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Building a Resilient Tomorrow

In a 21st century world of uneven growth, disruptive technology, climate danger, and chaotic politics, we must build a society that’s transparent, diverse and able to look ahead—and embracing a philosophy of resilience will help get us there.

The myriad challenges facing us in the first half of the 21st century—including climate disruption, the emergence of transformative bio-, nano- and neuro- technologies, key resources on the brink of collapse, and a global economy whipsawing between boom and bust—have one key feature in common: They underscore how brittle our civilization has become. Our capacity to respond effectively to emerging crises is increasingly tenuous. Any one of these issues, if handled clumsily, could push us into a spiral of disaster; in combination, they present us with an almost impossible task.

Almost, but not entirely. We can meet these challenges—and others yet to emerge—if we embrace a philosophy of resilience. Resilience is the capacity of a system to withstand unexpected shocks, to rebuild itself when necessary and to thrive when possible. It’s a concept that historically was discussed in disciplines such as material science and psychology; increasingly, it’s a perspective that is finding purchase in the worlds of environmental science, sociology and national security. Across this diverse set of fields, we can see a growing emphasis on preparation over prevention, on decentralization over monocultures and on agility over strength.

At the core of the resilience concept is a simple argument: Failure happens, so we need to be ready. Yet strategies that depend upon complete, ongoing success—and that collapse under pressure—are distressingly common. We saw it in Iraq war planning that paid insufficient attention to the potential for post-war instability and in financial models that assumed that home prices only go up; we see it now in environmental arguments that assert that our only option is an immediate, complete cessation of carbon emissions. This way of thinking—call it the “aspirational” model—has us ask one big question: “What can we do to maximize our results?” When everything works as desired, this approach can be quite efficient and sometimes enormously successful.

But what if things don’t go as planned? What if the results we desire fail to materialize or are ephemeral? All too often, reality has the impertinence to take a different path; failure (of systems, of infrastructure, of people) can and will happen. Insurgencies erupt, housing prices fall, and there is a very real possibility that even an immediate cessation of carbon emissions would come too late to avoid climate disaster. In this kind of world, a resilience perspective forces us to ask a very different question: “What can we do to minimize harm?”

Admitting that failure happens may sound humble, but in many ways it’s actually quite a bit more ambitious than simply hoping for the best. Resilience requires that we structure our societies, our economies and our behavior in ways that can account for uncertainty and cushion us when problems arise. It asks us to sacrifice a measure of efficiency in order to see improvements in safety. It requires that we put the needs of the future ahead of the desires of the present—something that human society hasn’t always been very good at doing.

Resilient systems have three fundamental characteristics in common: transparency, diversity, and foresight.

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Jamais Cascio is a Senior Fellow of the IEET, and a professional futurist. He writes the popular blog Open the Future.


Old joke about airplanes: “when the weight of the plane’s paperwork is equal to the weight of the plane then it is ready to fly.”
Today when the weight of a politician’s bankroll is equal to the size of his ego, the guy is ready to run for office.

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