Systems that are resilient are complex, adaptive and unpredictable. They can self-organize and make it through unexpected, sudden shocks. Nature, as usual, is a heck of a lot better at creating resilient systems than us humans. We simply can’t engineer a design to be ready for everything and anything.
But we need to try our best- currently we’re pushing the limits on the carrying capacity of our lovely little planet and eventually something’s gotta give. Whether we’re ready for it depends if we’ve adequately planned for the unplanned.
1. Robust Urban Systems – An Example in New York
On a cold January day in 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 crashed in to the Hudson River in New York after striking several birds during take-off. Because of quick thinking and expert flying by the pilot, no-one died in the crash. This amazing event became known as the Miracle on the Hudson, and the flight crew were all heralded as heroes- and rightfully so. But, the story doesn’t end with the plane landing in one piece in the water. On a bitter cold January day these 155 passengers were still on a sinking plane in the middle of a large freezing river. The New York Waterway ferries however, were able to respond within 4 minutes. How lucky for the passengers, because NY Waterways neared bankruptcy due to funding issues years before! Because New York understood the importance of a resilient, multi-modal transportation system, the boats continued to operate and were able to respond quickly.
No one would EVER think of having ferries continue to run in case a plane crashed in the Hudson River! This success story is simply a result of creating a robust urban system. How resilient is a city where residents rely solely on single passenger vehicles and roads?
2. Create Positive Feedback Loops
When bees pollinate flowers, nectar is produced. When companies donate to charities, their employees’ communities benefit, creating happier workers, which feeds back in to the company. When a neighborhood builds a community garden, that builds friendship, support, healthier residents and a local food system.
Too often we create linear systems that is material in, waste out. Truly resilient systems form a positive, sustainable cycle.
3. Open vs. Closed Systems – The Laws of Entropy
In a closed system, order always breaks down in to chaos – that’s the rules according to the law of entropy. However, in an open system this doesn’t apply. A homeowner that shuts them-self in and doesn’t know their neighbors is much more vulnerable to shocks or disaster than the family across the street who is heavily involved in their community and has support from their friends and family.
4. Lots of Small Systems Function Better than One Big System
Think about your house- it depends on a complex network of pipes and wires from a centralized utility to provide you with water, electricity and gas. For many of us, if any of these big systems experiences a shock, we are helpless once we’ve lost any of these essential services. However if I have a garden and rainwater catchment system, and a solar panel I’m significantly more prepared for emergency.
If everyone had their own little system, if something was to happen in one area, the folks down the street could provide support and help, rather than everyone losing power.