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Do not lose sight of resilience thinking in the pursuit of resilience metrics

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

This post is part of the Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog's month-long series on Resilience.

Without quantifiable metrics, will resilience languish as a buzz-word with no lasting impact?

Resilience, as a unifying concept, has rapidly become a prominent targeted development goal. Significant efforts, both academic and more pragmatic, have been invested in describing, measuring and increasing the resilience of different systems.

In Western Sumatra, Lake Maninjau is an important local source for hydroelectric power and natural resources such as fish In Western Sumatra, Lake Maninjau is an important local source for hydroelectric power and natural resources such as fish. Can we develop metrics for measuring resilience in these types of systems? Photo: A. Löf/Azote Images

However, we have yet to produce a set of agreed upon metrics to quantify resilience, though we have made significant progress in this field (see for instance the new popular science publication, and the other resilience blog-post Applying Resilience Thinking). Critics argue that investments in building resilience with no consistent way of evaluation will fail to produce desired development outcomes.

Can we apply metrics to resilience?

How do we operationalize resilience? Steve Carpenter and co-authors suggest starting with a more refined question, “Resilience of what to what?”. In their case examples, they selected lake and rangeland systems and suggest metrics to increase the desired resilience to specified disturbances common in these systems. This type of operationalization of resilience often deals with of “specified resilience”; that is, resilience of a specific function to a specific disturbance.

The world, however, is full of surprises. Is it possible to even identify and prepare for specific perturbations for specific interlinked systems?

In this sense, many efforts are being developed aiming at developing indicator frameworks that help assessing general resilience, and guiding principles for nurturing it (e.g. Biggs et al 2012, Carpenter et al. 2012), some more specific to agriculture (Cabel & Oelofse 2012) or water resources (Nemec et al. 2014). As one could expect, none of these eliminate the uncertainty or capture the whole picture at once.

Beyond measurement

Conceptually rich terms, such as resilience or sustainability, are not foreign to the development community. The term ‘sustainable development’ remains conceptually tractable, but problematic to define and measure. Yet, despite unclear terminology, these types of focal concepts can act as an attractor for deeper thought that cannot be captured in metrics.

We argue that engaging with resilience thinking is the objective, while measures, indicators and principles are merely signposts along the way. As Brian Walker and David Salt writes in their book, Resilience Practice, “…it needs to be said at the outset that following strict recipes and prescriptions simply isn’t appropriate. Working with resilience requires you to constantly reflect on what you are doing and why you are doing it. And once a resilience assessment is done, you are encouraged to go back and reexamine it, expand on it, and then adapt accordingly”.

Resilience thinking can be seen more as a mindset, or an approach to understand the problem and the system, and goes beyond measuring a property of a system. Regardless of whether resilience thinking can be operationalized, and instead of getting stuck in an endless discussion of the specifics of the concept, we find engaging with resilience thinking useful for at least three main reasons:

  1. Resilience thinking helps nurture an enriched and integrated understanding of humans-nature interactions and cross-scale dynamics
  2. Resilience thinking focuses on surprise, uncertainty and disturbances; but more than that, it focuses on what happens after a perturbation, and what encourages learning, adaptability and reorganization when disturbance happens. It thus help us deal with unknown changes in the present and in the future
  3. Resilience thinking focuses on understanding the safe space for changes in social-ecological systems, before changes might cause tipping points and regime shifts after which it gets costly, difficult and potentially impossible to reverse.

To us, the complexities of resilience thinking allows for integration of different approaches, not replacement with “competing” approaches. To give this context, a few years back we compared resilience thinking with optimization approaches for conservation. One of our key findings was that resilience thinking provided a framework for tackling the issue, while optimization was the tool to do so. Resilience thinking often needs a mixed set of tools from different disciplines to be applied. Focusing myopically on the tools and terminology themselves might make you miss the core target.

Our worry is that in our focus to label resilience with a codified list of metrics, we lose track of its entirety; we risk losing sight of the forest for the trees. Perhaps the resilience thinking that got resilience to be such a popular concept in development has more to do with changing the way we think or how we interpret problems and search for solutions, than how we measure the impact of our actions.

What do you think? Tell us in the comments section below.

For further reading: 

Biggs, R. et al., 2012. Toward Principles for Enhancing the Resilience of Ecosystem Services. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 37(1), pp.421–448.

Carpenter, S.R. et al., 2012. General Resilience to Cope with Extreme Events. Sustainability, 4(12), pp.3248–3259.

Cabell, J.F. & Oelofse, M., 2012. An Indicator Framework for Assessing Agroecosystem Resilience. Ecology and Society, 17(1), p.18.

Folke, C. et al., 2010. Resilience thinking : Integrating Resilience, Adaptability and Transformability. Ecology and Society, 15(4).

Nemec, K. T., Chan, J., Hoffman, C., Spanbauer, T. L., Hamm, J. A., Allen, C. R., & Hefley, T. (2014). Assessing Resilience in Stressed Watersheds, 19(1).


It is all well and fine, conceptually. These questions remain, though: in the real world, how do you move institutions and people towards those goals? how do you support the engagement required, sometime over a long time and amidst multiple agendas, to nurture the change in mind-set you wish to see ? how do you build and maintain momentum and commitment by actors to that type of fuzzy agenda? how do you bridge that type of thinking with the average management and organizational culture of a given context?