Defining Resilience for our 21st Century World
George Middleton, AIA, CSI
GreenGlobes® Assessor, LEED® AP
Architects, designers, and the rest of us are all wrestling with a new set of design criteria around the concept of resilience. But what does the term mean, and can it be understood using some of the things we already know about sustainability?
Resilience has typically been used in connection with a lot of things, including cities, systems, buildings, people, institutions and even products. The term resilience has several classical definitions. These include:
- Ability of a system to bounce back from stress or spring back into shape
- Ability to adapt to adversity and recover quickly from difficulty
- A measure of toughness and elasticity
- Withstanding stress, threats or catastrophe
- Resistance to failure, adversity, trauma, or tragedy
- Being strong, healthy and successful after disruption
- Surviving, adapting and growing regardless of the type of shock or chronic stress
The Rockefeller Foundation has been among a number of organizations that is starting to think seriously about how resilience applies to our 21st century challenges. The Foundation’s work includes four focus areas—advancing health, revaluing ecosystems, securing livelihoods, and transforming cities— that play into the linkage between sustainability and resilience.
The Rockefeller Foundation defines resilience as “helping cities, organizations, and communities better prepare for, respond to, and transform from disruption.” The foundation further explains the boundaries of this concept:
“We live in a world of increasing dynamism and volatility, where technology and greater interconnectedness have accelerated change and altered the way people live. Resilience is the capacity of individuals, communities and systems to survive, adapt, and grow in the face of stress and shocks, and even transform when conditions require it. Building resilience is about making people, communities and systems better prepared to withstand catastrophic events—both natural and manmade—and able to bounce back more quickly and emerge stronger from these shocks and stresses.”
The Obama administration is tackling resilience.
The Obama administration is trying to tackle resilience with the announcement of a new public-private partnership to launch a “Resilience AmeriCorps” pilot program. The program, which builds on the administration’s Climate Action Plan, was announced in conjunction with the Corporation for National and Community Service, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Rockefeller Foundation and Cities of Service the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Rockefeller Foundation and Cities of Service.
As envisioned, Resilience AmeriCorps will help communities plan and implement initiatives to become more resilient to shocks and stresses, including extreme weather and other impacts of climate change.
The Rockfeller Foundation’s president, Judith Robin, said in announcing the new Resilience Americorps program that it is “imperative that communities – large and small – place a premium on building resilience. With collaborative efforts across all sectors we can ensure our country is prepared for the inevitable shocks and gnawing stresses so that disruptions no longer become disasters.” She added, “Resilience is a journey, not a destination, and the time to embark on it is now.”
The AIA says resilience must be a design focus.
Within the architecture and design world, the American Institute of Architects is staking out its role in defining resilience. The organization recently adopted a broad position statement on resilience that demonstrates its importance not only to its members but to society at large:
“Buildings and communities are subjected to destructive forces from fire, storms, earthquakes, flooding and even intentional attack. The challenges facing the built environment are evolving with climate change, environmental degradation and population growth. Architects have a responsibility to design a resilient environment that can more successfully adapt to natural conditions and that can more readily absorb and recover from adverse events. The AIA supports policies, programs and practices that promote adaptable and resilient buildings and communities.”
This position statement recognizes that change is occurring in the built environment in response to many complex factors. Equally important, it makes clear that licensed architects will increasingly be held responsible for recommending and specify materials and products that leverage attributes that are valued and desirable in terms of resilience. These attributes may include flexibility, efficiency, economy, speed, strength and durability.
We are learning more about what sustainability and resilience mean in a complex and technology-dependent world economy. Every human activity impacts our planet, so it is important that we balance our choices and our impacts to achieve the best and most sustainable outcomes. As such, there are no “good” or “bad” materials. There are only more-sustainable or less-sustainable ways of using the materials available to solve our design problems.
Defining Resilience is Part 1 of a multi-part series on resilience, architecture, design, and how the choice of both impacts and materials matters.