The resiliency imperative

I’m reading a very interesting book by the title of “Resilience: Why things bounce back” by Andrew Zolli and Anne Marie Healy.

I’m only a few chapters in, so this isn’t a recommended read yet. It’s certainly very interesting though. Its’ gotten me thinking about the notion of sustainability and resiliency, and how they fit together.

The author’s make the point that sustainability is very much a mitigation effort, attempting to prolong a lifestyle by “pruning humanity’s footprint”. They use an interesting metaphor of a car hurtling towards a cliff. Some of the occupants of the car will shout “turn back” or “hit the brakes”, an appropriate response while there’s still time.

I couldn’t resist the Thelma and Louise shot…

But what happens at the edge, or when the car is airborne? What then? Surely hitting the brakes does nothing, and the other occupants of the car will start building parachutes, choosing to adapt to the changing circumstances.

Of course, we’re living in systems that don’t have obvious cliffs. Which makes it even harder to decide when you should shift gears between mitigating risk and adapting to a new reality. Maybe we should be doing a bit of both…hitting the brakes to give us some time to build a proper parachute, or attach some wings to the car!

Why such a strongly worded title? Imperative (defined as an unavoidable obligation) indicates how urgent the situation is. Focusing on the resiliency of systems has to be our next step. Recently in Calgary, AB, SHAW communications experienced a fire that destroyed several floors of servers. 911 service went down, as did much of the Alberta Government’s online services. There were no offsite backups, no resiliency in the system, no ability to bounce back quickly.

And of course there’s the recent power outages in the US, a great example of a fragile system at work.

So how DO you make systems more resilient, increasing their capacity to bounce back from distress? For starters, you need to acknowledge that systems aren’t insular, that is they interact with each other instead of standing alone. We also need to recognize that different systems react and change over different time scales. The stock market might move around daily, but mother nature takes a bit longer to react.

Interested in more resiliency reading? Check out the Resilience Alliance.

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