How does a wetland cope with change? When extra high water flows into a wetland, the plants can withstand it – resist it – as long as the high water isn’t too deep or repeat too often to affect the established plant community. But if the water starts coming in more often or at different levels than before then the wetland community begins to adapt. Species that prefer higher or lower water levels begin to assert their dominance as the makeup of the wetland species adapt to the frequency or magnitude of changes in water levels. But if the water comes in and never leaves, then it may no longer be a wetland – it may be transformed into a lake. Wetland communities resist change within certain thresholds, adapt when those thresholds are exceeded, and if the thresholds are exceeded too often then the wetland transforms into something else.
This reminded me of how we design infrastructure and buildings. They are all designed to resist change to a pre-determined threshold: an earthquake of certain horizontal accelerations; a wind of a certain speed; a flood of a certain depth; etc. And this resist strategy works pretty well when the climate is stable. We could look at the last 100 years or so of weather data and use that to develop a probabilistic estimation of a built system’s likely performance based on the known weather extremes for each locale.
But now we know that the climate is not stable. The earth is already beginning to change. The likelihood of extreme weather events is changing. Native villages like Newtok are losing 70 feet of permafrost a year and need to move their village. Some river systems are mobilizing [pdf] sediments at accelerating rates with an increasing risk of catastrophic riverine floods, increasing localized flooding from higher groundwater levels, and storm surge in near-shore areas. As the ecosystems of the earth get closer and closer to their tipping points, climate and ecosystems may be transformed at the continental scale.
Fortunately, the National Academies posted a video of the presentation. It’s just 10 minutes long, but spells out some key messages about how essential it is that we include recovery when we design and repair buildings and infrastructure in our cities. For too long we’ve been focusing on resisting events up to a certain magnitude (1 percent chance flood) with little to no consideration of what happens to the victims and survivors after an event exceeds that threshold.
I argue that we have externalized the cost of recovery to the victims and the survivors, and they are the least prepared to deal with it. We already know that 40 percent of small businesses fail after a large event and too many families find themselves tapping their savings and lines of credit to the breaking point to dig their way back out of the impacts. Even if insurance and government assistance is offered, it never covers all the loss and suffering.
When uncertainty is high we often run scenarios to get a better understanding of how our systems might react to change or cascades of change. I’ve used scenarios quite often myself in the past. We develop some story lines, some possible drivers of change, and then we see what insights might emerge as we recognize how our systems might respond.
These are valuable and up until I got deep into socio-ecological resilience thinking, scenarios were one of the best tools I had to imagine change and to recommend multi-benefit solutions. So scenarios are good!
In addition to scenarios, I’ve found that supporting and encouraging the capacity of a system/ecosystem/community/economy to adapt to change is a powerful way to move beyond scenarios. And the way to do that is to incorporate the attributes of resilient systems. You could then run scenarios to see how well your system might respond to various alternative futures.
Since I’ve worked on salmon issues most of my professional life, they are a great example of what this means. Salmon do not project scenarios. They do not calculate stream flows or plot the best way to avoid a log jam. What they do is rely on a highly evolved life cycle that gives their species significant capacity to adapt to change. We need our own evolution in how we manage cities and infrastructure, too. We need to apply the attributes of resilience in how we design cities and infrastructure. When we do then we can begin to find new solutions to old problems and to new problems that have yet to emerge.
To my surprise I recently learned that robots and artificial intelligence are moving down this same pathway. Thanks to the interview and podcast with Nikos Salingaros, I learned that the Mars Rover and the iRobot vacuum cleaner use the same strategy as salmon: they have exquisite sensing capabilities and a suite of strategies and tactics to deploy when they encounter a novel situation. Flexibility and adaptability are the goal.
I’ve got nothing against scenarios or trying to calculate the probability of possible future events. The point here is that those are not enough in a world that is synergistic and dynamic and constantly changing. And the speed of change is accelerating as we reach tipping points, climate change, and new technologies that outpace our normal speed of accommodation.
Today I attended a design review for students who had the assignment to link resilience into designs for a city neighborhood facing new transit oriented redevelopment. While their understanding of resilience concepts was mixed, I found that their use of resilience applied across a range of solutions created some synergy that might otherwise have been just a divergent collection of design ideas.
First, I was reminded of Nikos Salingaros discussion in his podcast on the need to design for coherence where complementary but different functions create a whole experience of emergence that exceeds the mere sum of the parts.
And then I kept thinking about an exchange with Mike Jones in his podcast where he says that resilience is the tool to enhance our capacity to adapt to change.
So that means that as designers our job is to create something more than the sum of the parts and to do it in a way that enhances our capacity to adapt to change.
I won’t be able to attend (being 9 time zones away) but would love to be at this important presentation by Karen O’Brien
Professor, Department of Sociology and Human Geography, University of Oslo. She’ll be the featured speaker at the free Stockholm Seminars on Friday March 16, 2018 at 2:00 PM at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
The announcent pitches it like this: ”In this talk, Karen O’Brien distinguishes between technical problems and adaptive challenges and discuss why successful adaptation to climate change will only be realized through social transformations. The talk will draw on research from the AdaptationCONNECTS project, which focuses on the role of creativity, collaboration, empowerment and flexibility in realizing adaptation through transformation.”
Mike Jones lays out a compelling framework for understanding change in our first podcast. He brings up key concepts that are essential as we move into a climate changed world.
I want to highlight one portion of his message. He makes a strong case that, “we need a very different way of thinking about the world and our place in it.” He says we need to move from simple systems thinking which is based on a mechanistic idea of the world where we can predict what will to happen to a complex systems perspective where we recognize the extraordinary uncertainty we face as global systems reach or exceed their tipping points.
Jones’ advice rings true for me as he suggests that we need to be doing pilot projects that test new approaches that can help us to be more flexible and adaptable to changing conditions. For example, city planners and architects Continue reading “The curve of change”→
We used to think that change was slow. Perhaps it was in the misty past. But there is no doubt now that change is accelerating – in technology, in human culture, and in natural systems.
This project is about resilience. The challenge is that resilience thinking is different than business as usual. It requires understanding how change happens in nature and then applying those insights to how we humans manage change. And it requires going against the grain of a planetary mindset that propels us forward.
So welcome to the podcasts and blog Resilience 2100: Tools for navigating change in the 21st century. You’ll hear from experts in resilience who will inform and engage you. They may challenge you and they definitely will inspire you.
“The world view of nature and society as system near equilibrium is being replaced by a dynamic view, which emphasizes complex non-linear relations between entities under continuous change and facing discontinuities and uncertainty from suites of synergistic stresses and shocks.” — Carl Folke, 2002