What makes a community resilient? People’s answers to this will determine whether the recent unrest suffered in London and other cities is repeated. Yet for such an important question few people actually spend much time thinking about resilience, nor how we can grow rather than squander it.
Concepts such as sustainability, corporate social responsibility and shared value, on the other hand, have entered boardrooms, the media and society at large. The question is how deep have we gone to truly understand what they mean? Do we collectively build new shared mental and actual models of a world that is sustainable truly engages our heads, hearts and souls, so much so that we are propelled towards this desirable vision? Or do we tinker with what there is, generally attached to a vision that is not sustainable but somehow sits comfortably. Millions of people have dedicated efforts over recent decades to tackle issues such as poverty, pollution, climate change, conflict and corporate social responsibility. All sections of society have been involved, from individuals to NGOs to companies to governments. Yet despite this immense effort the issues remain – many of them poised at tipping points that may not be recoverable. Society has tackled its issues in ways that led to resilience in reverse! What can we learn from this? And can we learn it now when we’ve somehow avoided learning it before?
Most importantly, we need to start solving the right issues and in ways that embrace their interconnectedness. How often have we seen an attempted solution lead to further problems or displaced problems? This happens when the glaring symptomic disturbance that cries out to be stopped is defined as the problem. Then the solutions that get pursued are those that fit into the existing pool of expertise, funds, ideas and assumptions. We are attempting to tackle issues such as climate change, social injustice and hunger as if they were independent of each other and were the root causes of our emerging crises. In fact they are symptoms which are highly interrelated and have deep-seated causes at their root. Our love affair with economic growth comes close to the root as it is fuelled by the pursuit of a dream that is underpinned by a set of values, which are at odds with the ecological limits of the planet. What happens with other solutions that seek to solve problems at source with a broader whole-system approach? Usually – nothing much.
Once we understand that sustainability cannot be equated to solving single issues, nor that efficiency savings and optimisation alone are not the solution, we may start to gain a deeper understanding of sustainability and begin to look at how the issues and socio-economic systems interrelate with the environmental system. It then becomes clear that all human activity depends on a healthy environment. As Ray Anderson, the recently deceased CEO of Interface Inc. said ‘I have never heard the business case for unsustainability.’ So one may ask, how can resilience help us?
Resilience is a brilliant idea to explore when we want to solve big long-standing problems that really must now be solved. Resilience suggests stability against change but the greatest opportunities for resilience come from a different kind of change – transformability. Communities, or society as a whole, can transform in ways that make disturbances less and less likely. According to Brian Walker, Programme Director of the Resilience Alliance, and David Salt, a science writer, “resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance; to undergo change and still retain essentially the same function, structure, and feedbacks. In other words, it’s the capacity to undergo some change without crossing a threshold to a different system regime – a system with a different identity.” Resilience therefore is a good thing if the systems conditions are desirable, but a bad thing, if they are undesirable. Clearly whether changes are considered desirable may be rather subjective. We may have observed organisational cultures that did not shift or other change programmes that were ineffective. Many governments in this world have built highly resilient systems that do not serve their people well. Undoubtedly though, humans would like to hold onto the extraordinarily beneficial ecological conditions that have supported us throughout the Holocene and for these conditions to demonstrate high levels of resilience.
We therefore need to determine which systems conditions are ideal for life to survive and thrive as well as understand the system’s tipping points, the points when a system moves from one stable state into another.
We also need to co-create desirable visions of what a society that lives within these thresholds could actually look like. The economy, important as it is, needs to become a servant of planetary and societal wellbeing. Future resilient communities and societies will have transformed their values and cultural narrative with new qualities and capacities for problem solving that may today seem scarce. Yet every individual and every community already has a capacity for collaborative dialogue that can lead transformation, even without anyone standing out as a leader. Change can be ‘crowd-sourced’, or ‘co-created’ within groups of people with different backgrounds and beliefs. Solutions can be found that deal with both the symptoms of disturbances of many kinds and also the root-cause sources of problems. These solutions can express a ‘collective intelligence’ that goes beyond consensus solutions and beyond what any individual could offer. Such dialogue is the voice of the future and should embrace all people.
What does that mean for the Further Education and Life Long Learning sector? Education must play a bigger part in connecting young people to their environment, to the people they share the planet with and their responsibility for governance and stewardship. We need to beware of funding priorities and policy drivers which may head us in the right direction in the short but not the long-term, we need to grow resilience in young people and adults alike to anticipate change and work with it, people need skills on how to be lifelong learners, think systemically, collaborate, co-design, co-create, listen and engage in dialogue. While investment in skills for new technologies will be part of the answer, envisioning a different direction underpinned by a changed set of values will require different skills altogether and will have consequences for leadership, strategy, curriculum planning and delivery in the sector.
If you want to take part in looking at the big picture and bringing about transformational change then attend a day about ‘Co-creating resilient communities, organisations and societies’ on 7 October 2011 in Vauxhall, London. The event will bring together individuals from public, private and voluntary sector backgrounds to inspire ambitious responses to many of the emergent crises of this time. You will have the opportunity to shape the day’s activities and to work on questions that matter to you. The day will start with a presentation by James Greyson, Head of the think tank Blindspot, asking why society keeps co-creating conflict and unsustainability, and how the movements to address this could start to become effective by challenging their own assumptions. Facilitation will be provided by Andrea Gewessler. A storyteller will bring a dramatic conclusion to the day by weaving together a tale reflecting the many conversations of the day. A report with all the outcomes of the day will be emailed to all participants within a week.
For more information and registration please go to www.changethatmatters.co.uk.
Andrea Gewessler is director of Change that Matters Ltd, an independent company working with organisations and communities to bring about transformational change through dialogue, collaboration and innovation, and is particularly active in the sustainability field. Her work is inspired by systems thinking, the U-process developed at MIT as well as some of the emerging social technologies such as Future Search, Open Space, Change Labs and World Cafe
(Photograph credit: Seamus Ryan)