Resilience, impact, and learning

April 24, 2014

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Katrina Brown is a Professor of Social Sciences based at the Environment and Sustainability Institute at Exeter University. The three key themes her research centres on are Resilience, Vulnerability and Development, Dynamics of Change in Coastal Social Ecological-Systems and People, Poverty and Carbon.  As someone who has published papers about community resilience, I was interested, in the context of this month’s theme, in her thoughts on impact, resilience, and how we might measure it.   

So, Kate,you’re in a lift and you’ve got three floors to explain what resilience is.  What’s your resilience ‘elevator pitch’?

Image RemovedResilience is about the capacity of a system to be able to respond to change. That might be an ecological system, it might be a social ecological system. The way in which I understand resilience is applied to a social ecological system, so to an integrated system. Resilience covers not only the ability to be able to persist and to bounce back after even extreme events or sudden shocks, but it’s also the ability to learn from and respond and bounce back better, to positively develop in response to a whole range of different changes, some of which might be slow onset changes, background drivers, large-scale drivers, but within the context of a range of different changes.

You note in a recent paper that there is a sharp increase in interest in resilience among social scientists. Why is that? What does resilience add to previous debates do you think?

I think that resilience is helpful because it enables us to look more holistically at systems, integrated social ecological systems, and it enables us to consider the impacts of a range of different types of changes, and to consider those in conditions where the future is highly uncertain. It’s part of this consciousness of living in uncertain and risky times, and I think that resilience is a very helpful concept for understanding change and our societal and environmental responses to change within that context.

Does resilience deepen or undermine the concept of sustainable development?

It can probably do either. For me, I find resilience a very useful concept in thinking about sustainability. It contributes towards my reflections and understanding of sustainability because I think that it puts change within this broader context of thinking about sustainable development, about progress or whatever. It’s a really helpful underpinning concept that can contribute towards an understanding of sustainability.

You write in one of the papers that you sent that “resilience centralises climate change as the defining feature of local government and governance.” But are we also seeing resilience, do you think, being used increasingly as a tool by climate sceptics? After the floods the term resilience seems increasingly being used as a way to reinforce business as usual rather than to question it.

Certainly that’s a finding from my own research as well. I think resilience as a concept can be used and applied in many different ways. We saw similar things with sustainable development. There is this aspect of resilience which is used in a very conservative way. It’s used or interpreted as means of staying the same, of resisting change.  There is that aspect to resilience which is about actually resisting change. There is this very different tension to resisting ideas around resilience which for me, as an academic, make it all the more interesting.

But it means that as a concept it is very widely adopted and applied in a whole range of different settings and by a whole range of different people from social movements like the Transition movement to state agencies when we’re talking to responses to flooding and building resilience. So yes, resilience is used in many different contexts and in many different ways by lots of different people.

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This month we’re looking at impact and measurement for Transition. You wrote that “there has been a shift away from the notion that the central concepts of adaptive capacity, resilience and wellbeing can be objectively measured by a set of quantifiable indicators to a much more nuanced view that understands them as comprising subjective relational as well as objective aspects.” What do you mean by that and what are your thoughts on how Transition initiatives can measure whether their work is or isn’t making their community more resilient?

There’s always a tendency to try and reduce these concepts like vulnerability, adaptive capacity and resilience to a set of straightforward objective measurable indicators. But actually a lot of the literature and a lot of the research shows that there’s a whole set of subjective dimensions to resilience or vulnerability. So actually how a person feels about their own capacity and their own abilities, their own efficacy, which are hugely important in determining how they might be able to respond, and that also translates to a community scale as well and to a collective scale. We always should be looking across the objective and the subjective aspects in trying to assess how resilient a community or how resilient a society or a system might be.

I suppose some things like Transition would be coming at resilience from a mitigation perspective, seeing resilience as a tool for mitigation whereas it’s all too increasingly seen as an adaptation tool. How do you see that balance between mitigation and adaptation in terms of climate and resilience?

Both are extremely important and I think that resilience applies just as well to thinking about how we build capacity to adapt as to how we build capacity to mitigate. The way that we think of resilience as a concept applies to both. If we start looking at resilience as a much more proactive capacity, to be able to self organise, to learn and to actually develop in a more sustainable way then it becomes a really key concept in thinking about mitigation.

I wonder from your perspective, as somebody who studies the field of community resilience, what’s your sense of the impact that Transition and the way that it interprets and works with the idea of resilience has had over the last 7 or 8 years?

I can’t talk that specifically about the Transition movement as it’s not my area of expertise, but from what I know about the Transition movement, in terms of some of these core capacities that you might think of as having been developed, around the capacity to self-organise, around building social capital in different ways, this idea about doing stuff together which builds a whole set of capacities at a community scale, I think those are really important.

How that then feeds into building competencies around community action, around building these sort of reflexive and problem solving skills that might happen as a result of doing stuff together. And then I suppose building a set of capacities which are about co-creating collectively a vision of the future and setting that within a context of a political strategy would be the things that I would have thought would be really important and the kinds of areas where you could identify impact within the Transition movement.

You’ve written about how mainstream resilience thinking often places the emphasis on individual responsibility for coping, that actually the lack of resilience is somehow your inability to cope and seeing it in the context of how we contribute to economic success rather than social wellbeing. You talk about shifting the emphasis from positive adaptation despite adversity to positive adaptation to adversity. What’s your sense of that in terms of the social justice aspects and inclusion aspects around resilience?

This is an area that’s really starting to come to the fore in debates around resilience. It’s an area which, from the academic and scientific perspective is only just starting to be integrated and there’s a lot of debate around how do we understand the dynamics within resilience, for example.

When we start looking beyond these individual capacities and thinking about resilience as something that is vested, a characteristic of an individual to actually this much more dynamic view of collective and community resilience, then all of these issues to do with whose resilience, whose voice, who defines resilience, who defines these visions for the future become incredibly important. Then of course we come back to real core social science ideas, as you say around social justice, around inclusion, participation and so on.

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My own background is in international development and I think there’s really important research and track record of findings from international development which has looked at these issues which we have to now start integrating into our understanding of resilience. It’s an under-researched area but of course it’s an area of paramount importance.

In one of your papers you ask the question “how much adversity should resilient individuals endure before social arrangements rather than individuals are targeted for intervention?” What are your thoughts on that?

There are two aspects to that. The first is an issue that you alluded to in an earlier question, which is this idea that resilience can be used in this very conservative sense and in a way it can be used to say – well individuals are very resilient, and it can be seen as part of the retreat of the state and responsibility for supporting individuals and communities after particular events. There’s that sort of danger and there’s quite a lot of writing in the community psychology literature which talks about the dangers that are inherent in resilience thinking in that respect.

But secondly, there’s again this tension between how we understand the role of structural elements in supporting resilience, either in individuals or communities compared to the individual’s characteristics. It’s that debate about structure in agency really which is part of an ongoing discussion within the social sciences which is how can resilience be supported and enhanced through external infrastructure, external interventions, compared to how much is it built through individuals’ capacities. So I think that there’s an important tension and discussion around that. How much is resilience the responsibility of governments or other agencies, compared to how much does it have to come from within communities and individuals?

You mentioned earlier on about how one of the aspects of resilience is about learning and the ability to learn and reflect in that way. What’s your sense of, as somebody who works in higher education, of what our education system designed to produce people with the best skills for resilience would look like? Does it look like it looks like today or what would our education system look like if it produced individuals and professionals who were a resilient and grounded in resilience as they could be?

That’s a hugely challenging question. One of the key issues for me as somebody who works in the university system is how we get our students engaged with the real world and engaged with the communities within which they live and the communities within which our universities exist. It’s something that our institute in Cornwall, the Environment and Sustainability Institute is trying really hard to do, is to form much more meaningful partnerships in a whole range of stakeholders in the community in which we exist, so that our research can actually speak more directly to the needs of stakeholders.

Our students can work alongside and in partnership with our stakeholders within the community. I think that’s extremely important.  It’s important in terms of how our research can actually address real-life issues, it’s important in terms of how we understand ourselves not only as educators but as citizens and I think that it’s also incredibly important for enhancing the experience that our students get out of their studies.

The important thing for me is to think about resilience as this multi-dimensional concept which is used by many different people which has opportunities within it, and which can be used, as the Transition movement is using it, in this radical and very dynamic sense as opposed to the conservative, the staying the same, the persisting sense in which it’s very often applied more popularly. 

Rob Hopkins

Rob Hopkins is a cofounder of Transition Town Totnes and Transition Network, and the author of The Transition Handbook, The Transition Companion, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, 21 Stories of Transition and most recently, From What Is to What If: unleashing the power of imagination to create the future we want. He presents the podcast series ‘From What If to What Next‘ which invites listeners to send in their “what if” questions and then explores how to make them a reality.  In 2012, he was voted one of the Independent’s top 100 environmentalists and was on Nesta and the Observer’s list of Britain’s 50 New Radicals. Hopkins has also appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought and A Good Read, in the French film phenomenon Demain and its sequel Apres Demain, and has spoken at TEDGlobal and three TEDx events. An Ashoka Fellow, Hopkins also holds a doctorate degree from the University of Plymouth and has received two honorary doctorates from the University of the West of England and the University of Namur. He is a keen gardener, a founder of New Lion Brewery in Totnes, and a director of Totnes Community Development Society, the group behind Atmos Totnes, an ambitious, community-led development project. He blogs at and and tweets at @robintransition.

Tags: impact, policy, resilience, Transition movement