What does Resilience mean anyway?

I'm not planning to include other whole chapters here, but I thought the overview of 'Resilience' might be useful as an extract, as the word is being bandied about a lot, and it is helpful to know the different ways the word is used. If anything, I feel I could have investigated the psychological aspects more - I do find the Werner and Smith characteristics from the Hawaii study very useful personally and in my coaching work, for instance. Anyway, the overview follows, with selected hyperlinks added. If you don't want to read a whole 1477 words you could watch this video of Brian Walker instead, for his introduction.

Resilience is a word that is used in a number of contexts. My primary interest here is the use of the word derived from ecological and social system theory, particularly that developed by C S Hollings and associates within the Resilience Alliance and set out in Resilience Thinking by Brian Walker and David Salt (2008). This is, in itself, an application of systems thinking that might be useful for Arts Council England to consider more generally. As defined by the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit in 2004:

‘Systems thinking is both a mindset and particular set of tools for identifying and mapping the inter-related nature and complexity of real world situations. It encourages explicit recognition of causes and effects, drivers and impacts, and in so doing helps anticipate the effect a policy intervention is likely to have on variables or issues of interest. Furthermore, the process of applying systems thinking to a situation is a way of bringing to light the different assumptions held by stakeholders or team members about the way the world works.’

Walker and Salt define resilience as, ‘The capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and re-organize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedback’ (Walker and Salt 2008). Another definition relates it to three factors: ‘the magnitude of shock that the system can absorb and remain within a given state; the degree to which the system is capable of self-organization, and the degree to which the system can build capacity for learning and adaptation’ (Folke et al 2002). The ideas of resilience are based on the adaptive cycle, set out in Section 6, and on the theory that cycles at different scales connect and are in fact ‘nested’, rather like Russian dolls, but with each affecting change in the other. This is referred to by Hollings as ‘Panarchy’ (Holling et al 2002).

A growing body of work has looked at the characteristics within complex systems, drawing out the interdependencies in a way which moves thinking on from what might be seen as simple self-reliance in the face of difficulty.

Resilience theory can be overwhelming in its depiction of links and cycles occurring at different scales and speeds, let alone in some of its language. In the sections on the adaptive cycle and an arts ecology, I have attempted to simplify this for the purposes of this paper. My own definition of resilience has evolved into the following:

Adaptive resilience is the capacity to remain productive and true to core purpose and identity whilst absorbing disturbance and adapting with integrity in response to changing circumstances.

A powerful, related definition has recently been published by Mission Models Money. It defines ‘thriving’ as, ‘adapting to changing conditions in a life-friendly way to people and planet in order to maintain the function of making great work happen’. (Andrews and Dods 2010). Mission Models Money has been influential in raising awareness of social-ecological thinking and its relation to the arts, particularly in two influential papers by John Knell, The Art of Dying and The Art of Living (2005 and 2007), which argued for a new cultural compact and explicit prioritisation of the whole arts ecology over the maintenance of any individual element.

Walker and Salt argue that even this apparently simple desire is complicated. Central to the notion of resilience – and this is essentially why I find it a more useful word than sustainability – is that change is normal and necessary, and that to maintain any system in a fixed, arguably efficient or optimal, state contains risks, and can ultimately be counterproductive. For instance, if you do not thin out a forest, you can make it more vulnerable to forest fires, though deforestation, however, is another way of killing a forest. This is challenging to our notion of infrastructure and portfolios of revenue-funded organisations, as well as to some of our behaviour around organisational development. As Walker and Salt put it, ‘There is no sustainable “optimal” state of an ecosystem, a social system, or the world. It is an illusion, a product of the way we look at and model the world. It is unattainable, in fact… it is counter-productive, and yet it is a widely pursued goal’ (Walker and Salt 2008).

This relates to the elimination of waste and inefficiency, implicit in Knell’s analysis and a theme that has emerged strongly in the agenda of the new government. Being efficient, in a narrow sense, leads to elimination of anything ‘wasteful’ or ‘redundant’ – keeping only those things that are directly and immediately beneficial. This, however, can diminish adaptive resilience and lead to vulnerability in the event of disturbance. (It is important to note that disturbance does not always come in the shape of ‘trouble’ or ‘bad news’ – it might come in the form of a hit show or a big new contract that requires adaptation of the organisation.) The elimination of redundancy can diminish flexibility, and have a toll on individual resilience in organisations – by encouraging poor conditions and long hours, for instance. The emphasis on ‘protecting frontline services’ whilst cutting back on ‘back office’ is not necessarily a bad thing if it is done in a creative manner which considers the roles in the system of all parts of a service: with ‘front’ and ‘back’ being symbiotic. If it is done in a simplistic manner, based on a crude mechanistic understanding, it runs the risk of increasing vulnerability and lessening resilience whilst delivering ‘efficiencies’.

Individual resilience is about the strength and ability to carry on in the face of trauma or difficulty, facing ‘...stress at a time and in a way that allows self-confidence and social competence to increase through mastery and appropriate responsibility’ (Rouse et al 1999). Developmental psychologists have looked at how resilience is developed and maintained in children and adults. One study of children on Kauai island, Hawaii resulted in the identification of four central characteristics of resilient children: an active approach towards solving life's problems, a tendency to perceive their experiences constructively, an ability to gain others' positive attention and an ability to use faith to maintain a positive vision of a meaningful life (Werner and Smith 2001). The Mission Models Money publication The People Theme (Andrews and Dods 2010) explores the personal competencies, qualities and attributes necessary to thrive in a changing and complex world.

Business or organisational resilience is most often described as the ability to continue in the face of changing times and economic circumstances, lost business or staff, or to respond to natural or man-made disasters of one kind or another. These latter events are often considered under the category of risk management, at a number of levels. The Demos publication Resilience Nation takes an interesting look at how this relates to broader definitions, particularly in the light of climate change and terrorism (Edwards 2009).

A great deal of business-oriented literature looks at the lasting qualities of organisations. Good to Great and Built to Last by Jim Collins (2001 and 2005) were hugely influential. Their key messages are summed up as, ‘build your company so that it preserves a passionately held core ideology and simultaneously stimulates progress in everything but that ideology’ (Collins 1995). More recently, Edward Lawler and Christopher Worley have suggested a step further on from Collins, with their book Built to Change. This places a greater emphasis on innovation and environment scanning for future change, and structuring organisations for change rather than any fixed state (Lawler and Worley 2006).

Research interest in the potential applications of ecological resilience theory to organisations and communities has grown in recent years. The University of Canterbury, New Zealand, has created the Resilient Organisations Research Programme, which has developed a number of tools and frameworks. The Resilience Management Framework identifies four key elements to resilience: a resilience ethos, situation awareness, the management of keystone vulnerabilities and adaptive capacity. It then details 23 indicators of these elements (McManus et al 2007). Further studies have taken ideas from Hollings, Walker and others and looked at community development and how different groups might demonstrate different approaches to managing changing environments (Fabricius et al 2007).

Resilience is therefore clearly a concept with a real and widening resonance, and is being applied in fields relating to economic, social and natural environmental changes. It can also be applied at an individual level. This seems useful, given the many-layered perspectives that the Arts Council must apply – thinking at the different levels of artist, arts organisation, local authority, region, artform, nation and so on. Although each of the ‘models’ of resilience has strengths and weaknesses, and the limitations and omissions of any model, taking a conscious and designed approach to building resilience is a stance that is increasingly being adopted.


  1. Thanks so much, Mark. Now I have to read your book!


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