Strand IV: Strengthening resilience

How can communities and the networks of agencies which serve them enhance their capacity to cope with the multiple uncertainties impacting on local life?

Complementing and cross-cutting the first three strands discussed in this series of blogs is the importance of strengthening local resilience as part of building sustainable and inclusive communities. I am writing this blog as six weeks of more-or-less continuous storms have left large areas of the Thames valley and South West England with serious flooding. How we future-proof our communities seems very topical!

Most simply, the Stockholm Resilience Centre (www.stockholmresilience.org ) defines resilience as ‘the capacity to deal with change and continue to develop’. Or in relation to communities, ‘resilient communities intentionally develop personal and collective capacity to respond to and influence change, to sustain and renew the community, and to develop new trajectories for the community’s future’ (Magis, quoted in Wilding, referenced below).

My own initial understanding of this idea – and the notion that resilience can be designed into and developed in large systems – originated in the work of another group of my colleagues at the Tavistock Institute studying manufacturing organisation. Most famously, they worked with the newly nationalised coal industry after the Second World War to replace the ‘assembly line’ methods of production with an approach based on relatively autonomous small groups of miners managing their own work as teams. Working underground is difficult and dangerous. Rock formations often throw up new challenges. Factory style mechanisation was ill-suited to these uncertainties and damaged the miners’ traditional sense of being in control of their work. Self-organising teams restored this identity and were much more adaptive to these changing conditions.

Resilience is even more important in contemporary communities. The extent of current risks varies in different parts of the world but we all face ‘acute’ challenges, for example, from runaway climate change and associated extreme weather events, global shortages of food and water and rapidly fluctuating energy prices, turbulence in the financial markets, pandemic illnesses and violent conflict. Each of these can produce major ‘shocks’ to our current ways of life. Our capacity to deal with these challenges is weakened by what we might think of as ‘chronic’ problems including the growing inequalities which divide people and communities, the lack of local control over big decisions (e.g. on the economy) made elsewhere (e.g. sometimes in very distant boardrooms), the ways in which we have become dependent on professional and bureaucratic interventions in human concerns we once felt capable of addressing with the help of our family and neighbours, and the distorted understanding of all these issues we derive from the centralised organs of mass communication which increasingly define unreality as ‘reality’ (as in ‘reality T.V.’).

For all these reasons, strengthening resilience has become central to the discussion of sustainable development as most fully articulated in The Resilience Imperative: Cooperative transitions to a steady-state economy (M. Lewis and P. Conaty, New Society Publishers, 2012) My review of this excellent book is on line at: http://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/library/authors/david-towell/resilience-imperative.html

In thinking about both what constitutes resilience and how it can be strengthened, I have found most helpful Nick Wilding’s Exploring Community Resilience in times of rapid change (Carnegie UK Trust, 2011). He identifies and copiously illustrates four dimensions of community resilience to which I have added a fifth (and first in this list):

1.    Emphasising place-based governance and local democracy. We are in control of how we respond to local challenges.

Localisation is key to achieving a sustainable future. This requires both decentralisation from the national state so that municipalities can develop appropriate responses to local priorities (as discussed in Strand I and II) through civic leadership and devolution within local authorities so as to engage communities in co-producing this better future (as discussed in Strand III).

2.    Reweaving the economy closer to home. We exercise ecologically responsible stewardship over our land, water, food, energy production, construction and employment.

This democratic control needs increasingly to extend to the ways in which we reshape the local economy to increase self-reliance, meet local needs fairly and reclaim where possible local assets for the common good, while protecting the environment. This is the major focus of the Transition Towns initiative.

3.    Fostering an inclusive culture. We celebrate our diversity and are confident in our capacity to tackle problems together.

Local people and social capital (‘the social networks and norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness which arise from them’ as Robert Putnam defines this) are the most important assets in strengthening resilience. These assets are enriched where there are opportunities for people to make sense of local challenges, find cooperative solutions (e.g. credit unions which support people in austere times) and celebrate local life (e.g. from shared music, art and other creative activities to street parties).

4.    Encouraging individual wellbeing and mutual engagement. We are fit in body and mind and involved in our neighbourhoods.

This local culture needs to help people develop their personal resilience, for example through the Five ways to well-being identified by the new economics foundation (nef, 2009); ‘connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and give’. In doing so, it will also underline the importance for all of us of being part of social networks which accept our strengths and fallibilities and offer mutual support.

5.    Making links to other places and communities. We know we can learn from others travelling similar journeys.

Localities are not alone in these efforts and many challenges are similar, inter-connected or indeed require joint action, for example to bring about policy change on a larger scale. A pre-eminent example of such networking, because it now links localities across the globe is the Transition Network (www.transitionnetwork.org ).

In sum, these dimensions of resilience provide civic partnerships with five useful ‘design tests’ for local action: how likely is it that what is being planned will enhance local democracy, increase economic self-reliance, build social capital, improve personal well-being and strengthen links with other communities?

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