Resilience – What Is It, Anyway?

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One of the blessings – and curses – of working in resilience is that you have to attend a lot of meetings – a LOT of meetings. Too often, you’ll think you’re making real progress on dealing with an issue when the meeting will get sidetracked (or highjacked) when someone blurts out, “Well, what is resilience, anyway?”

If there are academics in the room, almost invariably each of them will trot out their favorite definition, and then intellectual chaos ensues as each defends theirs and points out the flaws in everyone else’s definitions. The result? The meeting’s derailed, you’re frustrated, and another opportunity to deal with our real problems missed.

The situation is even worse for those who read the literature. There are literally hundreds of different definitions that have been proposed by researchers. Pity the poor practitioner who tries to scale this Tower of Babel, or the student who ventures into this intellectual quagmire. Some see resilience as a somewhat passive property – adaptation to change. Others see it as an active acceptance of the inevitability of change resulting in action to anticipate the changes that may occur.

The definitions people propose are often also dependent on the domain. Human resilience, for example, is seen by many psychologists as a pro-active capability, a manifestation of strength. Ecological resilience is seen by many ecologists as a reactive response to change.

Last month I had the privilege of seeing a presentation of a paper by Kristen MacAskill and Peter Guthrie of Cambridge University. Their take on the problem of the diverse definitions of resilience is an interesting one. They argue that we should embrace this diversity (Vive la difference!) and try to understand it, rather than debate the differences. They propose a kind of taxonomy of resilience definitions (See the figure.  I’ve re-drawn it and slightly changed the wording. The original will appear in the Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Building Resilience. I thank the authors for permission to discuss their paper).

As can be seen from the figure, definitions are characterized first by the type of application and the context for the definition. Each of these is broken down into secondary and then tertiary categories.

A few points of interest.

  • Clearly, the authors are trying to provide a complete “parsing” of the resilience space.  They include both developed and developing societies, and single entities (“physical” objects) to systems, to governance processes of systems of systems.
  • Definitions are classified in terms of the tertiary categories they cover.
  • Further sub-divisions are possible. For example, another tertiary category could be added to the SCALE subcategory to reflect the resilience of the nation.
  • There seem to be two omissions – the type of shock and the element of surprise.  As I’ve posted previously, resilience depends on the type of change.  Communities are likely to have a different degree of resilience to an earthquake than to an economic recession or a pandemic.
  • The element of surprise can also be a differentiator.  Human systems – especially bureaucracies – are far more likely to be resilient toward what is foreseen and may not be able to effectively cope with surprises at all.  This is also reflected in the differences among some definitions.


While I was cogitating the nuances of the M&G paper (sometimes I’m a slow reader!), I stumbled on another take on the same problem by David Woods at Ohio State.  He limits his paper to concepts of systems resilience, and concentrates on the technical aspects of the definitions.  In other words, same church, different pew.

He classifies definitions into four types (See the Figure).

  • Resilience 1 – resilience as rebound. This is the unifying concept for the largest number of definitions – the idea of coming back after a shock.
  • Resilience 2 – resilience as robustness. This type of definition looks at the set of shocks a system can absorb. These sorts of definitions start to bring in the element of surprise, because they focus on known shocks.
  • Resilience 3 – resilience as “graceful extensibility” (What a nice phrase!). These types of definitions focus directly on the idea of coping with surprises – both positive and negative. In this sense, graceful extensibility is thus a generalization of graceful degradation to negative surprises that includes pleasant ones. A key part of this resilience concept is the idea of stretching the system’s boundaries.
  • Resilience 4 – resilience as sustained adaptability. These types of definitions focus on governance models of complex adaptive systems like communities. In terms of M&G’s taxonomy, these definitions look at the governance of multi-scale “systems of systems.”


The key takeaway for me is that if we are going to elevate resilience to something more than a buzzword, we need to be able to better communicate among ourselves what it is we mean. Resilience is being used across disciplines and in virtually every domain imaginable. In the words of Churchill, we are “separated by a common language.” Both MacAskill and Guthrie, and Woods, provide ways to bridge that separation. Not a Rosetta Stone yet, but a good start.

This blog was originally posted on the Community and Regional Resilience Institute.


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