Resilience by Design

Resilient Sustainability 
Richard Weller

There is a sense that the word “resilience” headlines a paradigm shift. A shift from grey to green, from centralized to decentralized, from vertical to horizontal, from engineering bulkheads to so called “nature-based solutions”.  As usual with paradigm shifts, this is a combination of what’s actually happening in the world, and in part wishful thinking by its proponents. There is, broadly speaking, also a sense that resilience replaces or supersedes sustainability and it’s this that I want to briefly zoom in on.

In terms of language, I think everyone is well aware that ‘resilience’ risks the same kind of platitudinous fate as sustainability.  But this doesn’t mean we roll our eyes and turn the other way. On the contrary, I don’t think sustainability or resilience are platitudes. They are signifiers of deeper cultural undercurrents and it behooves us to critically give form to them in both theory and praxis – and certainly that’s been the attitude here at Penn.

I think history will come to record that sustainability - along with feminism and the environmental movement of the last 60 years -  constitutes a profound historical shift – even if, in the here and now, things still appear superficial and largely ineffectual. Resilience is now a particular piece of that broader cultural revolution. The advent of the Anthropocene and climate change, confirm, rather than obviate the theory and practice of sustainability.

So, in preparing this, what I’ve done is go back to the best of what is meant by sustainability to see where resilience might now fit in. Setting aside the stroke of rhetorical genius that sustainability is design that’s good for the present but doesn’t compromise the future, sustainability’s highest aims (and here I’m drawing in part on design theorist, Tony Fry) might be summarized as follows;

  1. To Protect and restore biodiversity and involve humans in that process. (i.e. not just fortress conservation)
  2. To design technologies and new economies of ecological repair
  3. To stimulate industries with a low impact on the environment and eradicating pollutants.
  4. To stimulate energy transition toward renewables
  5. To design products with respect to their material origins and end points– i.e. creating new products which are not ecological or social hazards.
  6. To restructure human settlement as an ecosystem, not a machine
  7. To create new knowledge of ecological relations- both in the sciences and the arts.
  8. To reorganize education at all levels to emphasize planetary sustainability, not as ideology, but as discursive and critical engagement with history and contemporary culture.

And now, if you add the Sustainable Development Goals which are even more ambitious and wide reaching, then sustainability, for want of a new word, is, and should be, the dominant global developmental paradigm.

Incidentally, resilience is barely mentioned in the SDGs. In any event, to the 8 maxims above and also as a supplement to the SDGs, we can now add a 9th: to improve the resilience of communities and ecosystems by reducing their vulnerability to climate change.

The reason I’m approaching the topic this way is that Resilience has been criticized as “sustainability without hope”.  In other words, for its critics, resilience abandons any possibility of mitigating the causes of environmental and social crisis and tells us, instead, to learn to live with the symptoms. In this sense resilience is palliative, conservative and at worst complicit in preserving the very systems that created the risk in the first place.

Maybe…. but I would also add that resilience is realistic.

Resiliency is then not so much the abandonment of hope, as it is the grounding of sustainability’s utopian tendencies in real places with real communities who are really experiencing deleterious environmental change. And, because sustainability tends to favor the ecosystem and because resilience tends to favor the social system, the two need and complement one another.

Resilience brings sustainability closer to the indeterminate way that both the natural and cultural worlds actually work. Whereas sustainability was based on an idealized ecology of equilibrium, resilience is based on an interpretation of nature as a state of disequilibrium.  In theory disequilibrium is not the enemy, disequilibrium is semi-deterministic chaos that in fact creates and propels life.

In practice, however, because we have now overloaded the earth system’s ability to absorb excessive amounts of carbon and nitrogen -to name but two- the levels of disequilibrium in the atmosphere, the oceans and the land now threaten not only our existence, but all life. Resilience is then a question of life’s ability to hang on through to the end of the era of fossil fuels, and this is now shockingly real.

And if we are to minimize the loss of life, then there is no way out of the predicament of what is now a volatile earth system, except by design.

And by design I don’t mean the designer designing lovely objects, although there is nothing wrong with that per se, I mean the 9 maxims I’ve listed under the rubric of sustainability.

We have also been asked to speak a bit about tools. The most important tools we have in this regard are technologies of monitoring and modelling the earth system as a dynamic, integrated whole. The book “Global Change and the Earth System” published in 2004 is the first operating manual of this kind. Some 20 years in the making and involving literally thousands of scientists, the stated aim of  “Global Change and the Earth System” is to “describe and understand the interactive physical, chemical and biological processes that regulate the total earth system, the unique environment it provides for life, the changes that are occurring in that system and the manner in which these changes are influenced by human actions.”

That’s important because its not a description of nature as other,  but a description of the nature we’ve created.

Under the meta tool of earth system modelling, on the socio-political and policy level we have things like the SDGs and, under the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Aichi Targets.

The Aichi Targets require that every signatory nation (of which there are 196) have a National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAPs). This is tantamount to saying all nations must have, and most now do have, national ecological management plans of some sort. Then in addition to those national plans, under the Paris Agreement, nations must also have National Climate Plans (NCPs). The trick is to put these instruments together- that is, to put the energy landscape together with the biological landscape, in the context of rapid urbanization – and not just write more wordy reports,  but develop spatially and temporary explicit plans.

That’s work designers should be involved in.

Now its easy to be cynical about these instruments, but its true that they are blunt unless they can be given teeth at the scale of regional planning and urban design. The challenge then for design is to connect the planetary and the particular - to connect the top down world of global policy settings with the bottom up world of local cultures.

So, to close I want to briefly offer some examples that do this in different and compelling ways across scales. This first map – one of many we made for the Atlas for the End of the World -  shows you all the big landscape connectivity and restoration projects going on in the world today. This is an extraordinary image because it shows communities and governments working together, for the first time in history, to restore ecosystems on a planetary scale – to build resilience.

Two examples from this are the Y2Y, (Yellostone to Yukon) which focuses on enabling biodiversity migration over 2000 miles of territory and the second is the Great Green Wall across sub-Saharan Africa which uses a mosaic of reconstructed landscape types to  resist the southward advance of desertification.

To shift from the planetary to the national scale, I think Kongjian Yu’s National Security plan for the whole of China is exemplary. Here, he and his research team are able to provide the government with an unambiguous guide as to where future development should take place so as to minimize ecological impact.

Scaling down from the nation to the ecoregion or catchment, the Dutch ‘Room for the River’ initiative is a network of 34 projects all with the overarching goal of increasing the Rhine Delta’s carrying capacity and creating  public amenity.

And moving from the catchment to the coast, also in Holland, the Sandmotor is a particularly interesting project. The Sandmotor saves money and energy by harnessing the natural forces of littoral drift to distribute sand and thus replenish the Dutch coast against sea level rise. Not only is this a technological breakthrough based on sophisticated predictive modelling it is also, I think, a highly aesthetic project. Whereas much resilience related work in the United States tends to look like nice old nature coming to the rescue- the Sandmotor is technologically sublime.

Finally, a project that has become a kind of poster child for coastal resilience is the hypothetical 2010 project titled ‘New Urban Ground’ by Susannah Drake of DLANDstudio along with Adam Yarinsky and Stephen Cassell. What’s interesting to me is the way this image is aesthetically crafted to look both artificial and natural simultaneously, emblematic perhaps of how in the space of the resilience project we are uncertain if nature is friend or foe. When critics contrast this image with the BIG U and err on the side of naturalism, they tend to forget that the DLAND proposal was also based on raising the ground level by 6 feet.

In one way or another these are all important prototypes and we need more of them. But, that said, we also must consider that if climate change moves into positive feedback and the ice caps melt then over 50 of the world’s major coastal cities will completely drown. To avoid that we will ultimately need to shift from resilience, to sustainability, from adaptation to mitigation.