Resilience: From a theoretical concept towards a global paradigm? Critical reflections on the Resilience Conference 2014.

In 2009 I wrote my Master thesis at the Stockholm Resilience Center (SRC), based on field work in the Western African Republic of Niger. Being at the SRC, basically the ‘hub’ of current resilience research, it was quite impossible not to deal with this concept. Back then, resilience theory seemed quite complex to me, and having a human geography background, I wasn’t sure about its applicability to the ‘human dimension’. The adaptive cycle, panarchy, basins of attraction – how should these terms be of any use for a non-scientist?

Now, a few years later, I went to my first resilience conference, taking place every three years. Not sure on what to expect I must admit that I was seriously overwhelmed, in a very positive way. Spending a couple of days among a vast array of people (~900!) from all kinds of academic and NGO backgrounds made me feel like a bee in a massive beehive. Everybody was dealing with the concept in some way, working on a small piece in the multi-dimensional systems theory puzzle, all together pursuing the same goal: trying to make the world a slightly better place.

I don’t want to sound too pathetic, but I wish to share my insights with you on the notions of resilience I found most intriguing, and on the aspects that to my mind should be considered more meaningfully.

1. Planetary boundaries and the social floor

The planetary boundary session with Johan Rockström and Melissa Leach was summarized here, so I won’t repeat it. But I’d like to highlight the metaphors the speakers used. On the one hand, we have enough evidence that due to our unsustainable lifestyles, food and agricultural systems, and economic performance we are about to “hit the ceiling” of the Earth’s “safe operating space”, which to transgress will very likely lead us into an undesirable Earth system state or basin of attraction with self-accelerating, negative feedbacks in terms of global warming, biodiversity loss etc. (see graph). On the other hand, our institutions by now have failed to adequately tackle this global challenge. The reasons are manifold – be it different goals of each national government, different perceptions of urgency, or massive power differentials. According to Leach, we need to reinvent the “social floor” away from “environmental authoritarianism” and “Green Market fixes” towards Earth stewardship. Governance should be multi-scale, adaptive, networked, deliberative, and engaged with Science. But how can this governance transformation be achieved?


2. Reinventing governance

This leads us to the session entitled “reinventing governance” and headed by Victor Galaz (SRC). Several simulation tools such as the “Governance Futures Lab” were presented that tackle the question of how bottom-up innovations, adaptive learning and participation among the broad public can be improved, and how citizens can engage more powerfully in governance. As one speaker put it: “Politics is the one sport where the amateur is better for the nation than the professional” (Lawrence Lessig). Often, these simulations/ experiments rely on case studies, interviews and tests with various groups. The questions then are: How can we improve/ renew our governance mechanisms rapidly enough to get out of currently destructive pathways? And how can issues such as social justice, equity, and power differentials adequately be tackled?

3. Linking rights and resilience

The session “linking rights and resilience” focused on how to (better) incorporate the notions of power and agency into resilience thinking. Explicitly, the problem of different speeds was mentioned, which is one of the fundaments of resilience thinking (fast vs. slow variables). On the one hand, we have extremely powerful ‘players’ such as the media, multi-national corporations, governments or pressure groups. At the same time, political decisions often need to be made rapidly, and tend to focus on short-term impacts, for instance regarding extreme weather events. On the other hand there are millions of powerless, vulnerable people lacking access to financial and human capitals, among others. They have to make livelihood decisions spontaneously, but improving their livelihoods and making them more resilient against shocks and crises requires long-term, adaptive planning and a holistic governance approach. To this end, various speakers suggested that principles of associative, deliberative democracy should be incorporated into policy-making, and that governance innovations should have a ‘human rights-lens’. Graphically speaking, the mental planetary boundary vs. social floor model should be underpinned by a human rights foundation (see graphic).

4. Resilience and development

As it was pointed out elsewhere, resilience theory has not only been taken up by EU institutions, but also by various international development agencies. During the session “resilience and development” various speakers highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of incorporating resilience thinking into development cooperation. Resilience theory is a useful way to foster holistic/ systems thinking and to underline the interdependence and multi-scalar nature of human-environment interactions. Besides, it is a normative, intuitive concept to policy brokers. There is a growing recognition that improving the resilience of social-ecological systems is more effective and sustainable than providing humanitarian aid once a crisis has already hit a region. However, issues of power, agency and equity are hardly paid attention to. At the same time, resilience has no automatic link to poverty alleviation and can be good and bad. Some systems (such as dictatorships or the global food system) are remarkably resilient, with resilience being commonly understood as “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize…so as to still retain essentially the same functions” (Folke et al. 2010). More exchange between development practitioners, resilience theorists and policy makers is needed to improve the applicability of the concept in the development discourse.

5. Resilience at the margin

One of the main questions then is: resilience for whom to what?, as Melissa Leach had prominently reiterated (see Lebel et al. 2006). Resilience has different meanings according to the context, and according to the actor (policy maker, businessman, smallholder, etc.). Besides, the notion of development must be critically reflected as some people(s) ‘at the margin’ (of dominant societies) might opt against a different living standard (e.g. moving from rural to urban areas) because of positive place attachment, sense of community, or landscape aesthetics. This was shown by various case studies in the session “resilience at the margin”. Moreover, traditional social institutions can be sources of innovation, adaptive learning, and of resilience where scientists/ practitioners can learn from.

6. The role of scientists

So, after all, what should be the role of scientists in the light of resilience theory? Firstly, we should communicate our research and inform (development) practitioners and policy makers. At the same time, as a lot of research is still conducted place-based, it should be our task to ‘upscale’ (indigenous/ social) innovation capacity, for instance by setting up knowledge-sharing platforms or exchange mechanisms among communities. By cooperating with local groups and local policy makers, we can contribute to capacity building and community empowerment. We should not forget that there is a massive ‘middle class’ of well-educated, social media users, which to address should be of prior concern. Changing their behavior towards more sustainable lifestyles would help empower the most vulnerable, and curb ‘extreme power’ at the same time (see graph). Scientists need to be cautious not to be ‘coopted’ by the powerful. On the contrary, we should contribute to fostering transformative pathways (e.g. involving alliances with bottom-up initiatives and citizen groups) to challenge the current, unfortunately quite resilient socio-economic structures.


Folke, C., S. R. Carpenter, B. Walker, M. Scheffer, T. Chapin, and J. Rockström. 2010. Resilience thinking: integrating resilience, adaptability and transformability. Ecology and Society 15(4): 20. [online] URL:

Lebel, L., J. M. Anderies, B. Campbell, C. Folke, S. Hatfield-Dodds, T. P. Hughes. and J. Wilson. 2006. Governance and the capacity to manage resilience in regional social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society 11(1): 19. [online] URL:

9 thoughts on “Resilience: From a theoretical concept towards a global paradigm? Critical reflections on the Resilience Conference 2014.

  1. Thanks Frieda for this overview. It seems that times each big paradigm had its time to appear and develop, and the current uncertain world with its many facets and consequences on us shaped the ‘basin’ for the resilience concept to appear and start maturing. A big question indeed is what we should do with it, or, can we do anything with it?:) In many respects these frameworks and theories helped me to understand one thing: (beyond those small success stories and the hopes generated by them) how impossible our situation is. How it could be (nice to be resilient, transformative, adaptable, both as individual, society and as social-ecological system and…biosphere), and how it cant be (because it is so hard:)), exactly because of the many traps and development path dependencies where we are from individual persons to global system. I am looking around me to see the many tens of thousands of people working in various factories to produce what we need in our everyday lives. I perceive them so vulnerable, as well as the many other hundreds of thousands of people working in other, similar environments. Resilience is a privilege in these conditions:) And I am not pessimistic at all!:) It is very good to see so many people dealing with resilience. Greetings, Tibi

  2. Thanks, Tibi and Andra, for your comments! I fully agree, the world has become much more interlinked, complex, and uncertain. In this light, resilience theory can help foster systems understanding and make the inter-dependencies of tightly coupled social-ecological systems more tangible. But despite the described power differentials and issues of justice and equality that resilience theory is currently (somewhat) disregarding, I’m not as hopeless. There are a lot of good projects being undertaken, and policy makers seem to have understood the importance of systems thinking. The biggest challenge to me, then, is to accelerate the speed of social innovations and adaptive learning, and build up a counterbalance to the most powerful. It’s about time to implement our vast research findings, and become active!

    • Nice Frieda – agree with all points. However, the question is: how many innovations our social system can support without being even more split/fragmented?:) Look to conservaiton biologists…at least we are within one boat, and it is still so hard/impossible to find consensus between the many ‘innovative’ thought and visions we have. So ‘consensus’ ahould also be part of the ecuation in a way to stabilize / slow down (not to stop!) innovations. However, this is again theory, in practice will be very difficult because we, people are inherently built to have identities. (group and individual ones) So that ‘stakeholderization’ is permanently there are a ‘threat’ to trap us:)

      • I agree, Tibi, and obviously I have no solution to this problem. The opposite of “stakeholderization” would be a strong leader or ‘leading caste’, which would lead to (environmental) authoritarianism and run counter to the notion of poly-centric governance. But I asked myself the same question: how can we create a deliberative, networked governance regime fast enough to transform into a sustainable global society- given many (emergent country) governments claiming their right to development, and not particularly caring about human rights and their natural capital (which, in turn, are Western concepts..). And: where will deliberation lead us to, if we don’t just want to talk endlessly, but goal-oriented? Status: It’s complicated 😉

  3. Pingback: Resilience NEWS | resilience reporter

    • Dear Howard, you are right- I didn’t mean to ignore the actual founders, so my formulation might have been a bit misleading. I changed the section accordingly. Thanks and best, Frieda

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