Maybe We Shouldn’t Design for Resilience

Resilience is about ‘bouncing back’ and getting through challenges, but is it the right model to be considered when “back” isn’t what it was and many challenges are becoming endemic?

Resilience has been a prominent term and theory invoked in the discussions of how we collectively respond to social, health, and environmental challenges we are facing. The term, as outlined below, speaks to the fundamental qualities of sustainability in times of disruption.

Resilience- the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance, undergo change and still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks – making it a key condition for understanding sustainability.

What underpins this idea is the idea of retaining some kind of structural integrity in the face of intense environmental (or social) stressors. While this might be appropriate for understanding biological roles in an ecosystem, the term is increasingly problematic when applied to social systems.

Let’s take one of these systems: work.

Rethinking and Revisiting Resilience

The language of ‘building back (better)’ permeates political and leadership language as organizations seek to transition to work and social life within a post-pandemic context. What if the language and the strategies that accompany it are leading us down a dangerous path that contradicts the stated goals?

What if, in our quest for resilience, we miss the opportunity to reduce our need for it?

Let’s draw on systems thinking and the recognition that complex systems involve many interactions, interconnections, and dynamic exchanges that shape their evolution. Resilience, in this case, means that things within that system are able to essentially retain their role and configuration as much as possible under pressure or duress.

It’s easy to forget how different things are now than they were a few months ago. Sure, we still have cities and towns, sports, politics and the like. But the nature of work has changed. The conditions of work have changed. These changes have economic, social, and health consequences. The reconfiguration of work from physical to digital to hybrid has changed how we work with our colleagues (and whether we see them at all).

For this kind of situation, resilience thinking might not serve us as well as it does in others. This is not about being resilient, it’s about recognizing that things have and are changing into something else (not staying the same).

Redesigning our Work

Work remains the same for many as do many of the goals associated with it. What we produce through work hasn’t changed much, either. Yet, the entire enterprise from a human standpoint has.

Consider what organizations face when they try to go back to business as usual without redesigning their organizations for a new set of circumstances. I can speak from extensive knowledge working with a variety of organizations: it goes badly.

The effects include: low morale, poor health and mental health, rising absenteeism, lack of commitment, and people simply leaving the organization. These are just the lead issues that are happening now. It will likely get worse over time.

These are not truly resilience issues. Workplaces – particularly those from health and human services, front-line retail, and logistics — didn’t get much of a break. Epidemiological numbers suggest that’s not going to change as we continue to deal with COVID and its after-effects on individuals and health and healthcare overall. Economic numbers suggest there won’t be a break with a surge of people aiming to ‘get back’.

The Great Resignation is merely one signal of many to point to.

Designing Post-Resilience

Little of what I wrote above is likely a surprise. Resilience thinking can trap us into trying to preserve what we had instead of designing for something else. A design-driven approach to dealing with the next phase of work is to consider three things at once:

  1. Where we’ve come from and the experiences we’ve had;
  2. Where we are now and what we anticipate needing in the short and medium-term;
  3. Where do we want to go and what do we want to become.

This is aspirational, I’ll admit. What resilience thinking can trap us into is focusing on means to preserve what we had and keep the same roles and places as much as possible.

Those roles and places might not serve us. They most likely aren’t fit-for-purpose for a world that has changed considerably at a structural level. It’s not over, either. Economies, communities, markets, and neighbourhoods are still reconfiguring themselves. Designing for what we want and the situation that is unfolding can help us get what resilience thinking ultimately aims for: healthier more integral people and places.

What it might not do is look to the past for guidance.

(I’ll write more on this in the posts to come)

Image Credits: Annie Spratt on Unsplash and kate.sade on Unsplash

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Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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