How can we measure resilience?

Not long ago I wrote an article welcoming resilience as the new conceptual kid on the block. Sustainability’s lost its luster. It’s always been a little stale, lacking charisma and charm; who dreams of a “sustainable” marriage? I expected resilience to establish itself as THE go-to idea for years to come; heck, we even named our book after it. So imagine my surprise when the September 2014 edition of the journal Resilience, published by the Quivira Coalition, arrived with a cover article entitled “Beyond Resilience.” Wait, what? Is life really moving so fast that we’ve already moved past this crucial concept? Our book isn’t even on Oprah’s list yet; come on, people!

The truth is we also took the concept of resilience beyond its former boundaries. In his 2012 book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back Andrew Zolli defined resilience simply as a capacity to withstand shocks. For us it’s not enough to just bounce back,—let’s aim higher, let’s try to bounce back better. As we shared last quarter, our definition is bouncier and more forward-looking: Resilience helps us to thrive by anticipating and preparing for disturbance, improving the capacity to withstand shocks, rebuilding as necessary, and adapting and evolving when possible.

In the Resilience cover article in question, Todd Graham writes about the continuous improvements seen on the Ucross Ranch in Wyoming. It’s an inspiring read, and I recommend it. The core of Graham’s critique is that resilience is difficult to count or measure. He asks “How does a manager quantify a resource’s preparedness for a disturbance when the incidence rate and duration are largely unknown?”

As a planner this is exactly what I hear most often about planning: how can I plan for the future when I don’t know what will happen? Well, that’s exactly why you should be planning! If you knew what was coming there wouldn’t be much need to plan. If life was scripted you’d memorize your lines and move as directed. But that’s not reality, right? What’s real now is that reality is changing, and fast. To pick one area out of dozens, look at technology. The pace of change is staggering; more than 90% of the world (yes, world) has a cell phone now. And when something as seemingly “given” as the climate is shifting quickly as well, then planning and thinking is relevant to everyone.

Let me rant a little. We need to get comfortable being uncomfortable. We need to recognize that the ground is shifting, that the old normal won’t be the new normal, and perhaps even the idea of normal—including the “new normal”!—is outmoded. Sometimes when asked that “why plan?” question, I reply (after a barely stifled sigh) with the observation that you can choose to either make things happen, watch things happen, or wonder, “What happened?” Resilience is a useful lens for planning, thanks to the ways it asks us to face the unknown, to think about a wider range of possible disturbances than we’ve seen before, and to contemplate the likelihood that difficult things could happen more frequently and last longer. But let’s remember the flip side is also true: more good things could happen, and resilience (as we define it) suggests that you think about that too: “How do we capture the upside of change?” End rant here.

But Graham’s complaint is at least partly accurate; precisely quantifying resilience isn’t easy. The theorists at Resilience Science are struggling with the same problem. Following their Resilience 2014 conference, Allyson Quinlan addressed this directly in a post at that asked “Should We Measure Resilience?”: “Efforts to measure resilience are well underway while at the same time there are concerns about what exactly is being measured and whether this shift in focus misses the point of what resilience thinking has to offer.” For me this is a core challenge of resilience; it is indeed more than just a simple quantity. It’s not one easy-to-track factor, like blood pressure or annual income. It’s a complex variable that’s made up of many interacting factors, more akin to happiness than gross domestic product. It’s also complicated by the fact that it’s both quantitative and qualitative; some pieces of what might go in to a resilience measurement are qualities like satisfaction for people or tilth for soil.

Rooting around on the web for answers to this question, I found a Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) concept paper helpful (“Measuring Resilience: A Concept Note on the Resilience Tool”; download PDF). As a visual thinker I like the “Resilience Score” they developed for aid workers in Palestine. They evaluate six components and plot them on a “radar chart.” (see illustration at top of post) Each component has known metrics or can be evaluated comparatively. In the situation discussed in the concept paper, they are looking at stability, income and food access, assets, access to basic services, social safety nets, and adaptive capacity. Mapped on a chart, it provides an easy visual representation of overall resilience. A similar visual could be developed for pasture resilience, as Tom Graham is looking for in Wyoming, or for any resilient investor attempting to bring coherence to a resilient investing plan.

Resilience thinking inspires me because it asks us to step back and look at the bigger picture, to consider longer time frames, and to imagine how our systems could be better positioned to respond to whatever might be coming.

What are you, your family and household, and your community doing to able to bounce back better?

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