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February 18, 2014 / Leo Hollis

what do we mean by ‘resilience’?

With the waters encircling the city in the UK, many parts of the countryside have been allowed to be flooded. This was government policy – part of the attempt to create a ‘resilient’ response to dilemma of climate change. This word ‘resilient’ has been used often, causing a variety of reactions from hope to suspicions. The word has come to mean many different things to different people and so it is worth asking wether it is worth using anymore. Clearly, it means that some people are in trouble in order to preserve the property and labour of others.

Do we need to re examine what we mean when we call for resilience?

‘Resilience theory’ was coined in the early 1970s by the Canadian ecologist C S ‘Buzz’ Holling who was fascinated by the relationship between ecology and complexity. Looking at models of how things change, Holling hoped to find the hidden laws that underpin disturbance – whether out of the blue, like fires or explosions, or occurring more slowly, while being similarly transformative.

Holling attempted to measure resilience as a quality. For example, he suggested that robustness could be judged by the amount of time it takes for an equilibrium to recover, or else on the strength of its rigidity — ‘the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks’. He nominated four key factors that underpin resilience: latitude, or, how far the system can be attacked; resistance, or, the rigidity of the structure to resist change; precariousness, or, the fragility of the current state of the system; and finally panarchy, which refers to the degree to which different systems connect and interact. Holling’s ideas have proved powerful tools in a number of arenas; ecology, complexity and, perhaps not surprisingly, urban planning.

In many occasions the use of resilience in terms of the city has come to take prominence over the discussion of sustainability. This could be partly to do with the sense within the word that jeopardy is increasingly more likely than not. While sustainability suggest that ‘if we do this we might avoid disaster’ resilience is more realistic and says ‘if and when disaster occurs, how well we bounce back’.

This also presents us the idea of a fragile city, which is something that Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about in ‘Anti Fragile’. This is the thinker – a former Wall Street trader – who developed the idea of the ‘Black Swan’ the event that is unpredicted until it happens. This has allusions of Rumsfeld: ‘Known knowns’ and ‘Unknown unknowns’. Taleb proposes a way of measuring the world that designates organisations, cities, communities and businesses as ‘fragile’ or ‘anti-fragile’. Anything that survives (and thrives) through adversity is non-fragile: it has ‘the singular property of allowing us to deal with the unknown, to do things without understanding them — and to do them well’. If we cannot predict what’s around the corner, Taleb argues, we must at least be ready for any eventuality.

In 2012, the British government released its own document on resilience. The UK Climate Change Risk Assessment covers all areas of threat, including agriculture, business, health, coastal erosion, transport and the built environment, acknowledging that the major threats to Britain’s cities are flooding, overheating, subsidence and the urban heat-island effect, which causes inner cities to be two or three degrees hotter than surrounding rural areas. What the report makes clear is that the city faces not a single threat, but a complex combination of concerns that defy any single solution. Our infrastructure is so knotted that energy, water, waste management, transport, and information and communications technology are inseparable. The end result is discussions –  in the media at least-  between sand bags, dredging and aluminum panels.

This is obviously why resilience is big business and holds more currency than the common perception of sustainability. Like the ‘smart city’ , the roll out of the resilient city includes offers from big business of tech, engineering and planning. It is also the buzzword to gain university funding and international governmental support. The recent Guardian City website http://www.theguardian.com/cities is sponsored by the Rockerfeller Foundation Resilient city programme. This seems to make sense; ‘resilience’ might just offer the answer of how to face the rising waters or the sudden, unexpected disaster. Resilience offers the kind of flexibility that absorbs the shocks and then bends back into shape.

These latest innovations in technology can clearly help us understand how the city works. Already internet technology and big data is aiding the quest for resilience. Google has modelled sophisticated means for tracking the spread of flu by charting search results from its engines, while the Twitter Earthquake Detector has been used to link seismometers to social media to assess the scale and impact of a tremor. Other big players, including IBM, Cisco, Siemens, Accenture, McKinsey, and Booz Allen are entering the debate on the intelligent city and developing tools to bring efficiency and sustainability into a connected metropolis. They are talking to city halls and offering end-to-end solutions — the complete package to retrofit the everyday city for the 21st century, coupled to a very hard sell.

We will live in smart buildings and drive smart cars. Data will be collected every time we use public transport. Most cities already have traffic lights rigged with sensors that detect congestion and traffic flow; and most modern office blocks are now smart buildings that can regulate internal temperature and lighting automatically. Meanwhile, face recognition software, while unreliable at present, might one day be used for everything from banking to security. All these innovations exploit the link between robustness and sustainability, helping us reduce energy use, better utilise our resources, and build better homes. This all sounds rather good, no?

Within the shimmering image of the robust future, many see a more disturbing shadow. In his brilliant ebook ‘Against the Smart City’ Adam Greenfield shows how the promise and allure of big tech to guide our cities needs to be questioned. Firstly, this is handing the controls of the city over to tech companies that have no interest or experience in government, secondly it puts an emphasis on ‘measuring’, ‘efficiency’, ‘innovation’ that reveal a neoliberal heart. In addition technology is very good at telling us what we want to know, it is not so good at telling us what we might need to know. This will not necessarily guard us from the disaster on the horizon – nor will it help us bounce back.

There is also another reason why many on the left take the word ‘resilience’ with a certain amount of suspicion. In a recent article on the Open Democracy website Tom Slater notes:

It is no coincidence that an entire cottage industry on “resilient cities” has emerged at a time of global austerity . . .The insidious work of urban resilience lies in the obvious and, to its proponents entirely logical policy suggestion the word carries: “urban dwellers of the world, brace yourselves for austerity [or environmental catastrophe] and everything will be fine in the end!” [http://www.opendemocracy.net/opensecurity/tom-slater/resilience-of-neoliberal-urbanism]

Without the political rhetoric, resilience is designed to be flexible but designed to resist change. The main advantage of the philosophy is to absorb disaster and to bounce back, but to bounce back to the same position as before. This seems to me to be the dangerous aspect of the notion: cities must change and adapt as events happen, just as people change when events occur. Resilience appears to be a policy to avoid this movement. It is designed – perhaps – so that the market gets back to work as quickly as possible, people get back to their jobs, the shops open as quickly as possible and the opportunity to evolve out of the event is stifled. Is resilience a form of kettling of the urban imagination? Is the word now completely lost to its neoliberal usage?

I don’t think so; but we have to be wary of using it too easily to suggest some kind of ‘solution’ to the urban future. We also have to be aware about what we are being sold when the word is used. It is no longer an aspirational hope for a better system as Hollings first conceived of it, it is now well-established in the marketplace of urban imaginings.

Next: two alternatives ways of thinking about ‘upstream’ resilience

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