The Resilient System: Diversity

As part of my focus on helping create a more resilient world, I’m going to be writing a series of blog posts on what I think are components of resilient systems.

The first topic is Diversity. For a system to be resilient, it needs to have resources distributed in such a way that they can be re-allocated to solving new problems as they appear, or dealing with challenges in multiple ways.  One of the main opponents of system diversity is efficiency.  There might be a conflict of interest here.

Since perhaps the dawn of mankind (but certainly the industrial revolution), we’ve been on a shared quest to increase the efficiency of our systems. From food production to education, manufacturing and transportation, we’ve been on a mission to do “more with less”. And that’s been great, and it’s led to all kinds of innovation and savings in energy, time and money. Heck, the very fact that you’re reading this on the internet (and not in a book 6-months from now) is the result of increases in communication efficiency. But the dark side to all of this efficiency is rigidity.

Called the “Rigidity Trap”, systems that are highly efficient are also highly prone to failure when confronted with crisis. One look at the cod fishery collapse in Atlantic Canada shows a system that evolved from being very diverse (lot’s of little fishing boats and owner/operators pre 1950s, using traditional fishing methods) to being highly efficient (giant trawlers with enormous haul nets and onboard cleaning and freezing facilities). The annual catch went up from 250,000 tons in the 1950s to 800,000 tons in 1968. This increase in efficiency led the system into a rigidity trap, where fisherman HAD to keep pursuing larger and larger catches, to justify the mortgages on very expensive and efficient boats. The federal government didn’t step in until 1992, at which point 42,000 people were put out of work when the fishery was closed. For over 400 years the northern Atlantic cod fishery had been one of the richest in the world, and in a few short decades of ever-increasing efficiency, was decimated.

Of course, we can look at diversity at a broad range of scales. How diverse is your personal thinking? Do you visit the same websites, read the same newspaper columnists, listen to the same radio talk shows? Do you only read things at

The next blog post will be on Feedback, as it’s the critical element that informs the system on what’s working and what’s not. From the examples above, if we only get feedback from sources that support our worldview, I think we’re in danger of developing our own “rigidity traps”.

A few things to ponder in your own systems (at whatever scale you have influence on).

  1. Are we sacrificing diversity for efficiency? And what are the consequences if our efficient system becomes so rigid that it can’t handle change, and collapses? Will 42,000 people be put out of work and an ecosystem destroyed?
  2. Do we have redundancy built into the system? Are we willing to sacrifice a bit of efficiency to ensure the system can survive crisis? (An example from my own life is heating my house. I have a traditional furnace and a wood stove. Redundant systems that perform the same task, a little less efficient, but more resilient. Same idea with the truck that runs on diesel and vegetable oil.)

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.