What is Resilience?

The topic of resilience is something I’ve wanted to write about for a while.  This morning it struck me that today was the day.  I was spurred to it today by the LLIS page on the Community Resilience Core Capability.  I have a few references that I organized then opened up WordPress to starting writing… only to find that earlier today Claire Rubin beat me to it!  Claire Rubin, the ‘Recovery Diva’ is a well respected researcher, consultant, and educator in the field of emergency management.  She’s been in this business for quite a while and like me, likes to share resources and her thoughts on various topics in emergency management.  She also runs a blog on WordPress.  Follow her blog… it’s well worth it!  In her posting on Resilience today she really just provided a link to a document for us to chew on for a bit.  The document, a topical paper on Resilience, was published by the GSDRC, a partnership of research institutes in the UK.  This is a must read for emergency management folks.

So why write on the topic of Resilience in the first place?  There are many, myself included, who often wonder exactly what it is.  I think most of know intuitively, but it feels like it’s not a tangible thing that we can put a finger on.  Are Resilience and mitigation one in the same?  I would say no.  Resilience includes but transcends mitigation.  Community Resilience is a core capability within the mitigation mission area of the National Preparedness Goal’s Core Capabilities, but only because it’s the best place to put it, in my opinion.  A Resiliency strategy should address capabilities across all mission areas.

What is Resilience?  The Core Capabilities give a very brief description:

“Lead the integrated effort to recognize, understand, communicate, plan, and address risks so that the community can develop a set of      actions to accomplish Mitigation and improve resilience.”  Didn’t we learn in grade school to not use the word we are defining in the definition?

The GSDRC document has a much more comprehensive definition:

“Disaster resilience is the ability of individuals, communities, organizations, and states to adapt to and recovery from hazards, shocks, or stresses without compromising long-term prospects for development.”

The GSDRC references another definition, perhaps the one I like best, originating from the Hyogo Framework for Action (a UNISDR document) as follows:

“Disaster resilience is determined by the degree to which individuals, communities, and public and private organizations are capable of organizing themselves to learn from past disasters and reduce their risks to future ones, at international, regional, national, and local levels.”

The concept of learning from past disasters – either your own or those experienced by someone else – seems to me to be a critical component to Resilience.  Without experiencing the impacts of disasters, or at least learning from others about them, we don’t know what to prepare for.  Preparedness is another key component of Resiliency.  We have to create plans, train our community, and exercise those plans to become more Resilient.  Mitigation is certainly an important aspect of Resiliency – we must engineer risk reducing measures to become more Resilient.

I was fortunate to attend the 2013 IAEM conference in Reno and sit through a presentation from Dr. Dennis Mileti one day following lunch.  He spoke largely on Resiliency, first mentioning community focuses necessary for reducing loss including land use management, building codes, public education, warning systems, insurance, and preparedness efforts.  He also spoke on the barriers we face in Resilience which include a lack of understanding of risk, poor community prioritization, and poor leadership and management in these efforts.  It’s interesting that the barriers are all largely ‘people problems’.

In the pursuit of my Master’s degree, my class had a considerable dialogue on climate change.  For the last few decades we have fought climate change through various mitigation efforts.  While these efforts have largely made our planet a better place to live, climate change – due to both human impacts as well as the natural progression of global climates – is happening.  We can’t stop it, so we need to adapt to what is coming.  This adaptation is Resiliency – part mitigation, part preparedness.  It’s even in how we recover – remembering that recovery is not just rebuilding, it’s a series of conscious decisions in how we rebuild.  (FYI the Diva posted some references on communities relocating after a disaster instead of rebuilding where they were).

In New York State, there is a current initiative called New York Rising.  You will see from the information on their site that they are piloting this in five counties who were impacted by severe storms in 2013, including counties in my area.  They are using disaster recovery as a starting point and worked toward a strategic plan to make communities more resilient.  It seems pretty simple, but it’s a good starting point.  Community engagement and buy-in is an important aspect of Resiliency.

The concept of Resiliency still seems rather amorphic, but it is certainly the culmination of many deliberate activities.  Like any activity, we need to be able to measure it and gauge where we are in our own progress (and of course funders will want to know this as well).  The GSDRC document (page 20) briefly outlines proposed metrics/indicators of resilience.  The ones they outline are largely subjective and open to individual interpretation, so some schema for assigning a value to each would need to be developed (and perhaps already has) to really allow us to analyze Resiliency performance.

Resiliency has become a new buzz word in emergency management.  I hope it’s one that is here to stay.  The longer it is here, the better definition we will be able to assign it and the better we will be able to measure it.  As Peter Drucker said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”  Once we are better able to measure it (and its many components and influencing factors) the better able we will be to work toward increasing our Resiliency.

What thoughts do you have on Resiliency?

© 2014 Timothy Riecker


4 thoughts on “What is Resilience?

  1. I respectfully apologize but I am still not convinced ‘Resilience’ is the correct word to be used in the full context of emergency management.

    I admit I am somewhat old fashioned in some concepts. One of which is using the right word for the right application or concept. English is such a beautifully precise and scale-able language.

    By that I mean one should employ a word for its actual meaning: not your intended meaning or because it needs to be associated with some contemporary Buzz.

    Of course, this is all subject to me being proved wrong. When that happens, I will gracefully accept it (albeit begrudgingly).

    As I mentioned to a resilience affectionate (a young and very keen entrant to the emergency management fraternity) just the other day, the word ‘resilience’ is an ability to resume an original shape or bounce back. Well, that’s what it says in the vast majority of dictionaries I have looked at including the Oxford.

    I submit, this tends to indicate one is willing to take the ‘hit’: to be able to spring back, resume form or recover from an impact (the latter is most relevant). All well and good. Excellent concept (nothing new here).

    Therefore, my interpretation is it has more to do with elasticity than resistance.

    My issue with the word is it has great potential to steer directly towards Preparation, Response and Recovery, which leaves Prevention on its own or possibly forgotten.

    In terms of some disaster events, Prevention has always been a hard ask. Yes! There are many events for which there can be no viable preventative measure.

    But, that doesn’t mean it (Prevention) should be consigned to oblivion or, at best, left behind. Nor should it veiled through obscurantism.

    One should ask oneself “Is resilience really the correct word to indicate (replace) all the concepts advocated in Emergency Management?”

    1. Hello Danny! I don’t disagree with you at all – in fact that’s why I posed the question in my blog. I think we all have slightly different concepts in our head of what it is or should be. I agree that the Prevention mission area activities may often be overlooked in resiliency efforts and measures. After all, we are usually better off having not suffered the effects of a disaster in the first place.

      It seems that over the last year or two resiliency is mentioned everywhere – quite a bit of contemporary buzz! As you asked – what’s in a name? I’ve seen some very divergent discussions and articles on the topic leaving me with a clouded vision of what resiliency truly is. I don’t believe it’s intended to be the catch-all it has become. Hopefully over time we’ll see the definition become more refined, or as you suggest, perhaps it’s not even the correct word for what we intend.

      By the way, I’m thrilled to have a reader from NSW! I’ve not visited in about 12 years and must return soon – it’s a beautiful area with wonderful people!

  2. PS. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. All good; unless you use another word intended to describe another flower that has a different smell. Then it gets confusing.

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