“Fractal Resilience” De-mystifying resilience for NGOs:
It is personal and should remain so.
Written by Anna B. Sabhaney
There is an abundance of jargon and terminologies coming up all the time in the cities, development and NGO civil societies sectors. It is as if when there is something we can't quite understand, we give it a name, sometimes hide behind it and progress to being reassured that it is now a “known thing”. Today I am adding “fractal resilience” to my glossary of jargons, to help describe a fundamental challenge with achieving resilience.
The problem with new terminologies is that everyone often has a different interpretation of what that name or term means. And the same applies to Resilience.
I believe that differences in how we each perceive value are at the heart of discrepancies in definitions of resilience. Resilience is personal because our perception of value is. There is an inherent risk that comes with brushing over these differences in perception: if we don’t engage and understand our different definitions of value and resilience, we will not be able to work together to achieve neither our common nor our individual goals, because we will not understand how they relate.
Instead of aspirating to an overarching definition of resilience, we should instead be working towards exploring “fractal resilience” where individual, collective, organisational pursuits of resilience co-exist to achieve a larger broader concept of system resilience.
Resilience is about cause, intervention, timelag and effect, so why is it still difficult to get all actors to see eye to eye on what it means to them? Recently I co-chaired the first Global Alliance for Urban Crises discussion on resilience in Kampala with KCCA as a representative of The Happold Foundation. These stimulating discussions among civil society, local governments, INGOs, NGOs and academic organisations highlighted how different organisations working at different scales have very different perspectives on what resilience means and this inspired me to share my reflections here.
So, what is resilience and how different really is to the Sustainable Development Goals?
There are plenty of definitions available. UN HABITAT talks about "The measurable ability of any urban system, with its inhabitants, to maintain continuity through all shocks and stresses, while positively adapting and transforming toward sustainability." 100 Resilient Cities talks instead about “the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.”
Resilience is not a separate concept to risk management or sustainability. These frameworks are all doing the same thing in that they are trying to help us identify our goals, our challenges and how we plan, coordinate and strategize actions to get the best possible chances of achieving the outcomes we want today and tomorrow.
Resilience is simply a way of talking about sustainable goals that focuses on time and continuous improvement. There is a before and after and the concept of lag and doing better next time. Like risk management it is about recognising uncertainty and change in all the key factors and processes we are trying to affect and using analysis and scenario testing to inform our decisions and actions.
What is common to all definitions of resilience is that there is a part that describes the cause (or problems resilience relates to) and a component that describes the consequence and the characteristics of the aftermath of the problem and to what extent we are satisfied with them.
The problem side of the equation is often described in terms of what causes the need for resilience in the first place through terms like "shocks and stresses". We focus on duration and experience and try to group issues in terms of How long the problem is experienced for? And how intense is it, how bearable disruptive is it? Unfortunately, reality and complex interrelated issues do not fit our tidy classifications, and sometimes these definitions may also be difficult to apply. For example, if a city which has low infrastructure coverage and poor foul water treatment services to start with, is then hit by a sudden migration causing immediate water shortages that last and worsen over a decade – you can see how it might be difficult to distinguish which issues are shocks and which ones are stresses. Simplistically however, they are just all different types of problems.
The second part of defining resilience is about qualifying the action and ability to still fulfill our needs and day to day activities in the aftermath of a problem occurring. This is about how interventions, decisions, strategies, preparation (or lack thereof) shapes the effect that these problems have when they do materialise. Effect is quantified in terms of the mechanism of failure, scale, number of people affected, type of experiences people face, people’s ability to continue or return back to their activities and satisfy their needs, and how quickly the status quo is returned to or surpassed.
So, in summary: Causes(shocks and stresses and general cities problems)+ Decision ability and intervention(what you have done about the problem)lead to the effect (what happens when the problem materialises in the short and long term)and resilience is a narrative of how this whole process unfolds.
Then why does it mean such different things for different organisations? 100RC’s definition recognise that resilience exists at different scales, but to what extent to do we truly understand how different these perspectives might be?
• To local government resilience could be simply about maintaining a functional city and planning for the continued provision of services for its citizens throughout a variety of climate, environmental, political and social conditions.
• For engineers and designers it is a question of reducing and managing the risk of different possible failures and, if allowed, designing for safe failure to control and reduce the scope and extent of negative impacts.
• For a donor or grant making organisation resilience might be about the timescales and duration of the impact their investments achieve and whether the programmes they invest in are able continue to provide benefits over the longer term.
• And finally, for the civil society sector resilience is more about organisational strategy and mechanisms for prioritising interventions or ensuring they can continue to serve their beneficiaries and meet their goals despite fluctuations in resources, demand and funding. For example, an NGO might experience a rapid change in the number of people coming to their centres and will need to make difficult decisions about how to run their organisations, who they help first and how they conduct their work, so that their work creates lasting value for their beneficiaries and can continue in the longer term.
Resilience is personal, because it is bound by our goals: what we value, what we care for, what we need the most, our priorities and the changes we are trying to achieve for our target groups and customers.
Our needs and goals, determine what obstacles, risks and changes we are most vulnerable to and threatened by and frame what it means for us to be resilient. What we individually, organisationally and collectively as citizens need to do to achieve resilience, follows directly from the specific threats that put at risk what we hold most dear.
Resilience should and will continue to mean different things for different organisations, and we should not try to standardise it too much.
The risk of standardizing resilience or being frozen at one scale of analysis (such as the city scale) is not only that we don’t understand what other organisations are doing, but that we miss out on harnessing the resources of a pool of actors that would otherwise be critical partners if they only understood what role they could play and how they could fit in. Only talking about resilience at one scale, makes it very difficult for organisations working at a larger regional or national scale, or sub-city and grassroots scale to transpose those frameworks to their work and engage.
Instead of standardising resilience we should focus our efforts on:
1. Pioneering new approaches for understanding community and individual resilience - Some of these more granular, local, human aspects of resilience are not always appropriately or sufficiently understood. There is a need for wider adoption of community led discussions to help people, explore, own and exchange views on what they see as resilient in their systems and cultures. This will build ownership and awareness of issues and will also help transitory actors tie into and complement, instead of replicate existing systems.
2. Resilient networks and dialogues which span grassroots, community, sub-city, city, regional and national actors – Spaces where people can ask - what does resilience mean for you? What aspirations, needs do you prioritise and hold most dear? Platforms where individual and overarching resilience goals can be shared, contrasted, compared and most importantly interlinked alongside clear responsibilities and information sharing mechanisms.
3. Organisational resilience - As they say on planes – “put your own mask on first before helping others”. After all, there is no point designing resilient systems, if the organisations we rely on to operate, maintain and use those systems are not resilient and cannot continue their work throughout the resilience planning, risk management, emergency response and recovery cycle. Organisational resilience is about making sure that the support, value created and services provided to target groups will continue to be provided independently of changes in staff, budgets, organisational frameworks etc.
So are these different definitions of resilience a problem? Only if we don’t speak the same language and fail to consider resilience at all scales.
Resilience is the art of overcoming and navigating threats and fulfilling our needs and aspirations, in spite of change and adversity. It is inevitably personal and must remain so, but for it to exist at one scale it must exist at all scales in the system. Therefore, it is critical that we not forget the personal, human and organisational aspects of resilience and work hard to make sure that all these different experiences of resilience are explored and captured in multi-stakeholder discussions. Only then we will have truly achieved “fractal resilience”.