Peeling the Onion of Resilience Thinking


Among recent books to popularize the idea of resilience, Thomas Homer-Dixon’s The Ingenuity Gap (2000) and The Upside of Down(2006) are on my short list of favorites.

A centerpiece of Upside of Down is the story of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and its aftermath, a series of cascading shocks. Most immediately, the quake ruptured the city’s water pipes and, without water, fires raged unchecked across the peninsula.

Years later, city leaders seeking resilience to this type of water disruption established a system of independent cisterns, a modular and redundant design. Between 1912 and 1940, over a hundred cisterns were placed beneath intersections around the city (Scawthorn et al. 2006).

San Francisco’s cisterns illustrate the idea of designing for resilience: designing social and social-ecological systems that are informed by the principles of general ecosystem resilience – modularity, diversity and so on. Reference to resilience principles can inform how we think about a variety of systems, including food and energy production and distribution.

But design principles hardly tell the whole story. The development of resilience to water disruption in post-quake San Francisco included considerations of finance, governance and so on. In what sense might these considerations be designed for?

The Onion
Homer-Dixon compares his process of resilience thinking to the act of peeling an onion. He peels the onion to understand connections and convergences among long-term, far-flung social stresses. And peels again to imagine processes that might help build resilience to undesirable changes or bring about desirable ones.

I’m going to riff on this metaphor, the onion of resilience thinking. What lies at its core, and what might we understand about the act of peeling?

For the core of the onion, consider this interpretation. At the heart is knowledge: the capacity for effective action. “Knowledge,” write biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, “is operating effectively in the domain of existence of living beings” (1987:29). This definition presents a high bar: knowledge as the capacity to flourish, to foster social-ecological resilience.

To peel this onion is to seek to enable learning, the development of capacities for effective action. Peeling requires subtlety, for as Etienne Wenger writes, “Learning cannot be designed: it can only be designed for – that is, facilitated or frustrated” (1998:229).

Design itself, broadly considered, is the expression of agency in the social realm. A designer is someone who seeks to influence the rules, practices, norms, values or mental models that shape social and social-ecological interaction. “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones,” wrote Herbert Simon (1969:111).

Design for learning might be interpreted in a variety of ways. One is to develop and implement rules that guide or enforce effective action. Another is to develop or identify effective practices and seek to enable their replication. A third is to develop and implement mechanisms and processes that might enable effective rules, practices, norms, values or mental models to emerge or evolve.

Resilience, defined by scientists at the Resilience Alliance as capacities for “persistence, adaptability and transformability,” is the measure of effectiveness in this framework. Understandings of effectiveness will always be incomplete. All designs are experiments or prototypes from which to learn.

Domains of Learning
The resilience of any social community to any potential situation will, like other human values, be contested. Even among broadly held values, agreement on effective action may be lacking. Thus, an area for experimentation will be the design of mechanisms and processes for exploring personal and social values, enabling dialogue, bridging epistemological systems and so on. The domain of learning addressed by these mechanisms and processes might be called “identity.”

I’ll use an Ecotrust spatial planning project to illustrate of the notion of multiple domains of learning. In California, Ecotrust and partners assisted the state’s Marine Life Protection Act Initiative in developing computer-based mechanisms for including fishermen’s local knowledge in planning for marine protected areas. From a design-for-resilience perspective: The iterative development of computer mapping tools constitutes a technical experiment. The multi-stakeholder process constitutes a governance experiment. And the implementation of protected areas, along with subsequent biological monitoring constitutes a social-ecological (scientific) experiment. The planning process naturally touches on questions of identity as well. We might say that social learning in several domains (technology, governance, identity) enabled a process of social-ecological learning in protected area implementation and monitoring.

This post summarizes my presentation at the Resilience 2011 conference, “Design for Resilience” (abstract pdf), a framework in development, on which hang a couple of narrative sketches. Thanks to numerous friends that have joined me in D4R discussions, especially Peter+Trudy Johnson-Lenz and Greg Hill. The phrase “D4R: Design 4 Resilience” was coined by Your thoughts are most welcome.

See also:
• Brian Walker on “Resilience Thinking
• Thomas Homer-Dixon (video) on “Leveraging Catastrophe for Positive Change
• My piece on “Innovating by Analogy