2012-07-10

Co.Exist

Resilience: Lessons On How To Bounce Back From Disaster

Instead of stopping climate change, is it time to adapt to it? A new book by the director of PopTech looks at how our society can create ways to survive enormous, unanticipated disruptions of any kind, and keep going.

Imagine a car speeding toward a cliff. The brakes are gone. For the people in the car, the top priority is finding some way to stop the vehicle before it reaches the precipice. At some point, however, the car will reach a point where—even with the best braking efforts imaginable—inertia will still carry it to its doom. Once the car has crossed that point, the passengers probably shouldn’t still consider how they’re going to slow the car down. Instead, they must start thinking—and fast—about how to survive.

The anecdote of the car hurtling toward the cliff is key to understanding Resilience, a book released today by Andrew Zolli, the Director of PopTech (the book was written with the New York-based writer Anne Marie Healey.) The metaphor is fairly simple: the Earth is the car, and we’re past the point where braking will do much good. It’s time to start investing in parachutes. That’s the idea of resilience: How do you get civilization to bounce back from the major disruptions that major changes to our society are going to cause?

Lest you think these changes are simply about climate change, it’s not that simple. Rather, it’s about a globalized system that’s grown increasingly complex and fast-moving. Economic markets connect to agriculture which connects to water, and small events can set off chain reactions we can’t begin to contemplate. It’s easy to see that this is a potentially dangerous situation "The margins of error in the current system have been slowly eroded," says Zolli. "The countervailing policies, regulations, safety systems have been taken off many systems, and those systems have been connected to one another. The possibility for catastrophe, for disruption, for surprises increases dramatically. And the ability to understand the consequences of the consequences of the consequences diminishes dramatically."

Given that most of these systems can’t be put back into the bottle (and we probably wouldn’t enjoy living without many of them even if they could), the idea then becomes: How to survive when things go unimaginably wrong. Zolli says that this idea became clear through PopTech’s work with social entrepreneurs and others trying to solve the world’s intractable problems, many of which come about suddenly and unexpectedly. "One of the things that we could see happening very clearly was—and this was the observation that led directly to the book—was that organizations of very different kinds were all converging to the same core observations," he says. "That was that the sustainability framework, which was based on what you might call 'risk mitigation,' was coming to an end and that we were increasingly headed toward a world of 'risk adaptation.'"

So, what does this risk mitigation actually entail? Resilience spans a wide spectrum. On one side, you’ll find people thinking about massive systems—ecosystems, financial networks—and how they survive (or don’t survive) disasters. But resilience is also a trait built into our very human nature: Some human beings can survive incredible physical or emotional trauma; others can’t. That, too, is resilience.

Resilience itself serves as a way to link these ideas and disparate disciplines. What does a fish species that eats algae only when a reef is about to overrun with the stuff have to do with an alternate system of mutual credit in Switzerland that exists alongside regular currency but whose use drastically increases when the economy is bad? Both are examples of building counter-cyclical diversity into systems, fail safes that lie dormant until a disruptive event triggers them to stabilize everything. The examples range from the personal—how some elderly people are able to cope with the death of a loved one, or how ER doctors can cope with the trauma they see—to the systemic, like programs to reduce the murder rate in Chicago or increase the number of clean wells in Bangladesh.

People involved in these projects may not think of themselves as proponents of resilience, but Zolli hopes that the book—and PopTech’s actions around the book, beginning with a just-finished conference on the subject in Iceland—will begin to coalesce a community of resilience-minded thinkers. And it’s going to be a huge part of what PopTech focuses on going forward, through curation and incubation efforts. "This isn’t just a book or a conference theme," he says. "It’s a commitment to a set of ideas that could define the way we think about change in the decades to come."

This is important because there is no step-by-step way to build resilience into a system. "It’s not like you can say if we just do X, Y, Z, then we’ll become resilient," says Zolli. "It’s not about a checklist of things we know are problems, but about having systems that can deal with things we don’t see coming. There are risks that we don’t even know are risks."

But one key step is to empower and increase the reach of social innovators, the people finding and acting on innovative solutions to problems. It’s combinations of these various projects that often are the best solution post disruption. "You don’t see a singular institution reaching up on the shelf for its plan to deal with disaster 23B," he says. "The people who operate in those moments of destruction who are often most effective are social innovators."

This doesn’t sound so revolutionary: Make sure systems are in place that won’t get destroyed when things get screwed up. But anyone who lived through the last few years of financial gloom knows better. And, for decades, as the carbon increased in the atmosphere and climate change became a massive global problem, it was actually anathema to many climate scientists and other environmental thinkers. The idea that we would adapt to deal with the effects of pollution from coal power plants seems to let the coal burners off the hook, and that’s unacceptable for a lot of people in the environmental movement who have been fighting those polluters for years.

But the argument for resilience is that we are at the point where we have no other choice. Climate change is already disrupting our systems so much that we need to work to make sure they can bounce back: "We’re going to let all these people die so that we can hang on to our moral authority to tell the polluters that they should stop polluting instead of putting our money into making sure that the most vulnerable people in the system are protected? That’s an immoral thing to do."

It’s not, Zolli says, giving in to polluters to adapt to a polluted world (or the bankers who destroyed the financial system by adapting to a world where greedy bankers will always destroy the financial system). Instead, it means you’re going to stabilize a system before you get to work on making it so that it can withstand the next, unanticipated disaster. "You’re giving yourself additional time, like Wile E. Coyote dancing over the edge of the cliff, so that you can fundamentally transform the system."

And the systems can, and probably will, fundamentally change. Zolli likes to note that in the mid-1990s, there was a 10-year wait for a landline telephone in India. A big issue in the country was how to accelerate landline adoption. Then, suddenly, the mobile revolution happened. "It would be like saying now that we need to be more efficient in our use of baleen. The context of the world changes." Go back to the car. The brakes are gone. We’re working on parachutes. But maybe in the course of making the parachute, we discover something else. "New tools appear. We get wings, and rocket packs, and those things help us move away from the whole cliff context altogether."

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1 Comments

  • Don Cadora

    Great article, and sounds like a great book. What I'm hearing is: Create alternate systems aside from the larger system (headed off the cliff). 

    This is already happening. But it's sad that a "disruptive event" has to occur for people to bail out of the failing system. 

    But it sounds like this can diminish the psychological stress out of trying to change the world, yet feeling helpless. I guess it all starts with helping your neighbor.

    On a design and engineering level- create a working system that can scale, use it yourself, make it available to early adopters. Then wait for others to join when they have no other choice.More of a twist in philosophy than a twist of practice. Most agile startups are already on this train. Cars are lame.