhancing organisational resilience is a critical step towards creating more resilient communities.

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Organisational Resilience (PDF 344KB)

Resilience of the economy

Economists have accepted for years that national economies do not grow steadily and continuously. Instead, economic activity tends to be dynamic, with periods of relatively rapid growth followed by periods of stagnation, contraction or recession.

In 1860, French economist Clement Juglar identified the presence of economic cycles of about ten years duration. Later, Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that an economic cycle has four stages: expansion, crisis and recession, followed by recovery. In this model, recovery and prosperity are associated with increases in productivity, consumer confidence, aggregate demand, and prices.

Over the past 50 years or so, economic cycles have been more restrained and predictable than those in the 19th Century and first half of the 20th Century. Economic stabilisation using fiscal and monetary policies appeared to have dampened the worse excesses of economic cycles, although it can be argued that the downturn of 2008/09 demonstrated a lack of rigour in assessing the vulnerability of the free market. The downturn also demonstrated how the global economy is becoming ever more complex and our financial systems are becoming ever more interdependent.

Gary Hamel and Liisa Välikangas showed great foresight in their paper on The Quest for Resilience published in the Harvard Business Review in September 2003 by predicting a global economic crisis later in the decade that would lead to the collapse of a number of iconic US companies. They argued that successful organisations were those who understood the dynamic nature of their business environment and who were able and willing to adapt to sudden and large changes to the environment.

In the aftermath of the 2008/09 economic downturn, considerable interest is being shown on the resilience of the free market, and whether fiscal policies need to place greater emphasis on steady and predictable economic growth resulting in a less volatile and more resilient international economy.

National resilience

The concept of resilience is relevant at a number of levels within a state: among individuals, in families, communities and organisations, and at the national level. The UK Government has rewritten its civil contingencies law, doctrine and plans around the concept of resilience. In the US, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s mission is “…. to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards.”

In Australia there has been a convergence of national resilience and security. On 4 December 2008 in his first national security statement to Parliament, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd defined the security of Australia and its people in a broad sense to include threats to human security other than attacks from foreign states and terrorist acts.  Such non-traditional threats include attacks on critical infrastructure and information systems, transnational crime including the trafficking of people, drugs and arms, and the impact of climate change which may bring unregulated population movements, declining food production, reductions in arable land, violent weather patterns and resulting catastrophic events. 

Prime Minister Rudd stressed the country’s ”…. underlying resilience and cohesion as a nation. Just as neighbourhood watch programs promote security at a local level, so we recognise the contribution all Australians can make to promoting security at a national level …. in Australia we have a strong tradition of volunteering to support our communities, especially in times of emergency, demonstrating the innate resilience and collective responsibility we all share as Australians.”

The primary role of governments is to provide leadership, and to create an enabling national legislative and regulatory environment. In this context, concrete actions may include establishing forums for cooperation and coordination among state institutions and the non-governmental sector; developing national standards; providing information and training; and supporting research and education.

Governments should also encourage a 'culture of preparedness' by promoting a set of values, priorities, patterns of behaviour and habits that are embedded into society with the aim of preparing for national emergency situations.

Humanitarian resilience

Humanitarian resilience addresses the particular challenges from natural and human made disasters with a humanitarian impact. This impact may be sudden and overwhelming such as the 2004/05 tsunami in South East Asia. It may also be caused by disasters with a slow onset, initially less apparent and with long lasting humanitarian implications. Such disasters can involve explosive remnants of war, the uncontrolled ownership and use of small arms and light weapons, AIDS, de-forestation and global warming.

In January 2005, 168 Governments adopted a 10-year plan to make the developing world safer from natural hazards at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction, held in Kobe, Hyogo, Japan, and adopted a framework for Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters. The Hyogo Framework is a global blueprint for disaster risk reduction efforts. Its goal is to substantially reduce disaster losses by 2015 - in lives, and in the social, economic, and environmental assets of communities and countries. It offers guiding principles, priorities for action, and practical means for achieving disaster (humanitarian) resilience for vulnerable communities.

Mine action is an example of humanitarian resilience.  It is a domain within humanitarian aid and development studies concerned with activities which aim to reduce the social, economic and environmental impact of landmines and unexploded ordnance. These activities include mine risk education, demining, victim assistance, advocacy to stigmatise the use of landmines and cluster munitions, and stockpile destruction. Mine action requires management planning at global, national and local levels, and involves international, national, commercial, NGO and military stakeholders operating under a variety of conditions.

Although the ultimate goal is world free of landmines and unexploded ordnance in practice many parts of the world will remain contaminated many more years. In such areas, emphasis is placed on mine risk education which allows communities to live and work alongside mined areas. In this regard, mine action reduces the vulnerability and increases the resilience of communities in mine affected post-conflict countries.

Resilience and security

The terms security and resilience are often used together, in particular at the national level. Both share common roots and requirements: the need to assess threats and vulnerabilities; the need to develop plans and procedures; and the need to have access to accurate and timely information.

The US military’s revised Field Manual 3 07 recognises that troubled, failing and ungoverned states threaten US national security interests; it justifies the need to develop national and local capacities and to leave behind appropriate forms of governance and resilient capabilities to withstand future hardships and disruptive challenges. In the UK, the new Civil Contingencies law, doctrine and operational procedures consider the security of the UK and resilience as interdependent. The security of critical infrastructure and the use of key national resources including the military working alongside the emergency services and civil society organisations are central to building national and community resilience.

In Australia there has been a convergence of national security and resilience. On 4 December 2008 in his first national security statement to Parliament, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd defined the security of Australia and its people in a broad sense to include threats to human security other than attacks from foreign states and terrorist acts.  Such non-traditional threats include attacks on critical infrastructure and information systems, transnational crime including the trafficking of people, drugs and arms, and the impact of climate change which may bring unregulated population movements, declining food production, reductions in arable land, violent weather patterns and resulting catastrophic events.

There are advantages in bringing together national security and resilience. First, the large investment which governments are making in national security, such as hardening their country’s critical infrastructure including utilities and transport, is also making each country more resilient. Also, by bringing together resilience and national security, governments are better able to encourage a greater degree of standardisation and interoperability between first responders such as the police, fire authorities, health bodies and volunteer emergency services.

There are, however, significant areas of difference and departure between national security and resilience. The threats to national security are usually inspired by the security forces or agents of other countries, terrorists or anarchists who aim to destabilise a government and its people, and national security aims to block or defeat such threats. In contrast, resilience involves an ongoing process of assessing a broad range of risks and threats, preparing to face such threats, accepting that some threats will become disruptive events, reducing the impact of events when they occur, and then recovering afterwards.

Resilience and vulnerability

Assessing the resilience of communities is a complex process as it involves the interaction of individuals, families, groups and the environment. Many of the theoretical models which address the concept of resilience focus on the issues which reduce the vulnerability of individuals and communities

Vulnerability arises from the intersection of human systems, the natural environment and the built environment. The most obvious factor contributing to community vulnerability is its proximity to hazards such as coasts, floodplains, seismic zones, highly combustible forests, industrial contamination, or to explosive remnants of war such as minefields. Poorly constructed buildings, inadequately maintained public infrastructure and the density of the built environment also increase the vulnerability of communities.

Equally important is the economic health of the community, which is closely tied to commercial and industrial development. Finally, there are demographic and social characteristics of residents that make some communities more vulnerable than others. The social vulnerability of communities is borne from inequalities which affect access to resources and information, the ability to absorb the impacts of hazards and disasters without government interventions, housing choice and location, and the political marginalisation of impoverished residents.

Resilience and risk

Resilience is seen as the ability to accommodate abnormal threats and events, be they terrorist attacks, or perturbations from climate change, or natural disasters such as earthquakes or floods, or economic shocks. Most definitions, particularly those involving individuals, communities and organisations also refer to identifying, assessing and communicating the risk from such threats and events.

The traditional definition of risk is a measure that reflects the probability and the magnitude of an adverse effect. More recently a broader and more balanced definition has been adopted by the risk management community which recognises that individuals and organisations take risk to achieve potential benefits. People ride motorcycles, take part in dangerous sports, drink alcohol and smoke, because they feel the immediate benefits outweigh the potential harm. Similarly, many people in Australia chose to live in coastal cities and towns which are exposed to tropical cyclones, or in areas which are prone to flooding, or in villages which are vulnerable to bushfires.

Individuals, communities and organisations which are prepared and ready for an abnormal event, tend to be more resilient. Understanding the probability and the magnitude of potential threats enables society to make decisions on how best to reduce the probability and/or impact of such threats, to transfer the risk by taking out adequate insurance, or indeed to do nothing and be ready to accept the potential consequences.

Indeed, in many cases it will never be possible to completely remove the probability of a disruptive event. However society expects our leaders and those responsible for our safety and wellbeing to have processes which aim to identify, analyse and evaluate risks and through consultation agree levels of residual and tolerable risk, and to take decisions on mitigating the risks.

If risk mitigation is conducted in a formal and open manner, society is much more willing to accept the consequences of a disruptive event as people are then aware that all reasonable action was taken to reduce the probability and/or impact. In such circumstances, individuals, communities and organisations will more readily recover and return to normality. They are more resilient.

Characteristics of resilience

The concept of resilience provides a new and useful framework of analysis and understanding on how individuals, communities, organisations and ecosystems cope in a changing world facing many uncertainties and challenges. Sometimes change is gradual and things move forward in continuous and predictable ways; but sometimes change is sudden, disorganising and turbulent. The resilience approach focuses on the interaction between periods of gradual and sudden change, and provides better understanding on how society should respond to disruptive events and accommodate change. Resilience is an area of research under rapid development with major policy implications for sustainable development.

(1)  Threats and events.  Resilience is seen as the ability to accommodate abnormal threats and events, be they enemy actions, or perturbations from climate change, or natural disasters such as earthquakes or floods, or economic shocks. Most definitions, particularly those involving individuals, communities and organisations also refer to identifying, assessing and communicating the risk from such threats and events.

(2)  Positive outcomes.  All definitions of resilience refer to a positive outcome, be it the ability of a material to absorb and release energy and return to its original state, or the ability of an individual, group or organisation to continue in existence in the face of some sort of surprise, or the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or sustained life stress, or the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain essentially the same function. In some cases a positive outcome means returning to the state or condition that existed before the disturbance occurred; in other cases a positive outcome means returning to an improved state or condition.

(3)  Being prepared. Resilience involves the ability or capacity to absorb, and then recover from an abnormal event. This capacity may be built formally and deliberately by developing plans, standards and operational procedures, or by developing physical, economic and/or human capital. It may also evolve informally through the development of social capital, or it may exist naturally through the properties of the material being used. Individuals, communities, organisations and, indeed, nations which are prepared and ready for an abnormal event, tend to be more resilient.

(4)  Desire/commitment to survive. Survival is a basic human instinct, and individuals who demonstrate the strongest will to remain alive are able to accept extreme and abnormal conditions and recover from traumatic events. Similarly, groups, communities and organisations with a unity of purpose and a collective commitment to survive are more likely to succeed. This is achieved through strong leadership and by shared organisational values and beliefs.

(5)  Adaptability. We live in a world which is constantly evolving, in some cases through natural processes and in other cases through the intervention of mankind. There is common agreement in the literature that systems, organisations and people who are able and willing to adapt tend to be more resilient.

(6)  Gaining experience. The ability and willingness to learn is often linked to adaptability and being prepared. The learning may come from personal experience or by studying the lessons of others in a formal manner: by gathering and evaluating data, by conducting research in an objective, independent and balanced manner, and by communicating the findings, conclusions and recommendations.

(7)  Collective and coordinated response - interdependency. As society becomes more complex and interconnected, and the impact of global factors become more immediate and apparent, we find ourselves more vulnerable to disruptive events. In facing such interconnected threats, resilient communities and organisations and indeed nations tend to be those which are well coordinated and share common values and beliefs. But researchers such as Bill Durodie suggest that shared community values and beliefs in the modern world have been replaced by self interest and personal gain, resulting in vulnerable societies which are less able and willing to plan for, and react to, disruptive events.