What’s Our City’s Resiliency?

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton. 2008. “What’s our city’s resiliency?” Iowa City Press-Citizen. (December 4): 9A.

As a candidate for President Barack Obama displayed remarkable resiliency. When defeated in the Texas and Ohio primaries and viciously attacked for his alleged close associations with “terrorists” who “kill Americans,” he bounced back, kept learning and developing, and (hopefully) became a much better President-to-be in the process.

Are we similarly resilient? In light of the flood, multiple suicides and murders, the fallout from alleged sexual assaults, a deteriorating housing market, and a global economic meltdown, The New York Times recently characterized our university as “the gloomy setting of more trouble and tragedy lately than could fit in a single book.” Is the University of Iowa a resilient institution? Is Iowa City a resilient place?

These questions came to mind while I was participating in a symposium about enhancing resilience to catastrophic events held at Virginia Tech three weeks ago. You might be interested in some of what I learned.

As indicated by my words about Obama, resilience basically refers to the ability to bounce back from some disruptive event. But bounce back to what? To some prior equilibrium? To some new equilibrium? Or perhaps the disruption is just another turning point in a never-ending process of change wherein direction and not equilibrium is what matters? If the prior situation was poor, might it not be better to think in terms of intentional transformation rather than restoration?

What bounces back? Here it is useful to distinguish between physical and social resilience, where the first describes the response of physical infrastructure to external shocks, such as a flood or tornado, and the second describes the behavioral response of individuals, groups, organizations and institutions to external or internal shocks, such as economic trauma or multiple suicides. The first can be measured in terms of the severity of physical damage to structures and the length of time required to return the structures to normal use. And the second can be measured in terms of the severity of adverse outcomes (e.g., displacement, injury, death, and crime) and the length of time required for social systems to return to normal. The extent to which a community is resilient to shocks depends on the characteristics of its members (e.g., income, education, skills) but also on the relationships among those individuals, which in turn may be affected by, and affect, the physical environment and infrastructure.

In some cases a short-term shock can produce a self-reinforcing cycle of community trauma that leaves people with losses that go unacknowledged and with impacts that can endure over years and even generations. These traumas leave communities less resilient in the face of subsequent traumatic events. But such communities can become more resilient if their members let themselves experience a transition that includes three stages: endings (or letting go of the way things were), a neutral zone (when the old way of being is gone and people haven’t yet settled into a new way of being); and a new beginning (when people are emotionally ready to do things in a wholly new way and finally settle into a new way of being).

Consequently, it also matters what time frame one has in mind. An individual, community, organization, or place might experience a short-term shock. Or it might be undergoing a “slow burn” of gradual but ultimately catastrophic deterioration. Similarly, path dependency (decisions and actions that radically constrain subsequent actions) can create a “rigidity trap” that leads inexorably to the “predictable surprise” of catastrophe.

The adaptive cycle model adds complexity to the idea of resilience. According to it, a system goes through a four-phase process of continual adjustment. First, the system experiences a slow process of growth or innovation; second, it attains high levels and a peak of accumulation, but also develops increasing rigidity; third, it experiences a time of creative destruction, collapse, and uncertainty; and last, it enters a phase of innovation and restructuring, which is also a moment of greatest uncertainty. This phase creates the conditions for another round of innovation, growth and accumulation.

Panarchy complicates this complexity by recognizing that individual systems are nested in other systems and thus participate in a “system of systems,” each of which has its own set of rhythms and adaptive cycles. It also focuses attention on dynamics within and between systems. Consequently, this panarchy model posits that complex social-ecological systems operate at multiple geographic scales, with feedbacks operating both within and among the scales.

Thinking in terms of panarchies that contain multiple interwoven adaptive cycles requires rethinking the processes of decision-making and problem-solving. Instead of presenting us with simple or complicated problems, which can be dealt with through routine methods, panarchies force us to confront “wicked problems” that can never be solved but only temporarily re-solved.

Adaptive co-management and collaborative planning have been proposed as ways of enabling systems and panarchies to become intentionally more resilient in the face of such “wicked problems.” Both of them enable multiple, diverse sets of interests and experts (i.e., all relevant “stakeholders”) to participate in decisions and actions that affect them. The second explicitly seeks to draw upon the knowledge, skills, and insights of both experts and lay people. Most important, it ensures that the voices and local knowledge of people closest to the situation, especially those who are normally marginalized, are integrated into planning and public processes. Relationships of trust among participants must exist or be developed in order for this kind of planning to succeed.

Can we bounce back from the shocks we’ve been experiencing? I believe we can. But our deeper challenge is to bounce back in a way that will make us stronger and more resilient in the future. For this, we need imagination, deft leadership, and a collaborative spirit.

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