Resilience Principles: Managing for an Uncertain Future

Below are three sets of principles for dealing with an uncertain world.  Updated.

First, there has to be recognition that the world is complex and uncertain!

G D Peterson’s schema is I think best at visualising that point (see below).   Where do we – at this moment, this place of action – reside?  Is it something where a universal rule or law might apply, perhaps measurable and certain?

Or are we living within complexity and adaptability, where we need to have the capacity to foresee, feel, visualise, to quickly go through an OODA Loop process (observe, orientate, decide, act) in quicktime, close to the action?  Are we living in the place of a centralised hierarchical blind inaccurate (but oh so precise) lumbering of General Haig, or the nimbleness and immediacy of a fighter pilot with a Messerschmitt on his six?

Our management structures of corporations – and since 1988 in New Zealand’s public service when Treasury’s mechanical vision was made flesh – have certainly emphasised the world as an ordered hierarchical machine.  Knowledge is presumed to be centralised up the hierarchy.  Ignorance and hubris combine.  You will find little nimbleness there, and very little deep dialogue that looks into the spaces other than the certain and controllable corner.  The culture and the implicit logic of the two spaces (certain/controllable – uncertain/uncontrollable) are completely different; perhaps incommensurable.

Peterson & Strategy

Schema adapted from the work of GD Peterson – Where is our space?  How do we act in this given space?

Modernity and the mechanics of much science and management presumes we live in the certain and controllable space, near where the axes join.  This is the world of ‘Biê’, the Greek word and world to best describe Achilles in Troy – direct strategy, direct action, full steam ahead, brute force, measure and control, General Haig on the Somme.  This is the world of quanta, narrow framing, all STEM, no art, no Humanities, the archetypal male in command, in charge, all straight lines and singular objectives, feeling ‘safe’ between the blinkers.  The land of the magnificent and pointless charge.  They don’t expect The Trickster, the reaction and ripple effects of consequences, RL Stevenson’s Banquet of Consequences, and so they are open to being fooled completely by the gods of fate and chance.  When it happens, they might remark that was not *my* fault, because I had this wonderful .. linear .. mathematically precise …. immutable .. certain … plan.Banquet of consequences 2.jpg

The other space is our concern, the adaptive, the complex, where you will be surprised, and you *know* you will be surprised.  You ask what you need to think about, what capacities to build, what functions to emphasise, what qualities in people, in place, in organisational structure, in communication and eye witness.  What do we need to *be* resilient.

This is the world of Mêtis, the Greek word for the world of Odysseus and Sun Tsu, the cunning, the trickster himself.  The emphasis is craft, the non-linear, the indirect approach to strategy where you are not silly enough to believe the spreadsheet or have faith in scientific management.  Build culture, not Frederick Taylor’s human cogs (or Treasury’s job descriptions and output tasks for that matter).  Build morale, not fear.  Build hope and dialogue, not blind obedience.  Build thought, not dull regard.

When you recognise and embrace this space, you know there will be other consequences, you know that you will always do more than one thing, and that you will not be able to guess them all.  So you prepare accordingly.  And you are in the very best position to use your guile against the lumbering Biê.

So what do we build?  What do we create within our organisations, our culture, our people, our communities, our economies, our landscapes?  What?

Below is what some people suggest.  And I’ve added a few of my own.

Resilience cooperation

“In his book The End of Certainty, Prigogine notes that “If the world were formed by stable dynamical systems, it would be radically different from the one we observe around us. It would be a static, predictable world, but we would not be here to make the predictions.” In Fragile Dominion, Simon Levin describes the evolution and dynamics of the world’s ecosystems and the loss of biological diversity attendant upon human activities. These losses, we learn, are largely the result of our inability to cope with complex, nonlinear systems. Thus, while life is in essence derived from nonlinearity, we risk the loss of life and biodiversity through the fine sensitivities of these essential processes.”

From Review of Fragile Dominion: Complexity and the Commons, Reviewed by David C. Krakauer and Martin A. Nowak. Notices of the AMS: 47 (5): 564-568

These ‘losses’ are paralleled within social and economic systems.  Ecological systems can be  the model for what happens within wider socio-economic systems, or – more correctly – socio-ecological systems since the economy is a subset of the social and the biophysical.

Defining resilience wordcloud

The following are Simon Levin’s principles for managing within a complex non-linear future (with a few extras and expanded comments). 

  1. Expect surprise: Build the foresight to look for and see it before it
    happens. Create adaptive decision-making structures, strong cooperative communities, less emphasis on hierarchies of command and more on the initiative of people, recognise limits to knowledge and predictability, flexible response systems, err on the side of under-exploitation & maintaining and building all capitals (social, cultural, natural & financial) and the capacities they provide for the future;
  2. Build social capital: trust, Whole system intelligenceparticipation (co-governance & management not tokenism), fairness, open dialogue, cooperation and engagement between organisations (councils, central government, other Iwi, other land owners, communities, etc.), people and those who cannot speak for themselves (future generations, whenua, awa, mauri, the intangibles), knowledge sharing;
  3. Build capacities: the capacities to foresee, to handle a crisis or a shock, to adapt, to work together, to learn, to initiative, to see something through, to become wise, to appreciate the good life and our relationships with each other and the earth;
  4. Ethical principles: What are the desired moral outcomes, and what framework of values do we hold most dear – utilitarian number crunching? Virtues of inclusion for others, future generations and the land of which we are a part, or just self? Duties and maxims to maintain, or exploit? Do unto others …?  Utilitarian self-centred exploitation is the least sustainable ethical framework.
  5. Reduce uncertainty by looking ahead: encourage people to voice their views and knowledge of our future, monitor far beyond finance & disseminate data to the people, emphasise cooperation and spirit, treat knowledge as throughout community not hierarchical;
  6. Maintain heterogeneity: Natural selection requires heterogeneity. The resilience of any complex adaptive system is embodied in its diversity and in the capacity for adaptive change within people and place;
  7. Sustain modularity: parable of the two watchmakers, complex adaptive systems evolve modules that buffer a system from tipping over the edge. If there is only one energy source, one transport system, one trade system, a centralised command & control system, one system of learning – then it may look ‘efficient’ financially but actually builds a more fragile system that tips;
  8. Preserve redundancy (like having more than one rivet holding something together): helped by both diversity & modularity, but requires a different way of thinking about mentoring and specialisation. Don’t only rely on one small area for a single ecological gift. Otorohanga example of employing more than one specialist – a master and an apprentice;
  9. Create commons: Commons are highly effective at creating social, environmental and economic opportunities without the pressure to compromise between factory output, environment and community that can occur in other forms of tenure;
  10. Tighten feedback loops: Encourage behaviour in the common good requires tight feedbacks: ethics toward and between people and land, empowering local people, principles such as polluter pays, governance institutions for the ‘commons’ (like fisheries, water, soil, hunting areas, etc.), and implementing the ‘no nasties’ rule where negative behaviour can create disharmony.

Foreloop & backloop

But wait … there’s more…..

  1. Awareness (Cultural):

Knowledge of strengths and assets, liabilities and vulnerabilities, and the threats and risks it takes. Some idea of what is developing in the world and how things connect across realms of economy, society and environment – the strategic domains of what is happening within and among the domains of Politics, the Environment, Society, Technology, Legislature and the economy (PESTLE). Includes situational awareness: the ability & willingness to constantly assess, take in new information and adjust understanding in real time.

  1. Foresight & Judgment, Practical Wisdom (Phronesis) (Cultural):

Flows from Awareness. The capacity to judge the right policy or action given particular conditions beyond a formulaic response or procedure. A creative response. This requires an understanding of the particular irreducible, conditional & contingent complexities and ‘keystones’ of time and place, and the feedback loops over short and (especially) long time periods. For example, what would the effects of this action be on a range of outcomes, not just immediate quantitative parameters like – for instance – wage cuts on margins.

  1. Diversity (Cultural & Biophysical):

There are different sources of a capacity within the socio-ecological system – redundancy – so that the systems can continue to operate even when severely challenged. Robustness. Antifragility. Diverse biophysical, cultural & economic systems. Can draw upon a range of capabilities, ideas, information sources, technical elements, people or groups. Critical to this is a non-hierarchical culture of open ideas and discussion, and a tolerance of pluralism.Resilient systems

  1. Integrated (Cultural & Biophysical):

Coordination of functions and interactions across and within systems. Culturally, this involves the ability to bring together disparate ideas and elements, work collaboratively across elements, develop cohesive solutions and coordinate elements. Information is shared and communication is transparent. Biophysically, patches within the landscapes are integrated with other patches for mutual support and synergies (polycultural landscapes with environmental, cultural & environmental win-wins), and patches themselves are polycultural creating positives and efficiencies.

  1. Self-regulating (Cultural & Biophysical):

Can regulate itself in ways that enable it to deal with anomalous situations and disruptions without extreme malfunction or catastrophic collapse. Biophysically – droughts, floods, disease. Economically – shifts in prices and costs, access to markets and key ‘factors of production’ (energy, transportation, etc.). Socially – human-centred development shifts to demoralising ‘resource & command & control structures and disruption. Cascading disruptions do not result when a severe disruption occurs: it can ‘fail safely’. Maintain ‘modularity’, decentralized integrity, elements of self-sufficiency and option. Minimise total reliance on key inputs and outputs.

  1. Adaptive (Cultural & Biophysical):

Develop the capacity to adjust to changed circumstances by developing new plans, taking new actions or modifying behaviour. Flexible and able to shift rapidly to meet new realities. Devolved ‘mission command’ initiative and judgment encouraging. Creating more leaders and more innovation and confidence to make decisions. Ability to apply existing resources to new purposes, or for one element to do multiple roles – keystones that are highly multi-functional.

Resilience-Building-Bosses1     resilience-framework

And more from the Stockholm Resilience Centre

Seven key principles for building resilience: 

From: Principles for Building Resilience: Sustaining Ecosystem Services in Social-Ecological Systems – May 7, 2015 by Reinette Biggs (Editor), Maja Schlüter (Editor), Michael L. Schoon (Editor)

  • Maintain diversity and redundancy;

Systems with many different components, be they species, actors or sources of knowledge, are generally more resilient than systems with few components. This leads to redundancy which provides ‘insurance’ by allowing some components to compensate for the loss or failure of others: “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

  • Manage connectivity;

Connectivity can be both a good and a bad thing. Well-connected systems can recover from disturbances more quickly, but overly connected systems may lead to rapid spread of disturbances.

Perhaps the most positive effect of landscape connectivity is that it can contribute to the maintenance of biodiversity. The Yellowstone-to-Yukon project in North America is an example of conservation planning that reconnects large habitat patches by re-establishing wildlife corridors. Through a variety of collaborative initiatives with diverse stakeholder groups, Y2Y’s primary objective is to connect eight priority areas that function as either core wildlife habitat or key corridors in an area spanning 1.3 million square kilometres.

  • Manage slow variables and feedbacks;

Imagine an ecosystem such as a freshwater lake with readily accessible drinking water. The quality of this water is linked to slowly changing variables such as the phosphorus concentration in the sediment, which in turn is linked to fertiliser runoff into the lake.

The phosphorous content of the sediment can increase over a long time without any impact on the water quality but if a certain threshold is passed, the lake water can rapidly become eutrified, after which it is very costly and difficult to return to a non-eutrophied state.

Managing slow variables and feedbacks is often crucial to make sure ecosystems produce essential services. If these systems shift into a different configuration or regime, it can be extremely difficult to reverse.

Feedbacks are the two-way ‘connectors’ between variables that can either reinforce (positive feedback) or dampen (negative feedback) change. An example of a positive feedback loop can be seen in Hawaii where introduced grasses cause fires, which promote further growth of the grasses and curb the growth of native shrub species. More grass leads to more fire which, in turn, leads to more grass. This becomes a loop and self-reinforcing feedback. An example of a dampening or negative feedback is formal or informal sanctioning or punishment that occurs when someone breaks a rule.

This also applies to social and economic systems. Markets can be useful in self-correcting fast variables and feedbacks, but may exacerbate positive and potentially disastrous slow variable and feedbacks.

  • Foster complex adaptive systems thinking;

A complex adaptive systems (CAS) approach means accepting that within a social-ecological system, several connections are occurring at the same time on different levels. It also means accepting unpredictability and uncertainty, and acknowledging a multitude of perspectives.

Although there is limited evidence that CAS thinking directly enhances the resilience of a system, there are several examples of how it contributes to it. One example is the Kruger National Park in South Africa where management has moved away from strategies to keep ecosystem conditions such as elephant populations and fire frequencies at a fixed level and instead allows them to fluctuate between specified boundaries.

  • Encourage learning;

Social-ecological systems are always in development so there is a constant need to revise existing knowledge and stimulate learning. More collaborative processes can also help.Resilient communities

One excellent example is the Kristiandstad Vattenrike, a wetland area in the southern part of Sweden. In the 1970’s growing developmental pressures led to increasing degradation of what was considered a vast area of water logged swamps with low value. However, thanks to a broad and collaborative process including local inhabitants and politicians, the perception of the wetlands changed. Today it is a highly valued area that has become a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

  • Broaden participation;

There are a range of advantages to a broad and well-functioning participation. An informed and well-functioning group have the potential to build trust and a shared understanding – both fundamental ingredients for collective action.

An example is found in Australia where an extensive public participation and consultancy process was initiated to raise awareness about threats to the Great Barrier Reef.

Through greater awareness of the threats facing the Great Barrier Reef, the public participation process was able to raise public support for improved conservation plans.

  • Promote polycentric governance

Polycentricity, a governance system in which multiple governing bodies interact to make and enforce rules within a specific policy arena or location, is considered to be one of the best ways to achieve collective action in the face of disturbance and change. It represents flexible solutions for self-organisations where more formal procedures seem to fail.

Centralising vs decentralisingBut it is also vulnerable to tensions between actors and negative institutional interactions. Involving a wide range of stakeholders means striking a balance between openness and mandates for decision-making. It also means negotiating trade-offs between various users of ecosystem services. These two trade-offs often lead to the third challenge about “scale-shopping” where groups dissatisfied with politics at one scale simply approach a more favourable political venue in which to frame their interests.

A key to successful polycentric governance is therefore to keep the network together and maintain a tight structure, which goes beyond information sharing and ad hoc collaboration.

For more on Resilience, check out the following:

Resilience Alliance

Stockholm Resilience Centre

Ecology & Society; A brilliant peer-reviewed open-access on-line journal with amazing articles from the philosophical to case studies of resilience thinking in action. and

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7 Responses to Resilience Principles: Managing for an Uncertain Future

  1. Jenny Baker says:

    Brilliant!great Checklist!Thanks



  2. truffle2 says:

    When I was very young and more attractive than I am now (yes, I know, staggering isn’t it) I was quite good at geometry, trigonometry and stuff like it.  Some were called theorems, and there were principles and other bits called corollaries. 

    Now I am not quite sure what to call the thingy below.  I doubt if it is a principle.  It is more akin to an ending so perhaps it is a corollary.  Anyhow here it is:

    “Prepare the noose before you actually need it” – you could have your hands full when trying to execute the cause of the uncertainty. 

    For more information go to:

    Did I tell you about our new furniture?


    • cjkperley says:

      I noted that your furniture was built in such a way as to overcome most uncertainties … including a shortage of firewood. Not that it wasn’t lovely wood; there was just quite a bit of it.

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