Posts Tagged ‘resilience’

Business and Resilience

It seems that everyday a new article – popular or academic – comes out about Business and Sustainability.  All about supply-chain efficiencies, corporate social responsibility, the corporate role in sustainable development.  Of course, there is at least as much coming out about the problems, deficiencies, contradictions between capitalism and development and the prevailing neoliberal order.  I’ve recently read Dauvergne and Lister’s “Eco-Business: A Big Brand Takeover of Sustainability”, which does a nice job at introducing the arguing sides to each other – the language, the pros/cons of each position, and what seems to be working.  This post isn’t about this.  Rather my intent is to comment on a recent workshop at IBM-Montpellier as part of the Resilience 2014 conference.  Margot Hill Clarvis and Gail Whiteman coordinated an off-site session on Business and Resilience.  Following presentations from IBM on their corporate view of and response to Resilience and from speakers from the Resilience Alliance (Brian Walker) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), we split into parallel sessions.

Margot and I hosted a session titled “Investing in Resilience: Challenges and Opportunities” with a number of industry speakers, including:

  • Dr. David N. Bresch, Director Global Head Sustainability, Swiss Re
  • Dan Dowling, Assistant Director, Sustainability and Climate Change, PwC
  • Linda Freiner, Flood Resilience Program Manager, Group Corporate Responsibility, Zürich Insurance
  • John Fullerton, Founder & President, Capital Institute
  • Prof. Sander van der Leeuw, Arizona State University

From the abstract:  Our concern was that business, and the finance institutions that lend to, invest in, and insure them, are at the heart of many of the drivers and solutions to ecological degradation, resource depletion and social vulnerability. Resilience principles should be at the heart of practical steps to both alleviate these pressures and frame opportunities for more sustainable financing models and investment practices. So far, the majority of dialogue on resilience and investment has focused on a limited set of issues primarily relating to disaster risk resilience. However, there has been very little investigation into these issues within the academic discourses on resilience, and even less dialogue with this practitioner community than other communities (e.g. park rangers, water managers etc). At the same time, the business and investment community are scaling up efforts to transform accounting and valuation practices and strategic priorities in order to facilitate more sustainable investment.

The session aimed to present novel perspectives from a range of practitioners involved in finance (i.e. insurance, accounting, investment) or financing ‘resilience’-based activities in order to provide insights into the challenges and opportunities for integrating resilience into the practical mechanics of enterprise risk and investment evaluation. Panelists gave an overview of how their practical work/research intersects with resilience issues and science, the challenges in the operational application of these frameworks, the expected opportunities and benefits to doing so (focusing on the novel insights it provides) and how best to drive further progress.

As compared with the standard corporate perspective, the financial organizations, particularly the insurance industry seems to value a resilience approach as a means to assess and design preventative approaches (adaptation) rather than ex post responses to disasters or sustainability shortcomings (mitigation).  Unlike many politicians, they see global change and are cognizant about the various potential futures unfolding. This is less about liberal/conservative philosophies and more about preparing and responding to reality in a rapidly changing environment.

Stay tuned for more on business and resilience.

Short Introduction to Resilience Thinking

Courtesy of the wonderful Communications and Marketing people at Stockholm Resilience Centre, the soon-to-be released book by the Resilience Alliance Young Scholars group, Principles for Building Resilience: Sustaining Ecosystem Services in Social-Ecological Systems with Cambridge University Press, has a 20 page brochure that provides a wonderful short course on resilience available in hard copy or free online at:

The pamphlet highlights the content of the forthcoming book and provides examples that put the theory into practice.  The book identifies seven principles that are considered crucial for building resilience in social-ecological systems and discusses how these principles can be practically applied. The seven principles are 1) maintain diversity and redundancy, 2) manage connectivity, 3) manage slow variables and feedbacks, 4) foster complex adaptive systems thinking, 5) encourage learning, 6) broaden participation, and 7) promote polycentric governance systems.

Each chapter of the book introduces and defines one of the principles and then proceeds to detail how the principle enhances resilience and the context in which resilience may be compromised.  Importantly, the book chapters go beyond theory to identify how the principles can be operationalized and applied (the application of resilience thinking to real-world situations).  Further the chapters identify gaps in both research and application.  While the chapters are chock full of examples, they also contain longer case studies that draw out the nuances of the chapter.

The hope is that the wonderfully informative brochure will generate enough interest to warrant the purchase of the book.  The book is written in a manner conducive for both experienced resilience scholars looking for a compendium of research findings as well as grad students and scholars new to the field and looking for a guide.  In effect, it is the book that the editors and authors wished was available for them as they started learning the concepts.

What do we mean by Common-Pool Resource Theory?

I have frequently seen people use the term common-pool resource (CPR) theory, and I’ve often been  confused by what they mean beyond that they are concerned with the tragedy of the commons and related ideas.  However, some add in a great deal of collective action theory, concepts from resilience, and ideas about social-ecological systems.  In this text, I won’t try to defend a particular set of hypotheses, theories, or other constructs about what should be counted and what shouldn’t.  Instead, I’d like to talk about a nice public good regarding our understanding of CPRs that springs from the Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database (SESMAD) project that I’ve written about before.

At the end of October, ASU hosted the most recent SESMAD meeting.  We met to put the culminating touches on a coding manual for the project database, an attempt to make sure that all project contributors would take a similar approach to diagnosing and coding a case for the database (and appeasing our concerns with inter-coder reliability).



Our first thought was that this would be a painful (soul-sucking, perhaps) but necessary activity that would help further the project and improve the internal validity of the project.  We began with all project members taking on a sub-set of the 200+ variables in the database and defining them, discuss their importance in the CPR literature, and providing relevant citations and sources.  The database, itself, could then be used to provide examples of how we coded these variables across a number of cases.  We then used our time together in Arizona to edit these variable write-ups and create our coding manual.  It turned out to be much more enjoyable than we initially thought.

This brings me to the creation of a public good.  I have personally always struggled with the idea of a single coherent and unifying theory of CPRs. However, this manual represents a nearly exhaustive listing of the variables seen to influence the sustainable governance of CPRs according to the current literature.  As our database goes online in January, scholars will have access to a thorough list of key CPR variables with definitions, an understanding of their importance, with relevant examples and citations.  This can serve as a one-stop source for students and scholars in the study of the commons.  It lacks the structure of a theory, but it enables the construction of a multitude of well-defined hypotheses and theories and provides clarity and consistency for its users.  I hope that its use goes far beyond our project.

Social-Ecological Systems and the Concept of Territoire

Over the past 10 days, I had the good fortune of participating in two Workshops – one on transboundary conservation and the other on social-ecological systems.  For the moment, I’d like to discuss a bit of the conversation at the latter.  I had the honor of serving as a keynote speaker to one of the warm-up events for the Resilience 2014 conference in Montpellier, France next year (May 4-8, see  The workshop title was “Confronting “socio-ecological systems” and “territoire” as suitable lenses to tackle resilience issues”.  It attempted to combine the work of resilience scholars, such as myself, and our work on complex adaptive systems/resilience/coupled human-environment systems with the work of (predominantly) French geographers and anthropologists using territoire to analyze a similar set of problems.

I learned a great deal about territoire and how this guides analysis and understanding.  What surprised me the most was the amount that the two approaches had in common – the importance of scale, of socio-spatial relations, and the linking of people and their environment.  I had expected a great deal more discussion coming from a post-structural, post-modern, Foucaultian analysis, which I must say that I’m not smart enough to truly understand.  Instead, the discussion revolved around all of the similarities in approaches.

A number of points emerged, however, that warrant further discussion, points that will hopefully come out of the proceedings from the workshop.  At least these were the five main take-aways for me.

  • Both social-ecological systems and territoire approaches share a number of important commonalities (as related above).
  • The drawing of boundaries for analysis is critical to enable understanding in either approach.
  • Many social-ecological system analyses seem to favor one aspect of the system over the other – often heavily SOCIAL-ecological or social-ECOLOGICAL.  Balanced approaches are far less common.
  • The theme for the Resilience 2014 conference – Resilience and Development – fits well with key traits implicit in the territoire scholarship, notably poverty, inequality, and the need for development.
  • Resilience scholars need to do a better job at more explicitly acknowledging the normative aspects of their work.

I had initially intended to write about this final discussion point, given other recent research projects, but I’d like to revisit this in more detail in the coming weeks.  For now, here’s my introduction to French geography.

The Robustness of Children

The old saw is that a man with one watch knows what time it is, but a man with two is never sure.  The same holds true for books on child development.  I’ve now read more books than I care to admit on childcare.  Each was written by an expert, generally with a tone that indicates any deviation from this plan will probably result in catastrophic events for you child.  But the first key takeaway that I’ve found is that kids thrive in spite of our best efforts.

This brings me back to the research that forms the foundation of this blog and website, resilience and robustness.  All of my work on resilience comes from the work on social-ecological systems instigated by the breakthroughs of Buzz Holling and his compatriots over the last (gasp) 40 years.  But there is a vast literature on “resilience” in childhood development.  Both research communities have very specific definitions and heaps of research that don’t necessarily speak anything close to the same language.  In the social-ecological community, there have been recent discussions on resilience (the ability to bounce back from disturbance) in contrast to robustness (system persistence when confronted by various types of disturbance or uncertainty).

Kids are robust to a huge variety of disturbances.  They prosper regardless of which child development program we follow.  The experts insist that raising healthy kids requires:

  • a regimented eating-activity-sleeping schedule, except for those that insist that this should be on demand with no schedule
  • co-sleeping, except for those that insist co-sleeping is evil
  • programmed activity and school starting by 2 years of age, except those that insist there should be no formal schooling
  • strict rules, except those that insist on levity and learning
  • pacifiers to satiate natural cravings, again, except by those that think this leads to poor nourishment

And the list goes on as long as we’d like, with phrases like nipple confusion, attachment dilemmas, and so on.

This leads me to Takeaway #2: Kids need three things and three things only:  food, love, and space to run.  This recipe works until at least the age of 3, but it probably holds until the age of 88.

Finally, everyone seems to have their favorite childcare book.  That’s great.  If you find one that works for you and (more importantly) your child, please use it.  However, let’s remember that you have a sample size of 1 (or 2 or 3), and let’s not assume that the same holds for anyone else, let alone everyone.  Now, back to the books.

Mini Discussion on Sustainability in Africa

Over the holidays, I had a chance to give a talk to the Mastercard-sponsored Scholars group of ASU students from sub-Saharan Africa.  This helped to launch a class on sustainability in Africa.  It got me thinking about what to cover, given a broad range of topics.  If we agree that sustainability isn’t an “environmental” problem, but a more broadly defined societal problem, then we have a host of issues to choose from – disease, natural resource management, human rights, and so on.

Given my personal predilections, I tend to see poor governance as the common thread through all of these.  My own work and experience in Africa is clearly limited, and the undergrads that I spoke with came from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Senegal, Ghana, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Kenya.  I’ve only been to a few of these countries and have only spent more than a couple weeks in Moz, so I can hardly claim to be an expert.  But as we started talking about sustainability and the need to foster more resilient social-ecological relations, as a group we found that we had a lot to share, to teach, and to discover.  My own work is about collaboration across some kind of boundary (international, public-private, between individuals or tribes, between states or municipalities) for the collective governance of natural resources.  My African work focused on transboundary protected areas.  In the discussion with the Mastercard Scholars, we kept returning to the same questions:

  • Where can we or should we collaborate?
  • When does it make more sense for groups to “go it alone”?
  • How can we overcome the transaction costs of collaboration to reap collective benefits?
  • How can we make collaborations work better?

There are no silver bullets in response to these questions.  My hope is that my ongoing research can help to guide policymakers and practitioners in their quest for a more sustainable future.

Inauguration Day, Resilience, and American Society

I must admit that I’m feeling very patriotic today.  It’s a bit of a hangover from the Inauguration earlier this week.  Nothing that follows has a blatant right vs. left political agenda, so I apologize in advance for any looking for a fight over that.  I’m sure that there will still be plenty to pick apart.  Again, this isn’t a rigorous scientific study, but I hope that it’s a thoughtful editorial.  For my international friends, it will have a bit of flag-waving.  So be it.

I am fortunate enough to be in the midst of a project on how to enhance the resilience of ecosystem services with other Resilience Alliance Young Scholars.  For those that don’t know, ecosystem services are provisions and services supplied to humankind from ecosystems, generally split into provisioning services (food, wood, etc), regulating services (erosion control, flood mitigation, etc), supporting services (crop pollination, nutrient cycles), and cultural services (recreation, religious use, etc).  In a paper recently published in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources, we identified 7 principles seen as enhancing the resilience of ecosystem services (see Biggs et al. 2012. “Toward Principles for Enhancing the Resilience of Ecosystem Services”, Annual Review of Environment and Resources 37:3.1-28. for the details).  For present purposes, I’ll skip over formal definitions of resilience and, to the chagrin of many of my colleagues, let’s just equate this with sustainability for the moment.  These 7 principles are:

  1. Maintain diversity and redundancy,
  2. Manage connectivity,
  3. Manage slow variables and feedbacks,
  4. Foster an understanding of complex adaptive systems,
  5. Encourage learning and experimentation,
  6. Broaden participation, and
  7. Promote polycentric governance systems.

If you are interested in what these mean in more detail and getting past the jargon, please contact me and/or read the full article.

For now, let’s return to Inauguration Day.  Clearly the (These) United States face a large number of challenges.  Several of these were mentioned in the various speeches, responses, and talking head debates from both sides of the fence.  Without prioritizing, these include a slowly growing economy, climate change, a violent world, a lagging educational system, a gridlocked political system, and so on.  However, if we think about the principles above as mechanisms for sustainability and long-enduring social-ecological systems, I feel enthusiastic about the future of this country.  In particular, the United States, by its design, is built around diversity and having a unique blend of peoples, cultures, and ways of thinking.  Clearly this often creates divides and dissension (see immigration reform).  It also creates opportunities and fosters new ideas.  We have a society, a political system and a private (and third) sector focused on learning and experimenting.  This is the America of innovation and entrepreneurship – in both the private sector and public.  Our society engenders as well as depends upon broad participation.  Putnam’s thoughts on social capital aside, I remain steadfastly optimistic about this as well.  Finally, the Federal system of government, the number of collaborative governance arrangements that I encounter in my regular research, and the vitality of the NGO community nationwide, provides evidence of polycentric governance systems of great breadth and depth.

Granted, there are a great many problems to fix, and the work is never-ending.  The US faces great difficulties, particularly in understanding and responding to complexity (witness the responses to climate change), but I believe these United States are, were, and will remain resilient.