Building back better: Resilience means more than bouncing back

Adapting, transforming and creating new ways of functioning as a society: This is how reshaping a resilient future in the aftermath of a shock should look like, argue researchers

GRP Areas of work: Knowledge Theme: Health (incl COVID-19))

Global shocks like COVID-19 are not exceptions or rare occurrences. As a result of human-driven activity in an increasingly hyper-connected world, events such as pandemics, financial crashes, food shocks and energy crises are becoming more frequent.

“After decades of increasing frequency of extreme events, the world finally recognizes a shift of the Earth system from a relatively stable state to an unstable one. COVID-19 is a manifestation of the Anthropocene, and resilience is critical to deal with, learn from global shocks and to build back better,” states Johan Rockström, co-founder of the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) and director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK).

In a new article in the journal Nature Sustainability, he and an international research team looked at which role resilience could play in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Strategies  and definitions need to change now

To get a better understanding of resilience, firstly, Rockström and his co-authors looked at the definition of resilience: Instead of ‘bouncing back’ from a shock, they define resilience as having the capacity to live and develop with change and uncertainty.

“A forward-looking approach is needed that reflects how people and nature are linked and interact from the local to global scales,” explains co-author Albert Norström, Head of Knowledge at GRP and an SRC researcher.

In the article, the scientists also present five key attributes that underpin this definition: diversity, redundancy, connectivity, inclusivity and equity, as well as adaptative learning. Organisations should consider and include these attributes in their resilience strategies to ensure adaptation and transformation in response to a shock.

COVID-19 response strategies  – persist, sometimes adapt, and rarely transform

In a second step, the international team of scientists analysed the COVID-19 resilience response strategies of 16 prominent intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank Group.

Many COVID-19 recovery plans focused on returning to the status quo before the crisis and did little to build resilience to future shocks and stresses. Only four defined resilience. Furthermore, where resilience is defined, it is limited to ‘bouncing back’ after a shock.

The authors’ findings reinforce previous research showing that resilience is often poorly articulated among international organisations and development agencies. Only a few of the response strategies recognised the importance of being prepared and able to adapt to future shocks. Even fewer reference being able to ‘transform’ and create new systems and ways of functioning as a society when shocks make the existing system unstable.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the urgent need for a clearer and more operational definition of resilience that goes beyond simply bouncing back from a shock. Now is the time to start translating advancements in resilience science into broader-scale action that builds resilient and sustainable economies, societies and ecosystems in a post-COVID-19 world,” concludes Rockström.

Read the full article: Shaping a resilient future in response to COVID-19 in Nature Sustainability

Five key resilience attributes

1. Diversity (e.g. biodiversity, livelihood strategies, and institutional diversity) in all its forms. Diversity provides flexibility, through the ability to respond in multiple ways to systemic changes and shocks, and provides sources of innovation for novel conditions.

2. Redundancy ensures that there are multiple ways to secure critical functions in a system, such as the provision of food or income, thereby providing “insurance” and reducing single-point failure.

3. Connectivity relates to the way and degree by which resources, information, species or people move or interact within social-ecological systems.

4. Inclusivity and equity are critical for building trust and facilitating collective action for responding to volatility and change. More equal societies are less prone to instability and conflict.

5. Adaptive learning enables us to detect changes, learn from them, and tailor strategies appropriately.