No resilience without transformation

May 6, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Four years ago, on May 3rd 2009, Paul Hawken came to Portland, Oregon, to deliver a “direct, naked, taut, honest, passionate, lean, shivering, startling, and graceful” commencement address at the University of Portland (pdf).

“Civilization needs a new operating system,” he said, “you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.”

Hawken’s metaphor of transformation — along with its ascription of agency, charge of responsibility, and invitation to opportunity — fit perfectly the tone I sought for the Ecotrust publication “Resilience & Transformation: A Regional Approach,” and we used it as a pull-quote with the introduction (pdf or magazine).

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As the metaphor implies, current operating systems — the institutions of social, political, and economic relations — leave the peoples of the world vulnerable to deep-rooted social and ecological stresses. There can be no resilience without transformation.

I sometimes think of the resilience-transformation relationship as binary, like man-woman or black-white: the existence of each dependent on the other. No resilience without transformation.

And I sometimes picture resilience and transformation interacting across time, in an unfolding resilience-cum-transformation narrative. System resilience following system transformation.

For programmers or designers, these interactions are visualized in a figure redrawn below, from a paper by Frances Westley and 12 coauthors (“Tipping toward sustainability: emerging pathways of transformation”).

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In this figure the programmers or designers are labeled institutional entrepreneurs, and the new operating system is described as an innovation regime. But the patterns of change are similar.

Consider our usual practices as part of a regime: our gardening, eating, and such as part of a food regime; our needs for mechanized mobility as part of a transportation regime; and so on. These regimes are defined by the worldviews, the rules and norms, the business models, the infrastructures and technologies that support ways of existing and interacting — while shaping and being shaped by ecological interdependencies.

In this view, a new operating system is more like a network of operating systems (i.e., regimes), each fulfilling a particular need and each, potentially, operating closer to home. The basic three-step of resilience-for-transformation design becomes: nurture regimes that better support wellbeing, undermine maladaptive regimes, and help to bridge one regime to the next.

Does this conceptual framework fit or inform your own practices?

Howard Silverman

I work with the tools of systems, scenarios, resilience, and design thinking and practice. For many years, I was senior writer and analyst at Portland, Oregon-based Ecotrust, where my projects included SectionZ, Salmon Nation, Vivid Picture, Resilience and Transformation, and People and Place. I led the development of publications large and small, for dozens of partners and clients, in a wide range of media. And I thought about social change, with “environmental outcomes” and “ecosystem services” as ultimate metrics of success. Along the way, I gained experience in food systems, fisheries and forestry, climate and energy, green building, and restorative finance. I learned about approaches to spatial planning, market design, event design, life cycle assessment, online-offline engagement, and developmental evaluation. I began to see this work as a practice of boundary bridging, institutional entrepreneurship, and community support. Increasingly, I developed a systemic view. Now I teach systems thinking in the Collaborative Design MFA program at Pacific Northwest College of Art.

Tags: resilience, systems thinking, transforming systems