Designing for Resilience


A recent post on the environmental sustainability site Worldchanging caught my eye and reflects what I see as a growing connection between design and systems thinking and supporting a greater need for new ways of handling complexity. The post, by Worldchanging staff writer Alex Steffen, argues that we need to re-think our views of sustainability by redefining the concept and focusing on resilience and adaptation. This is not always a popular position to take because it focuses on the potential negative consequences of past actions that are expected to arrive in the future, rather than emphasize prevention on its own. Consider it a secondary prevention messsage rather than a primary prevention one. But while it is not the most optimistic position, I also think its the most realistic. Anyone who has been paying attention to the environmental discourse and the data behind has to be thinking the future isn’t going to be all rosy. But, as Steffen argues, it can be something we can save and adapt to in the process of making the world better.

To do this, Steffen focuses on four key points: The starting point is acknowledging the complexity of the issue and making the messy stuff visible.

1. Defining the scope of resilience is critical.

One of the defining characteristics of post-industrial capitalism is that it hides its backstories. Because branding is so important, and consumer choices are made often on completely intangible perceptions, most of messy destruction and systemic oppression that support our lives happens in places obscured from our view. This is why it’s so critical we work on making visible the invisible, doing supply chain transparency and backstory activism. Sunlight does wonders for sustainability.

But there’s a second side to this coin that we rarely address: because so much of the harm we do indirectly is hidden from us, we have really profoundly distorted ideas of how our lives work.

This focus on making the invisible visible is critical. Whether it is the harm we do or the organizations we’re a part of, we are often ignorant of the true impact of what we do and the unintended consequences of our actions. Systems dynamic models and social network maps are one ways in which we can methodologically address these issues by showing visual representations of the causes, consequences and actors associated with a given problem.

2) Sustainability needs to be a systemic effort.

If we want to live sustainable lives, we need to make sustainable places, and in the modern world, where metropolises drive the economy and culture, that means making sustainable cities. We may not be able to do that everywhere in the time we have; but the idea that we can thrive without doing it many places is delusional. Fail to make cities resilient at a broad scale, and we’re talking the breakdown of social order, which means all other plans are pointless.

In order to make cities sustainable, we need to understand the proper scale of urban sustainability, which is regional. The same mistaken vision that leads us to focus on problems close at hand often leads us to define the solutions as small-scale and immediately local. This, again, betrays the fact that larger systems are often hidden from our view.

Scale is the important word here. By understanding the appropriate boundaries of the systems we wish to influence, we are far better equipped to deal with the problems at a local, global and ‘glocal‘ levels. It means employing social innovation in a manner that creates opportunities to scale up things that work well, but also avoiding the scaling fallacy that befalls many designers and social planners by assuming that something that works at one level can simply be created larger or smaller and produce the same result.

3) Ruggedness is something we don’t talk enough about.

Because sustainability thinking has largely grown out the environmental movement, there’s still a mental dichotomy between natural and fallen; that is, we often think the point is to save the green places, save virgin nature, and that anything that has been incorporated into the human world is lost, and of secondary importance at best.

One problem with this thinking is the entire planet and every corner and crevice within it has now been incorporated into the human world. Wild, “virgin” nature doesn’t exist anymore. We’ll be needing to manage the consequences of our interventions in nature to extents few of us are prepared to think about, for centuries to come.

Another, even bigger problem with this thinking is that it has tended to make us into all-or-nothing thinkers. We have been warning for decades about the need to prevent catastrophe, coloring everything on the other side of catastrophe “unthinkable.”

Most of what we interact with on a daily basis is designed by humans in some capacity. With rare exception, if you live in an urban area, nearly everything you encounter has been designed — even parks and greenspaces. Acknowledging this is the first step towards to working with the world we’ve created, rather than aspiring for something that doesn’t exist independent of those places where humans don’t reside. Just because something is of nature (like a tree) doesn’t mean its context is natural as any observation of a tree-lined street should attest.

At the same time, recognizing the place of trees and the like also helps us reconnect with the natural world, but in doing so requires integrative thinking, the ability to hold two differing, but related (and perhaps opposite) ideas at the same time.

4) The future demands new thinking.

We need to have the capacity to change quickly, to reinvent, to distribute innovation and explore new realities: and we’re going to have to do all that while the world gets weirder and many places crumble into chaos from time to time. We have to be built rugged enough to fight our way through the future’s troubles, strong enough to serve as bulwarks that can help and protect the more vulnerable.

This last point is the crux of the argument and fits with what Einstein observed many years ago:

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them

That thinking is looking increasingly like it needs to consider design, systems and integrate together and work to create more resilient, not resistant communities and organizations.

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