Resilience definitions

Resilience is about dealing with ‘shocks’ (unexpected large-scale events) and other disturbances.

Definitions of resilience can include the following elements:

Bouncing back

A system’s speed of recovery or return to its pre-shock position. This emphasises efficiency, constancy and predictability in the face of a disruption or shock.

Absorbing shocks

How much disturbance a system can take and remain within critical thresholds. This raises questions about how much reorganisation is permitted for a system to be regarded as having ‘absorbed’ the shock.

Positive adaptability/bouncing forward

Learning, adaptation, and preparation for future shocks. This emphasises continuity and change in self-organising systems subject to internal or external perturbations, and the capacity of systems to adapt to such pressures.

System transformation

Fundamental reorientation of a system in anticipation of, or in response to, shocks. This assumes that the scale or nature of a shock, expected or experienced, is such that the very viability or sustainability of a system is brought into question, and requires nothing short of a wholesale transformation of the system’s structure and function.

However, definitions are not yet settled, and many alternative definitions are available. Importantly, tensions across definitional elements can affect the interpretation of resilience studies. One tension is the degree of change a system can undergo for it to be deemed ‘resilient’. For example, the first 2 elements above generally see the retention of a system’s structure and function as a goal of resilience, whereas this is not the case for the final element or possibly even the penultimate one.  

Partly because of the lack of agreement around definitions, some question the usefulness of resilience as a concept. An alternative view is that resilience is a valuable concept, as it can aid understanding about the ability of a system to cope with challenges and change. Resilience makes us think about the essence of a system and what, if anything, needs to be maintained through time, reflecting factors such as what societies value now and in the future.

Arguably, resilience is a more important indicator of economic performance than traditional indicators like economic growth, as one of the most basic functions of an economic system is its survival, and the ultimate test of that system is its long-term viability. For example, some economists have questioned the viability of the current economic system in the face of threats from climate change, biodiversity loss and other planetary stresses.

Last updated: 03 July 2023