Forget Sustainability. It’s About Resilience.

By Andrew Zolli

FOR decades, people who concern themselves with the world’s “wicked problems” — interconnected issues like environmental degradation, poverty, food security and climate change — have marched together under the banner of “sustainability”: the idea that with the right mix of incentives, technology substitutions and social change, humanity might finally achieve a lasting equilibrium with our planet, and with one another.

It’s an alluring and moral vision, and in a year that has brought us the single hottest month in recorded American history (July), a Midwestern drought that plunged more than half the country into a state of emergency, a heat wave across the eastern part of the country powerful enough to melt the tarmac below jetliners in Washington and the ravages of Hurricane Sandy, it would seem a pressing one, too.

Yet today, precisely because the world is so increasingly out of balance, the sustainability regime is being quietly challenged, not from without, but from within. Among a growing number of scientists, social innovators, community leaders, nongovernmental organizations, philanthropies, governments and corporations, a new dialogue is emerging around a new idea, resilience: how to help vulnerable people, organizations and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions. Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.

It’s a broad-spectrum agenda that, at one end, seeks to imbue our communities, institutions and infrastructure with greater flexibility, intelligence and responsiveness to extreme events and, at the other, centers on bolstering people’s psychological and physiological capacity to deal with high-stress circumstances.

For example, “resilience thinking” is starting to shape how urban planners in big cities think about updating antiquated infrastructure, much of which is robust in the face of normal threats like equipment failures but — as was just demonstrated in the New York region — fragile in the face of unanticipated shocks like flooding, pandemics, terrorism or energy shortages.

Combating those kinds of disruptions isn’t just about building higher walls — it’s about accommodating the waves. For extreme weather events, that means developing the kinds of infrastructure more commonly associated with the Army: temporary bridges that can be “inflated” or positioned across rivers when tunnels flood, for example, or wireless “mesh” networks and electrical microgrids that can compensate for exploding transformers.

We’ll also need to use nature itself as a form of “soft” infrastructure. Along the Gulf Coast, civic leaders have begun to take seriously the restoration of the wetlands that serve as a vital buffer against hurricanes. A future New York may be ringed with them too, as it was centuries ago.

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New Yorkers! Join our executive director Andrew Zolli, bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell (PopTech 2008), and Radiolab host Jad Abumrad (PopTech 2010) for a discussion about resilience, the emerging field of study explored in Zolli’s new book, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back at BAM on September 18th.

Strangenchanted: My city is currently dealing with terrible floods and strong rains. We’re resilient and we’ll bounce back, but that’s the thing. We experience similar disasters every few years, and it’s very likely that this will happen again. So I’m not sure that resilience and bouncing back is always a good thing. When a city or community keeps experiencing the same problem again and again, what can you recommend? Just to clarify, the level of recurrent disaster is largely due to failures of infrastructure and urban planning (which failures are abetted by entrenched corruption and bureaucracy).

Andrew Zolli: This is a great question, with a paradoxical answer. In our travels, one of the things we found is that many of the most resilient places were places that regularly experienced failures - places like the Gulf Coast and Detroit. In part that’s because the cultural memory of failure was kept alive - people had a strong understanding that disruptions could occur. (This is one of the reasons for that catastrophes are often labeled ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ - it often takes a generation for people to forget that such disruptions can occur!)

So, on the one hand, resilience is correlated with places that regularly experience disruption; on the other, like strangenchanted mentions, many residents can end up asking why we build back in places likely to experience future disruption.

I think the answer is that, building back makes sense as long as there is learning and genuine adaptation. To be glib, it’s about bouncing forward, not bouncing back. If there’s no learning, there’s no wisdom in rebuilding.

Interestingly, environmental resilience researchers often refer to something called the adaptive cycle.

In this cycle, an ecosystem progresses through four phases - a growth phase, in which resources come together, as in an old-growth-forrest; a conservation phase, in which the resources mature and get extremely efficient; a collapse phase in which things fall apart; and a reorganization phase in which the nutrient flows are reorganized so that growth can begin again.

One of the reasons that forests need to go through this cycle, often via a forest fire, is that in the conservation phase, the faster-growing non-fire-retardant trees can crowd out the slower-growing fire-resistant varieties. If there are no regular fires, the system collects too much tinder, and when a fire eventually does arrive, the system goes ‘boom’ and collapses utterly. There is an analog to this process in human societies, but only if the system ‘bounces forward’ in its reorganization…

I certainly think that we’re going to see more resilient infrastructure in the years to come. The central ‘theme’ of such infrastructure is that it will be networked (ie intelligent), ultra-lightweight, modular, and reconfigurable - these are part of the ‘pattern language’ of resilient systems. (Of course not all infrastructure fits this model - it’s hard to move subway tunnels once you’ve dug them) but I think we’re going to see more dynamic infrastructure.

Great questions being asked over on Reddit right now

Andrew Zolli, co-author with Ann Marie Healy of Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, celebrated the release of the book at La Piscine, the rooftop bar of the Hotel Americano in New York. At the end of his speech, in the sweltering New York evening, he dived into the pool while still wearing his suit.

Have questions about resilience or PopTech? Our Executive Director Andrew Zolli is conducting a Reddit ‘IAMA’ interview about resilience, social innovation and his new book, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back - come stop by!

Heads up! Next Wednesday at 10am, PopTech’s Executive Director, Andrew Zolli, will be conducting a Reddit IAmA on his new book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back. 

Heads up! Next Wednesday at 10am, PopTech’s Executive Director, Andrew Zolli, will be conducting a Reddit IAmA on his new book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back

Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, a new book by PopTech Executive Director Andrew Zolli, is available today!

After three years of work, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, which PopTech Executive Director and Curator Andrew Zolli co-authored with Ann Marie Healy, was published today by Free Press. The book explores a new framework for understanding change: resilience — why some systems, people, organizations and ecosystems are able to persist, and even thrive, amidst disruption. Zolli elaborates:

We live in this world that has been dominated by shocks and surprises….How do we deal with that kind of world? That question has driven a new conversation about resilience. It’s a conversation about how to build organizations and communities and nations and indviduals that can maintain their core purpose with integrity under the widest variety of circumstances and can deal with disruption no matter what it looks like.

For a visual explanation of a few themes covered inResilience, have a look at the book’s trailer.

To learn more, check out the book’s site or this great review by Morgan Clendaniel on Fast Co.Exist.