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Designing Resilience: Preparing for Extreme Events

Designing Resilience: Preparing for Extreme Events edited by Louise K. Comfort, Arjen Boin, and Chris C. Demchak. Pittsburgh University Press, 2010, 360 pp.

Complex challenges emerging from the interconnectedness between local and transnational realities; between markets, migration, and social movements; and between pandemics, a looming energy crisis, and climate change have tested the ability of societies and institutions to cope with the turbulent dynamics of global life. At the same time, such complex vulnerabilities reveal of pattern of interactions marked by sharp discontinuities which challenge the capacities for comprehending the causes, consequences, and characteristics that such challenges engender. In this context, the confrontation with the intersected and cross-cutting character of emerging risks has provoked an acknowledgement of the shifting conditions of their governance owing to the shifting relationship between socio-political and ecological systems. Consequently, the pervasive vulnerability to unexpected shocks has provoked a demand for a conceptual overhaul of the notion and practices of addressing such complex challenges.

In response to such complex challenges a number of commentators have proffered resilience as a possible name for a range of approaches that advocate ongoing adaptability to nascent vulnerabilities. Thus, the volume edited by Louise K. Comfort (director of the Center for Disaster Management at the University of Pittsburgh), Arjen Boin (founding director of the Stephenson Disaster Management Institute at Louisiana State University), and Chris C. Demchak (associate professor of public administration and policy at the University of Arizona, Tucson) offers a timely survey of the blossoming literature on resilience. At the same time, it provides a much needed direction for the diverse approach promoted by different advocates. As such, the edited collection outlines a firm platform for dialogue among the proponents of the resilience paradigm. Thus, while it searches to establish coherence, the volume does not attempt to impose uniformity.

To begin with, the editors stake out the point of departure for such an endeavor by defining resilience as “the capacity of a social system (e.g., an organization, city, or society) to proactively adapt to and recover from disturbances that are perceived within the system to fall outside the range of normal and expected disturbances” (p. 10). Yet, such formulation is not intended as a straightjacket that hems in the contributors’ explorations, but only as a common ground on whose foundation they can base their inquiries. What becomes quickly apparent is that the meaning of resilience shifts depending on the context, policy issue, or particular case. Yet, one underlying feature of the term is that it refers to a quality of a community or organization, which emerges from a long-term, continuous process of adaptation. Rather than “a fix-it-and-forget-it approach, enduring resilience is a balancing act between risk and resources, between vulnerabilities and escalating or unmanageable catastrophe” (p. 273).

In its endeavor to tease out both some of the key assumptions that can assist the construction of societal resilience and several of the hurdles that need to be navigated so this process can endure, the volume provides 14 intriguing analyses of different aspects of the notion and practices of resilience. The collection begins with a detailed account of the concept and meanings of resilience. The analysis outlines the connotations that the term has acquired in psychology, ecology, management sciences, safety sciences, disaster and crisis management, and socio-technical systems. Such a comprehensive overview backstops the contention that there are three main types of resilience: (1) “emotional resilience”—which understands resilience as an individual trait of a person, organization, or community; (2) “engineering resilience”—which understands resilience as a property of systems that allows them to return promptly to their original condition; and (3) “ecological resilience”—which understands resilience as a return to an original state through adaptation and learning (p. 30).

This consideration of the concept and meanings of resilience provides the background for the analysis of the practice of resilience in the context of particular cases and issue-areas. For instance, in a pioneering move, the volume highlights the role of cognition in the process of constructing resilience. As the contributors demonstrate, the responses and mitigation of disasters demand adaptation capacities that are able to construct new proficiency and adjustment to external and/or internal transformations. Such abilities however draw attention to the problem of comprehending the vast, fast, and continuous volume of uncertainty. In the context of disaster, the cognitive challenge reflects “the capacity to recognize the degree of emerging risk to which a community is exposed and to act on that information” (p. 33).

Such recognition is crucial to ensuring the resilience of critical infrastructures. Yet, the viability and adaption of most such infrastructures depends not merely on cognition, but on the interoperability between several stakeholders. Therefore, the volume offers an overview of several knowledge-based failures from the history of military organizations and the lessons that emerge for the construction of resilient governance structures and organizations. The focus is on the “Extreme Event Atrium” (p. 62) model and its mechanisms for collective action. The theme of adaptive governance is developed further in the discussion of the “macrodynamic constraints on governmental responses to crises” (p. 84).

Such a discussion draws attention to the role of leadership as well as the priorities, practices, and measures of disaster relief policies. The resilience of all these governance aspects is assessed in the context of the London bombings in July 2005 and France’s preparation for an avian flu pandemic. Such analyses point both to the “organizational reality” (p. 158) for designing resilience and the simultaneous demand for international cooperation that reflects the transnational character of such risks. At the same time, the volume indicates that the construction of resilience requires an integrated approach bringing together science, technological innovation, and policy-making in order to design a viable framework for responding to “uncertain physical environments by systematically monitoring risk conditions and transmitting this information to practicing managers” (p. 245).

Thus, by bringing such detailed investigation this collection offers a compelling account of current practices of responding to extreme events. In this respect, the volume edited by Comfort, Boin, and Demchak offers a much-needed overview of the current state of the art in resilience studies. At the same time, it also indicates possible future trajectories in which the resilience paradigm can be used to address the challenges of discontinuous change. The book will likely attract the attention of security specialists and risk analysts. It will also be of interest to anyone concerned with designing relevant governance strategies for responding to uncertainty. The book will also be invaluable for the purposes of teaching and theorizing the content and practices of resilience.

Emilian R. Kavalski, PhD

University of Western Sydney, Australia

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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