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Co-creating resilient communities, organisations and societies

Andrea Gewessler, director of Change that Matters, argues the need for resilience in facing the interconnected challenges of a currently unsustainable world. Change that Matters is running a seminar on resilience in London on 7th October 2011.

Andrew Gessler quote(Photo courtesy Seamus Ryan)

What makes a community resilient?

Our answers to this will determine whether the recent unrest suffered in London and other cities is repeated. Yet for such an important question few actually spend much time thinking about resilience, nor how we can grow rather than squander it.

Concepts such as sustainability, corporate social responsibility and shared value, on the other hand, have entered boardrooms, the media and society at large. The question is how deep have we gone to truly understand what they mean? Do we collectively build new shared mental and actual models of a world that is sustainable truly engages our heads, hearts and souls, so much so that we are propelled towards this desirable vision? Or do we tinker with what there is, generally attached to a vision that is not sustainable but somehow sits comfortably.

Millions of people have dedicated efforts over recent decades to tackle issues such as poverty, pollution, climate change, conflict and corporate social responsibility. All sections of society have been involved, from individuals to NGOs to companies to governments. Yet despite this immense effort the issues remain – many of them poised at tipping points that may not be recoverable. Society has tackled its issues in ways that led to resilience in reverse! What can we learn from this? And can we learn it now when we’ve somehow avoided learning it before?

Embracing interconnectedness

Most importantly, we need to start solving the right issues and in ways that embrace their interconnectedness. How often have we seen an attempted solution lead to further problems or displaced problems? This happens when the glaring symptomic disturbance that cries out to be stopped is defined as the problem. Then the solutions that get pursued are those that fit into the existing pool of expertise, funds, ideas and assumptions.

We are attempting to tackle issues such as climate change, social injustice and hunger as if they were independent of each other and were the root causes of our emerging crises. In fact they are symptoms which are highly interrelated and have deep-seated causes at their root. Our love affair with economic growth comes close to the root as it is fuelled by the pursuit of a dream that is underpinned by a set of values, which are at odds with the ecological limits of the planet. What happens with other solutions that seek to solve problems at source with a broader whole-system approach? Usually – nothing much.

Once we understand that sustainability cannot be equated to solving single issues, nor that efficiency savings and optimisation alone are not the solution, we may start to gain a deeper understanding of sustainability and begin to look at how the issues and socio-economic systems interrelate with the environmental system. It then becomes clear that all human activity depends on a healthy environment. As Ray Anderson, the recently deceased CEO of Interface Inc. said:

‘I have never heard the business case for unsustainability.’

We have to work our preference to solve issues by reducing them into smaller parts, which allows us to operate in a compartmentalised cause and effect way. This only serves us well to solve simple problems, such as fixing a broken bicycle, but they are not suitable to produce intelligent responses to the issues emerging within highly complex dynamic systems. Reductionist and linear thinking give us the illusion that we can control parts of the system without a knock-on effect onto other parts, when in reality these parts are often tightly coupled and governed by feedbacks. So one may ask, how can resilience help us?

A brilliant idea

Resilience is a brilliant idea to explore when we want to solve big long-standing problems that really must now be solved. Resilience suggests stability against change but the greatest opportunities for resilience come from a different kind of change – transformability. Communities, or society as a whole, can transform in ways that make disturbances less and less likely. According to Brian Walker, Programme Director of the Resilience Alliance, and David Salt, a science writer:

“Resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance; to undergo change and still retain essentially the same function, structure, and feedbacks. In other words, it’s the capacity to undergo some change without crossing a threshold to a different system regime – a system with a different identity.”
Resilience thinking – Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World, by Brian Walker and David Salt, Island Press (2006)

Resilience therefore is a good thing if the systems conditions are desirable, but a bad thing, if they are undesirable. Clearly whether changes are considered desirable may be rather subjective. We may have observed organisational cultures that did not shift or other change programmes that were ineffective. Many governments in this world have built highly resilient systems that do not serve their people well. Undoubtedly though, humans would like to hold onto the extraordinarily beneficial ecological conditions that have supported us throughout the Holocene and for these conditions to demonstrate high levels of resilience. We therefore need to determine which systems conditions are ideal for life to survive and thrive as well as understand the system’s tipping points, the points when a system moves from one stable state into another. So if we think back to the rioting and looting in August it is important not only to investigate the root causes but also what it would have taken for society to move into a different state altogether and what the resilience factors were that prevented us from doing so.

In order to co-create resilient communities, organisations and societies we first of all need to get our priorities right. The natural world that is the lifeblood to all other activity needs to be at the centre of all we do as a society we must ensure that we grow its resilience. A group of 28 internationally renowned scientists propose that as an Earth community we need to operate within a number of planetary boundaries. According to Johan Rockström, Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre:

“To continue to live and operate safely, humanity has to stay away from critical ‘hard-wired´ thresholds in the Earth´s environment, and respect the nature of the planet’s climatic, geophysical, atmospheric and ecological processes.”

The centre identified nine such boundaries including biodiversity, climate change land system change and ocean acidification.

We also need to co-create desirable visions of what a society that lives within these thresholds could actually look like. The co-creational aspect requires us to do this together through equitable collaboration and dialogue. Democracy cannot be limited to regular elections, people must have a possibility to engage and co-design. Education must play a bigger part in connecting young people to their environment, to the people they share the planet with and their responsibility for governance and stewardship. The economy, important as it is, needs to become a servant of planetary and societal wellbeing.

How can we become resilient?

One way of increasing resilience is through increasing diversity and modularity within a system.

At the moment key systems that sustain an ever growing population such as the food and water systems, transport or energy systems neither demonstrate high levels of diversity, nor modularity. Our energy system and infrastructure is solidly dependent on fossil fuels particularly oil and despite a drive to diversify the energy market renewable energy only amounts to a small fraction of production worldwide even though there are some notable exceptions. Food production and distribution is dominated by large businesses and according to Professor Robert Watson, Chief Scientific Advisor for Defra:

“[The] increase in agricultural production has been accompanied by an increase in GHG emissions, loss of biodiversity, and land and water degradation.”

This of course means that resilience decreases. Globalisation has almost got rid of any kind of modularity, so that shocks in one part of the system travel very quickly and affect other often seemingly unrelated ones elsewhere. Social unrest in other parts of the world manifesting in increased food prices in a south London supermarket is one such example.

Future resilient communities and societies will have transformed their values and cultural narrative with new qualities and capacities for problem solving that may today seem scarce. Yet every individual and every community already has a capacity for collaborative dialogue that can lead transformation, even without anyone standing out as a leader. Change can be ‘crowd-sourced’, or ‘co-created’ within groups of people with different backgrounds and beliefs. Solutions can be found that deal with both the symptoms of disturbances of many kinds and also the root-cause sources of problems. These solutions can express a ‘collective intelligence’ that goes beyond consensus solutions and beyond what any individual could offer. Such dialogue is the voice of the future and should embrace all people.

Tomorrow’s success and survival are truly dependent on today’s systems and resilience thinking.

Seminar on resilience

If you’re a big-picture thinker who wants to bring about transformational change then please join us for a day about ‘Co-creating resilient communities, organisations and societies’ on 7 October 2011 in Vauxhall, London.

The event will bring together individuals from public, private and voluntary sector backgrounds to inspire ambitious responses to many of the emergent crises of this time. You will have the opportunity to shape the day’s activities and to work on questions that matter to you.

The day will start with a presentation by James Greyson, Head of the think tank Blindspot, asking why society keeps co-creating conflict and unsustainability, and how the movements to address this could start to become effective by challenging their own assumptions. Facilitation will be provided by Andrea Gewessler, Director of Change that Matters Ltd. A storyteller will bring a dramatic conclusion to the day by weaving together a tale reflecting the many conversations of the day. A report with all the outcomes of the day will be emailed to all participants within a week.

For more information and registration please go to

Follow Andrea on Twitter at

User comments

  1. Tim says:

    Thanks for the words of wisdom but I am personally really feeling that such esoteric discussions are symptomatic of the ‘chattering classes’ NOT particularly coming to terms with sustainability. Endless theorising – particularly for the sake of concerns other than saving our planet and its inhabitants – is not helping. We need extremely practical actions and which do not further muddy the waters of sustainability.

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