What is resilience thinking?
Resilience thinking is a multidisciplinary approach for understanding and managing dynamic systems, such as regions or catchments.
Resilience is defined as a system’s (such as a region, catchment, ecosystem, farm or industries) capacity to absorb disturbance and continue to function in a desired way.
Resilience thinking conceptualises regions as complex adaptive systems where the dynamics of the social (including economic) and ecological systems are intertwined, where changes in one will inevitably result in changes in the other. The dynamics are largely self organising, determined by the constant interplay between drivers, feedbacks and interactions rather than the actions of a single organisation, key driver or mechanism.
Attempts to ‘fix’ or hold one part of the system constant, so it delivers maximum benefits or outputs overtime for example, will inevitably result in unexpected consequences as the system changes around the part being held constant. Instead a resilience approach focuses on building the capacity to cope with change and on continually improving knowledge and understanding of the important dynamics through an adaptive management approach.
Building or maintaining the resilience of a region requires an understanding how the system functions and its limits to absorb disturbances. Management interventions are then designed to avoid reaching those limits or getting back within those limits where they have already been reached. These management interventions are implemented in an adaptive management framework that continually tests the assumptions, learns from the interventions, and scans for changes to any of the key dynamics.
How does resilience thinking differ from other approaches to managing natural resources?
The overall aim of resilience thinking is to maintain the maximum options for the future by avoiding crossing thresholds or tipping points that are difficult (expensive and/or time consuming) to recover from. It does this by focusing on;
- maintaining and/or improving the capacity of the ecological system to withstand unnatural levels of disturbances
- developing the capacity of the social system to manage adaptively so it can respond to changes in the dynamics of the system that might limit future options.
This approach differs somewhat from traditional approaches that attempt to define a sustainable state to aim for then try to manage and control the dynamics in order to reach the desired goal.
Attempts to intervene in social-ecological systems that try to control change and do not recognise the dynamics and connections between social and ecological systems usually fail to meet their stated aims and often cause unintended consequences. These failures can be traced back to the assumptions about how the system functions and how management interventions will ‘fix’ problems as they arise. Typically it is assumed that change is smooth, slow and incremental. In reality change is rarely smooth but rather abrupt and unexpected. Coping with this type of change requires new approaches built of flexibility and the capacity to respond in different ways, rather than any simple recipe for solving what are often very complex problems.
Three key elements in the strategic planning process are critical to developing a resilience based approach:
- Project management that coordinates the collection and synthesis of information about the resilience of the system
- Technical input that provides expert social and ecological input at key times during the process
- Communication within and between these groups and with other stakeholders and the wider community
In approaching a RCS using Resilience Thinking, minimal requirements are:
- Best available information/data about the social structure and dynamics (key outputs, drivers, trends, thresholds) at the appropriate scale, including emerging issues
- Knowledge about the performance of the current RCS, and its strengths/weaknesses
- Knowledge/links to other strategic plans and process so you can easily map governance, overlaps, synergies, conflict in governance etc