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Fukushima Daiichi power plant and water tanks, image Kyodo/Reuters, August 20, 2013
In the lead up to the start of the academic semester we’ve had resiliency on our minds. It’s a concept that seems to be increasing in cultural resonance. Andrew Zolli, researcher of resilience, and curator and executive director of PopTech, recently wrote on his blog that usage of the word “resilience” has more than doubled since 1990. He also shares a link to Google’s Ngrams Viewer, which visualizes (in graph form) word frequency of books scanned by Google. The data gets interesting when one cross lists several terms, such as economic resilience, psychological resilience, ecological resilience, community resilience and social resilience. As a whole, contemporary humans certainly seem to be talking and writing more about resilience. Whether we are actually becoming more resilient as a species is an open question.
After listening to Zolli’s interview with Krista Tippett from early May, “A Shift to Humility: Resiliency and Expanding the Edge of Change” we’re convinced that resilience, inclusive of so much complexity across social, environmental, technological and infrastructural realities, is perhaps one of the most useful concepts for engaging the challenges of our contemporary moment. Zolli explains we are now living through, rather than waiting for, the effects of decades—if not centuries—of our own inaction.
In the interview, Zolli lays out a “design brief for the 21st century.” It includes thriving in the face of change, systems that sense emerging disruptions, systems that encourage cooperation, and the creation of systems that fail “gracefully.” Failing gracefully means that when one component of the system fails, it doesn’t bring down the entire system. For Zolli, resilience isn’t just an infrastructural affordance for navigating hurricanes and other natural disasters without suffering economic or infrastructural collapse. Resilience is also a human—and humane—concept that we must cultivate within ourselves as part of any resilient system that includes the built/cultural context in which we live. This can be an immense challenge, because we’re always engaged in an entanglement of systems that unfold at various speeds of effect and change which don’t necessarily happen at scales easily sensed by humans.
Still, as disruptions in our systems become more and more the norm, we don’t have to be destroyed emotionally, socially, or even materially. This claim puts a twist in current narratives about the challenges our species face, especially climate change. Zolli explains that if we aim to become a resilient species, individuals need solid, social networks (of the analog kind) and a set of “hearty” mental habits. He emphasizes that the social support systems need to be in place and nurtured before we need them. If you wait until disaster strikes, it’s probably too late. To believe that you are a resilient human, Zolli says, life has to feel meaningful and we have to believe we have agency. What would it take for each of us to feel resilient in the face of the next Hurricane Sandy? Or, more generally, to feel life as having deep meaning, even as we come to accept that resources aren’t infinite and disruptive, perhaps uncomfortable changes are going to keep coming? How can we feel enlivened by inhabiting this “expanding edge of change” and live it as a space of creative possibility? There isn’t a clear path or “checklist” on “how to” live in relation to these changes. In many cases, we will need to invent whatever amounts to the most resilient responses in the moment, and then navigate on as best we can. This work is vital creative work that requires individuals to spend time considering.
This fall, one half of FOP (Jamie Kruse) is teaching a first-year foundation course at Parsons, The New School for Design, called Sustainable Systems. The course is part of a new curriculum being rolled out this year, and it is included in The New School’s C6 project (Coalition to Confront Climate Change Challenges in Cities). The inclusion of the concept of resilience in the course description is encouraging, as is the overall brief:
This course is a required first-year course that provides a foundational understanding of the scientific and social issues related to the design of resilient urban futures. An understanding of the constraints, challenges, and opportunities presented by the need to design products, systems, and services that are more socially, environmentally, and economically resilient is at the core of a Parsons education. This course is where that work begins … By combining sequenced field trips and lectures to locations around New York City to prompt discussions and context-based learning related to sustainability, ecology, and systems with studio-based labs where fieldwork and applied scientific methods will be translated into informed art and design work, we will begin to build a creative agency that supports diversity, adaptability, and resilience in the face of ever-changing conditions.
It’s exciting to be engaged in a course with so much potential. I (Jamie) have spent some time developing my own definition of resilience, which has become a bit of a manifesto, and offered this to students for discussion on the first day:
Resiliency is the capacity to be flexible and adaptable in relation to complex events. Rather than striving to “recover” (return to what was) or “endure rigidly,” we instead aim to navigate change responsively. We make intentions and take actions that are made to lessen long-term impacts in the present, while attempting to keep future actions open to reconsideration and augmentation.
For example, we ask questions such as: Given this particular challenge or event of change, what response is appropriate to this moment, this place, this configuration of forces and materials? How might we best ensure that our processes and practices invite flexibility of response into the far future?
Zolli’s interview offers clear explanation of why it’s time to trade in words such as “sustainability” for the concept of resiliency. Unlike the concept of sustainability, resiliency doesn’t imply that we are aiming for balance, because balance is impossible. Nor are we working to develop solutions-based strategies. Sustainability’s aim for “balance” distracts from the magnitude of change at hand, where all actions have effects and consequences that often far exceed our capacities to grasp or control.
A big part of resiliency happens to be humility. Instead of being interpreted as “giving up” or “giving in,” humility means we get to embrace the reality of living in a complex system that truly always has been, and will be, beyond us. It also means we accept the inevitability that systems, many of which we have designed, fail. We actually suggest a break here from Zolli’s language. Rather than talking of system “failure,” we’d suggest speaking of system “change.” Stasis is what fails. Change is inevitable and the fact that it comes does not mean a failure has taken place.
So, what if we accept that humans aren’t necessarily masters of our technologies—or the planet? What might we invent from here? Might we begin to wager less on stability? We can’t help but wonder what different scenarios we might be seeing around the Fukushima event in Japan if such a stance became a part of our deep cultural background assumptions. At Fukushima, for over two years, a technological design has been failing in way that is far from graceful. Its reliance on a single component—electricity—continues to ramify catastrophe. Here, each hour spawns millennia of planetary effect. In this way, the event is an ongoing reality check regarding so many current practices and technologies in need of resilience.
concrete reservoir at Fukushima Daiichi, image Tokyo Electric Power Company
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