What Is Resilience

Resilience is a buzzword. Like 'innovation', in a general way we know what it means - enough to nod our heads at a cocktail party or during an elevator pitch. But that's not good enough if you are creating a solution to build resilience.  So, what is resilience?

Robert E. Ulanowicz is Professor Emeritus of Theoretical Ecology with the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. He has an amazing body of work in the field of Ecological Economics. In one particularly brilliant paper (Quantifying economic sustainability: Implications for free-enterprise theory, policy and practice) he and his colleagues provided the best definition and context for resilience that I have ever seen.

I am going to provide my interpretation of the paper but I would recommend reading it for yourself.

The first and maybe most interesting point is that resilience opposes efficiency. As a system or a network or a community becomes more resilient it also becomes less efficient. This kinda sucks because both resilience and efficiency are good things.  Additionally, they oppose each other along an access of diversity defined as number of possible pathways or connections. Maximizing efficiency requires reducing diversity or more accurately, maximum efficiency uses only one pathway.

The next point to make is that, because of the whole efficiency opposing resilience thing, as a system becomes more efficient it becomes less resilient and it generates a greater total throughput. This is because there is less diversity or connections so their are fewer choices.  With only one pathway - one input to get one output - generation of the output can be maximized. With too much resilience you have too many pathways to optimize. And this is the point where the wealth maximizing capitalists put on a self-satisfied grin, nod their heads and leave the room.  But wait, come back!

The problem with 'Output' as the Y axis is that it ignores time and time is why we are interested in sustainability. While it is true that greater efficiency creates a greater output, it also creates a more brittle or fragile system that is more susceptible to failure. Our definition for sustainability is 

'the ability to sustain the production of an output over time".  Now that our graph recognizes we exist in time we can include the concept of vibrancy.  Vibrancy is "the state of balancing efficiency and resiliency over time to maintain a healthy system capable of sustaining a desired output". In this graph, we can see the essential nature of resilience.  While it is still true that too much resilience will create a stagnant system, it is also true that the optimal balance between resiliency and efficiency will create vibrancy. It is also interesting to note that the data gathered from real natural ecosystems suggests that the balance point favors resilience just a bit.