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Queen Mary Global Policy Institute

Resilience and uncertainty - a diablog from Professor Colin Grant

Roberto Alvarez's blogpost for the Queen Mary Global Policy Institute brings welcome subtlety to the debate about the term 'resilience'. Queen Mary’s Vice-Principal for International, Professor Colin Grant, continues the conversation with a 'diablog' in response to his post.

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The planetary rarely lands on the desk of the local or national policymaker, says Professor Colin Grant. Image: A small globe sits on a wooden desk with a blackboard in the background.
The planetary rarely lands on the desk of the local or national policymaker, says Professor Colin Grant. Image: A small globe sits on a wooden desk with a blackboard in the background.

Roberto Alvarez's recent piece helps to chart a path through a concept that the pandemic has rendered ubiquitous – and for good reason. The term has, of course, long been contested (on the grounds that its subtext implies self-reliance, for example). Perhaps now its ubiquity has softened the edge of its definition – and especially so when it comes to complex social issues including health, migration and poverty.

Resilience has in recent years become synonymous with 'bouncing back', 'recovery' and 'coping'. These descriptions are only partially accurate, however. Roberto Alvarez sets out five dimensions to his rebooted resiliency concept: performance; systematicity; intentionality; evolution, and higher-level functionality. I would like to take each of these in turn and build a diablog with his piece. 

First, a human system seeks to maintain its homeostasis (regulate its temperature, fluid intake, emotional well-being etc.). In the face of perturbations in its environment (political, ecological or social) it will undergo dynamic adaptation in order to regain homeostasis. Without dynamic physical (and mental) stability as a process and not as an endpoint, the human agent is unable to perform in a complex environment. In the political sphere populists deny that complexity – hence their popularity. Alvarez is right in pointing to resilience as performance – or, we could also say, transformation. The capacity to change is a fundamental component of resilience. The capacity to change is an acknowledgment of the imbrication of resilience and uncertainty. Uncertainty is not simply the product of recent turmoil: it is a fact, well, of life. 

Second, Alvarez is right to see resilience as a systemic property. In materials this might be the weakest material link that could cause fracturing, corrosion or malfunction. In culture, the economy and society resilience is a factor of uncertainty management across a wide range of interlocking systems – in well-being, identity formation, monetary and fiscal policy and – dare we still call it – the/a social contract. We traverse and negotiate many systems in our everyday lives. 

Third, resilience can be understood from a policy perspective as anticipation of uncertainty rather than merely a response to it – for the responsive mode as default is always destined to come too late. Some policy reactions to the pandemic tended towards this responsive mode, despite the fact that significant pandemic planning and modelling had been conducted in preceding years. Identifying future sources of uncertainty (extreme weather events, terrorist attacks, new infectious diseases) should be a core task for policy-makers and their partners.

Fourth, Alvarez rightly points to resilience as transcending adaptation and instead suggests a focus on learning and intentionality. The resilient system (including the human system) learns, evolves and so undergoes transformation. That system assumes and anticipates uncertainty. Equipping citizens and health and care systems with anticipatory capacity through education and investment (even if the future cannot ultimately be proofed) is a further key element in resilience-building. 

Fifth and finally, Alvarez appeals for an understanding of resilience as higher-level functioning across systems. Ultimately, only a whole-world, or planetary, understanding of resilience can do justice to policy questions. Imbalances in trade might appear to offer competitive advantage, but if the competitor collapses as a result or becomes eternally indebted, the advantage is lost with civil war, social unrest, forced migration and worse the result. A whole-world approach rules out the zero-sum game beloved of protectionists. As our daily digests of news tell us: the world truly is an interdependent system. Wishing it were otherwise and that clocks could be turned back leads to dangerous illusion. 

Of course, the planetary rarely lands on the desk of the local or national policymaker. Far-sightedness is needed to anticipate how regions with acute youth unemployment will cope. The lesson is that, sooner or later, there will always be consequences for us.


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