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Designing Resilience

 Designing Resilience

Designing Resilience


Resilience has become a fashionable buzzword in recent years. The term is frequently found in many different discourses, ranging from the sports pages (resilient teams overcoming late-game deficits) to the international news (the war in Iraq), from reports of natural disasters (Hurricane Katrina) to policy papers on the protection of critical infrastructures (the 2001California blackout). It appears that everything (organizations, cities, nations) and everybody (from schoolteachers to the U.S. president) can and should be resilient.

This advent of the resilience concept in popular and professional discourse can be viewed as a function of a rising need for resilience. If we accept that dominant trends such as globalization, increasing interdependence and complexity, the spread of potentially dangerous technologies, new forms of terrorism, and climate change create new and unimaginable threats to modern societies, it is only a small step to recognizing and accepting the inherent shortcomings of contemporary approaches to prevention and preparation. If we cannot predict or foresee the urgent threats we face, prevention and preparation become difficult. The concept of resilience holds the promise of an answer.

Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath demonstrated the need for such an answer. The televised sight of stranded masses, people utterly helpless and without assistance, hammered home the message that modern, large-scale sociotechnical systems have become vulnerable to shocks. The technical system of levees, pumping stations, and canals designed to protect the vulnerable city of New Orleans from the intrusion of water failed, and as a result the people depending on the stable functioning of the system suffered.

In this case, the political-administrative system and the people it governs were unable to prepare for and cope with a predicted disaster. The toll of a surprise disaster, such as the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 or the 2008 earthquake in China, can only be higher.


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