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Updated: Jul 17, 2020

Paul Barratt - Chair Australia21

Image by Engin Akyurt

In public discussion about the COVID-19 crisis and how well we are handling it the word “resilience” has become prominent in the public discourse. But what exactly is it?

A useful definition of resilience is “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise so as to retain essentially the same functions, structure and feedbacks – to have the same identity”. Put another way, it is in this context the capacity of Australia’s social and economic processes to maintain their general structure and functions in the face of disturbance, even though they must adapt and change in various ways. It is the ability of our “system” as a whole to stay in its current regime and avoid being pushed over a threshold beyond which it is unable to return to its original identity.

It is important to emphasise that resilience is not about resisting change. Research on how social and ecological systems have responded to change in the past shows that resisting change is a recipe for a system to be overwhelmed by it and to lose its essential functions and identity.

It is important also to note that during the pandemic the Australian public has shown that it can accept major policy change when it is seen to be for the common good. The pandemic has opened a window for substantial policy innovation if we are willing to trust the science and look forward rather than trying to restore a version of the old order.

Research on resilience has identified a number of features that need to be recognised if the concept is to be used consistently and without confusion:

  1. Understanding resilience is largely about recognising the different regimes of states in which systems exist and the processes that discourage the system from moving from one regime to another (e.g. a society moving from a peaceful and productive “state” to a state of civil unrest or economic decline).

  2. The slowly changing variables are those that tend to catch us unawares. An example here would be the steady change over many years in the relative power and influence of China and the United States in the Asia-Pacific region. Other examples would include the steady changes brought on by climate change, and the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

  3. The resilience of systems is most tested when they are hit by sudden shocks that have the potential to push them to a different regime of states (e.g. the 2008-09 Global Financial Crisis and the current COVID19 crisis).

  4. In any system resilience is expressed at multiple scales: it is appropriate to consider not only the resilience of the nation, but of the states, regions, cities, towns and households that make it up

  5. Trying to enhance resilience at one scale can reduce it at others

  6. The difference between general resilience, and specified resilience (resilience of what, to what) matters

  7. A system cannot be understood or managed by focusing only at one scale of particular interest; in order to understand a system, it is necessary to consider at least the dynamics of the system at the scale above and the scale of embedded systems below, and the interactions across this hierarchy of scales.

Australia21 has examined Australia’s resilience several times since 2007. Consistently, it appears that official (largely governmental) processes have acted to reduce or limit Australia’s resilience to major shocks, while unofficial (community, private) efforts have worked to increase resilience. Included in Australia21’s report has been considerable advice specifically regarding pandemic preparedness. An interesting theme that has arisen more than once is that where Australia has managed to deal effectively with a shock (e.g., global financial disaster and possibly the current pandemic), emergency action has been possible largely because Australia was in a good position due to luck.

To elaborate, in 2007 Australia21 ran a roundtable asking the question “How resilient is Australia?”. That roundtable led to three subsequent publications: the reports "How Resilient is Australia?" and “Brighter Prospects" and the book “Resilience and Transformation”. The latter examined, in depth, key aspects of Australia’s resilience. The original roundtable discussed 15 characteristics of Australia’s resilience at that time.

Participants thought that 11 of these were trending in an undesirable direction:

  • Official encouragement of diverse ideas, skills, and viewpoints

  • Official efforts towards clarity of values and directions

  • Official encouragement for sharing of, and respect for, alternative ideas and information

  • Capacity to achieve consensus and commonality of purpose

  • Exploration and identification of challenges and opportunities

  • Members of the Australian workforce with time and motivation to invest in ideas and build and maintain social connections and cooperation

  • Investment in innovation

  • Motivation, optimism and the capacity of individuals to deal with social and economic problems

  • Trust and respect

  • Spare capacity to deal with the unexpected

  • Complexity of the way Australian society functions (including bureaucracy, regulation, information, human interrelationships, and economic systems)

There were some characteristics thought to be trending in a desirable direction, but these were largely occurring outside official processes:

  • Generation of new ideas, skills and viewpoints outside official processes

  • Unofficial debate to clarify values and directions

  • Unofficial sharing of, and respect for, alternative ideas and information

  • Retired members of society with time and motivation to invest in ideas and build and maintain social connections and cooperation

It appears that the situation has not changed greatly since 2007, or perhaps the undesirable aspects have become worse while the desirable aspects might have improved.

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