Friday, 6 May 2016

Framings of Resilience: How to Think and Act in a Complex World

by David Chandler, MUN Planet:

This article is published as part of Fridays With MUNPlanet, and its special series dedicated to world politics.
The aim of this series is to bring you the analysis of global affairs by the established and upcoming scholars, decision-makers and policy analysts from various world regions.
This week, David Chandler (University of Westminster) writes about the concept of resilience and how it matters for the understanding of a complex world at the beginning of the 21st century that requires thinking and acting in terms of "relations and contexts" rather than "fixed essences and linear causal chains".
The author discusses various approaches to resilience, a way to "rethink traditional policy approaches" and points out to the possibility of using the concept to understand various policies and structures,  as well as the "calls for high tech forms of awareness, real time responsiveness or temporary hacking" that "involve fundamental questions of policy development, community engagement, feedback effects and interactive relationships."

Resilience has risen rapidly over the last decade or more to become one of the key terms in international policy and academic discussions. Whatever the subject matter of concern - whether it comes to questions of conflict management, the mitigation of climate change, the challenges of urban poverty or disaster risk management - questions of resilience will be at the forefront. However, with the rapid rise of resilience has come uncertainty as to how it should be built and how different practices and approaches should come together (Chandler & Coaffee, 2016).

Perhaps one way to introduce the concept is by thinking of how it operates in the context of contemporary political and philosophical discussions, which have problematized modernist binaries of nature/culture, subject/object or mind/matter. The idea of progress (in the abstract, but also in relation to specific questions of security, the environment, development or urban planning) is no longer one where the external world is seen to be uniform, linear or law-bound and unchanging: merely waiting for human knowledge to develop adequately to solve problems.

Progress today is not so much about storing up, extracting and universalising knowledge but rather about being more relationally aware of our own systems of organisation - politically, culturally, socially and economically - and about the interactive effects of these forms of organisation with the external, changing environment and international context.

In this sense, resilience approaches seem to be much more about relations and contexts than about fixed essences and linear causal chains (Chandler, 2014). Resilience approaches are often about how to engage in processes of interaction in more aware and reflective ways.

It is perhaps useful to heuristically explore three broad and inter-related framings of resilience, ranging from more conservative approaches which seek to maintain the status quo to more radical approaches which see the world as a much more interactive flux.

Firstly, the approach, which may be best known: that of maintaining the status quo or ‘bouncing back’. This could be seen as a homeostatic approach, one which seeks to regulate a return to the pre-existing equilibrium. This is a resilience approach that seeks to organise internally to enable a smooth and efficient return to functioning after a disaster or setback.

Within this broad framing, some ‘bounce back’ approaches might focus upon internal properties of the community or society - levels of social or communal capital; levels of redundancy, slack or spare capacity; perhaps also on questions of variety and diversity, avoiding over reliance on particular resources, sources of supply or centres of coordination. The focus on internal properties and capacities is also sometimes connected to ‘engineering’ or ‘psychological’ vocabularies of resilience as a set of internal properties.

This approach sometimes makes a distinction between the society or community - the inside, to be made resilient - and the threat or problem - on the outside, as something to be resilient against. Here, the threat of terrorism may serve as a good example, terrorism is often conceived as an external threat, one difficult to prevent and therefore necessitating ways of bouncing back to normal functioning should major infrastructural facilities be damaged or massive outrages take place.

The ‘homeostatic’ approach, rather than working on the external world in a direct way, tends to work indirectly, often starting with the process of working on the self. This is an important shift away from traditional or modernist approaches to problem solving.

The ways in which this work on the self is understood are relationally-orientated; not to achieve linear goals in themselves but to be able to respond to external disturbance, much as a thermostat works on the basis of feedback and response to changes in the external environment (think about how our bodies regulate heat by perspiring on a hot day or shivering on a cold day).

Approaches within this framework often involve the development and use of real time responsiveness, sometimes with the application of new technologies, referred to as Big Data, digital sensing, machine-learning and the Internet of Things: seeking to adapt to the emergence of conflict, infectious diseases, climate change or other problems or threats.

An important alternative to the homeostatic approach is the autopoietic one: bouncing back is not the aim but rather growth and development, through an increased awareness of interconnections and processes. Societies or communities are understood as being able to grow and develop through the shift towards resilience approaches, independently of whether there is a disaster, crisis or unexpected development.

Resilience thereby becomes independent, standing on its own as a way of thinking about problems; creating a shift towards organising and governing on the basis of resilience per se. Here, the process of being or becoming ‘self-regulating’ is seen as key. Resilience is no longer about returning to the equilibrium or maintaining the status quo but seen to be a process of on-going self-transformation.

Rather than aiming for the maintenance of stasis the aspiration is to generate new and innovative ways of thinking and organising. Judith Rodin, for example, sees this as the ‘Resilience Dividend’ (2015). Thinking in resilience ways thus enables communities and societies to ‘bounce back better’, in terms of learning more about themselves and building new forms of interconnection and self-awareness. External or outside stimuli or disruptions are therefore vital to enable this process of self-reassessment (see also, Taleb, 2012).

Even if there is no disastrous event, these sensitivities to changes and reflective approaches can be applied to improve and rethink everyday processes and exchanges; discovering new possibilities in the present.

This approach of resilience as self-transformation is taken further in Kathleen Tierney’s influential book The Social Roots of Risk (2014), which argues that resilience approaches bring together the natural and social sciences enabling forms of recursive governance, i.e. forms of governance based on the awareness of problems and threats that emerge out of interactions between the social order and the external environment.

Classic examples would be the construction of flood barriers or levees, tending to make water systems more volatile and undermining natural protections or the case of antibiotics, held to facilitate more virulent and resistant strains of viruses. Thus governance is seen as a recursive process of governing the consequences of previous attempts to solve problems, being wary of the possibility that this stores up further problems for the future and attempting to break out of this loop through new, more imaginative, approaches.

In these framings, problems are no longer considered as entirely external threats but also as products of social processes, with resilience practices and policies as, similarly, a matter not merely of technical but also of social and political adaptive change (see Pelling, 2011).

A third range of resilience approaches has less emphasis on temporality and direction and is often more concerned with rethinking contextual possibilities in the present. This framing is more focused on developing resilience at the level of micro-politics or life-politics, using more reflexive and self-aware approaches to repurpose or to re-envision ways of engaging communities.

This approach to resilience is highlighted in the idea of public service ‘jams’ or civic hackathons, where Smart City Labs, the UN Development Programme or other donors invite ideas and proposals to deconstruct problems and try out prototype solutions with volunteer hackers, technologists and designers immersing themselves in the problem.

These ad hoc forums are lauded as mechanisms for reaching out to citizens to develop new ideas, exposing governing authorities and international institutions to new tools and skill sets, and for re-envisioning problems − seeing issues in a different light. Hacking is an iterative, gradual approach to policy interventions, where each hack uses and reveals new inter-relationships creating new possibilities for thinking and acting.

Here, resilience is an on-going transformative process of building engaged communities through experimentation and grasping momentary and fluid connections and interrelations in a highly context-dependent way. International policy interventions on this basis thus neither seek to exercise hegemonic control and direction but nor do they seek to ignore and disengage from the problems. Instead, the problems themselves are reinterpreted as enabling and creating opportunities.

Resilience can thus be seen in a number of ways, which can easily overlap, or be seen as contradictory, depending upon our angle or level of analysis. Rather than focusing on fixed definitions of resilience it is perhaps more useful to see resilience as forming the basis of - or cohering - a range of policy discussions in a number of fields that seek to rethink traditional policy approaches.

Resilience begins with the assumption that problems cannot be prevented, ring-fenced, solved or cured in traditional ways (often described as reductionist or linear). Thus, resilience operates to frame discussions of a quite fundamental nature, of how we might rethink forms of social, political and economic organisation.

These ways of reflecting upon social and organisational changes then range in focus, from preparatory policy-making to bounce back, to more radical calls for changes in structures and habits and forms of understanding, to calls for high tech forms of awareness, real time responsiveness or temporary hacking, all them involving fundamental questions of policy development, community engagement, feedback effects and interactive relationships. 


Chandler, D. (2014) Resilience: The Governance of Complexity. London: Routledge.

Chandler, D. and Coaffee, J. (2016) The Routledge Handbook of International Resilience. London: Routledge.

Rodin, J. (2015) The Resilience Dividend: Managing disruption, avoiding disaster, and growing stronger in an unpredictable world. London: Profile Books.

Taleb, N. (2012) Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder. London: Penguin.

Tierney, K. (2014) The Social Roots of Risk: Producing disasters, promoting resilience. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
David Chandler is Professor of International Relations, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster, London. He is the founding editor of the journal Resilience: International Policies, Practices and Discourses. 
His recent authored books include International Statebuilding: The Rise of Post-Liberal Governance (Routledge, 2010); Freedom vs Necessity in International Relations: Human-Centred Approaches to Security and Development (Zed Books, 2013); Resilience: The Governance of Complexity (Routledge, 2014) and (with Julian Reid) The Neoliberal Subject: Resilience, Adaptation and Vulnerability (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).

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