Against general resilience in urban climate policy

Overly simplified accounts on the concept of resilience can be counter-productive while planning and implementing action to minimize social and ecological vulnerabilities, says HELSUS-researcher Henrik Thorén in newly published Routledge Handbook of Urban Resilience. Strengthening climate resilience in urban areas requires a specified understanding on what resilience means within each setting.

HELSUS Fellow Henrik Thorén has contributed to a newly published Routledge Handbook in Urban Resilience (ed. Michael Burayidi) with a chapter analyzing and problematizing the notion of general resilience. 

The concept of resilience is widely used in sustainability science and key in understanding social and ecological vulnerabilities. However, the use of resilience in a generalized sense can be problematic. HELSUS researchers Henrik Thorén argues that the very notion of general resilience obscures our understanding of a system, possibly resulting in action in which the implications of that understanding might be flawed or even harmful.

Key concept in sustainability science, resilience refers to the ability of a system to cope with adverse impacts and to recover from or adapt to changes and disturbances. The concept, however, is far from unambiguous and Thorén's research contribution elaborates on the problematics of “general resilience” within sustainability science, focusing especially on the kind of ontological (referring to the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being) commitments the concept brings in its wake. 

Specified resilience vs. general resilience

According to Thorén “within the resilience literature many have found it useful to distinguish what might be labelled general resilience from specific resilience. That is to say, resilience to any kind of disturbance versus resilience towards specific types of disturbances.” To elaborate more: “Specified resilience” is the resilience of some specified part of the system to a specified shock, for example how well does a tennis ball endure impact or how well does an urban area X adapt to heavy rainfall. In comparison, “general resilience is the capacity of a system that allows it to absorb disturbances of all kinds, including novel, unforeseen ones, so that all parts of the system keep functioning as they have in the past.”

To determine the “general resilience” of a system, one must be able to determine and define what that system is. According to Thorén, this presents a big challenge as “any resilience concept applied to a real system needs to involve some specification of what that system is, and the kinds of disturbances involved” and because there is no definitive single description of any given system, our understanding of a system is always limited.

Problems of generality

The representations used by scientists to investigate and understand real systems such as ecosystems, cities or communities, are constrained in ways that the systems themselves are not. For example, whereas actual ecosystems are rarely clearly bounded, models of ecosystems have to be bounded. This issue rings true even more clearly in social systems such as cities.

Scientists own position, values and the inherent problems of boundary-making produce a large amount of uncertainties in describing any system, therefore making the understanding of the system’s general resilience extremely uncertain as well. The idea of general resilience tends to lead towards a monistic view of systems and this makes us less inclined to see and prepare to all the possible disturbances and unknown risks, which is exactly the opposite of what the concept of general resilience was aimed for.  

Thorén points out, that the critique towards general resilience as a concept should not lead us to be wary of unknown unknowns. Rather, because we all have a limited perspective of the consequences of e.g. climate change on urban areas, we must identify more specific resiliences within those urban settings. Efforts to build resilience should be carried out whilst minimizing new vulnerabilities. According to Thorén this is possible only if we avoid overly reductive accounts, so that our ways of examining and promoting resilience are not counter-productive.

Henrik Thorén is a philosopher of sustainability science, postdoctoral researcher at Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS) and a visiting research fellow at Lund University Centre of Sustainability Science (LUCSUS)