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Resilience and Adaptability

C.S. Holling, one of the leading ecologists in the world, is fascinated by the patterns he sees in ecological systems and lately has come to see these same patterns in social and political systems and artistic forms. He believes that he and his multidisciplinary team of colleagues, which has strong connections to SiG@Waterloo, are beginning to understand one of the key properties of healthy systems, that being resilience.

Resilience is the capacity to experience massive change and yet still maintain the integrity of the original. Resilience isn’t about balancing change and stability. It isn’t about reaching equilibrium state. Rather, it is about how massive change and stability paradoxically work together.

Work in resilience began by looking at ecosystems, particularly forests. He was fascinated by how often forests that had existed for hundreds of years went through massive change. Protecting them from fires, disease or drought was no way to guarantee their continued existence. Rather, forests seemed to use these massive changes as part of their ongoing evolution.

Holling began to visualize this capacity for resilience as having four stages, which he termed release, reorganization, exploitation and conservation. The cycle of stages is continuous and simultaneous. And it is ubiquitous to healthy ecosystems, though it is fraught with challenges. Holling’s description of the four stages of the adaptive cycle can be applied to social systems as well, providing important insights into the cycles and stages of social innovation initiatives and resilient communities.

It’s a common human reaction to view a forest fire, a plague of locusts or a bank collapse as an unmitigated disaster from which nothing happy can result. But Holling argued that while disasters do destroy existing structures, they also release trapped resources and nutrients for new life. For instance, if all the water and nutrients in a region supported existing trees, burning down those trees released those nutrients to feed new growth.

Economist Joseph Schumpeter coined a term to describe this same idea in the 1940’s: creative destruction. He noticed that healthy economies go through cycles of destruction that seemed to release innovation and creativity. The pattern Schumpeter saw in economies, Holling saw in ecosystems. In both natural and economic systems, after a phase of growth, followed by a phase in which that growth was conserved, there seemed to be the need for release. Failure to release the creativity for the next phase created a rigidity to the systems, which Holling described as the “rigidity trap.”

Change of this kind is always difficult. It often means stopping doing something that we have done for years. It may mean leaving a job, ending a program, abandoning an approach or a system that has served us well. But the adaptive cycle tells us that unless we release the resources of time, energy, money and skill locked up in our routines and our institutions on a regular basis, it is hard to create anything new or to look at things from a different perspective. Without these new perspectives, and the continuous infusion of novelty and innovation in our lives, our organizations and our systems, there is a slow but definite loss of resilience, and an increase in rigidity.

The phase after release, or creative destruction, is a time of reorganizations. This is when new opportunities are sought and new connections made. During this phase, there is intense competition for available space and resources. Imagine a field cleared by a forest fire. New life quickly grows. Where seeds from birch, maple and aspen trees have landed, you might see a dozen new plants crop up an inch or so apart. Overnight, seedlings cover the n with a blanket of new life. In organizations or social groups, this reorganizations phase can be a heady time of exploration; anything seems possible and the mood is optimistic.

However, ecosystems or social systems can get trapped here too. Holling and his group call this the “poverty trap,” which happens when none of the new ideas seem to take root or thrive. As exciting as the reorganization phase is, with its climate of exploration and promise of renewal, if the system is to be resilient, some death is required at this stage too. Multiple species growing one inch apart cannot all grow to maturity. In an ecosystem, some species must wither while other “win,” securing enough of the available resources to grow to maturity. In creative organizations, multiple teams often compete to create the best prototypes, but only a few of the programs and services that are imagined can be launched. So some of the richness, some of the variety, must be let go, allowed to die in order to move to the next phase of the adaptive cycle: exploitation.

In the exploitation stage the system invests heavily in the dominant species or winning proposal-and the species project draws heavily on the available resources. In the social sector this means we move from the idea to the hard work of making it real; we exploit all available resources to bring the proposal idea to fruition. Social Innovators rarely look back at the avenues they didn’t take; the multiple possibilities for making a difference that might have filtered through the minds of Lundstrom, Pritchard, Brown and Yunus when they felt called to action fell away before the demands of building a new product line, buying a particular house and starting a bicycle repair operation, doing outreach in the streets and putting into place the new lending system. Social innovators, like Parker Palmers woodcarvers, do stand still, do see the whole system, but they also immerse themselves in the reality of each stage and phase of the social innovation cycle. Analysis does not result in paralysis. They both stand still and act.

The last of the four adaptive stages is the conversation or maturity stage. In the forest, the trees become mature and dominate the landscape. Their dominance limits the opportunity for new growth. The large trees consume all of the resources and create shaded ground such that new life, dependent on sunlight, cannot grow. In organizations or movements, this is the “mature product or program” stage where we see return on our efforts. We have invested sufficiently in projects or services that we can now reap the benefits. But if profits blind us to the need for release, we may not recognize that this moment of success is also the time when we need to think about releasing resources for the next “back loop.”

Resilience is about avoiding the traps-both of rigidity and poverty-that prevent the system from evolving. But resilience also involves taking some of who we are, what we know and what we value with us as we move between the stages. Moving from stage to stage can feel like a crisis, like we are losing ourselves. But the adaptive cycle reminds us that destruction and renewal, death and life are necessary for any healthy system. The Greek root word for “crisis” means “to sift.” Sifting suggests we are letting go of what is no longer necessary but retaining the essence. Resilience represents this capacity to sift: to let go and hang simultaneously. The challenge is knowing what and how to let go.

Standing still seems particularly daunting when the forest is burning around us. And yet this is what the adaptive cycle model suggests we do. Social sector organizations run the risk of falling into the poverty trap when they are faced with choices about what to build and what to let go.

Avoiding the rigidity trap may be even harder, requiring discipline and courage. Some organizations have institutionalized the escape from the rigidity trap by putting limits on the length of projects. This forced death of a project every few years allows for a release of trapped energy, time and money. There is some arbitrariness to setting a drop date for a project, but on the other hand it mitigates some of the emotional cost involved in letting go of a cherished initiative. The creativity released can either be reinvested in the organization or movement, or invested elsewhere.

Holling saw that healthy ecosystems experienced all four stages continuously and even simultaneously at different scales. The healthy forest was resilient – it used each stage as input for the next. But overly managed forests weren’t resilient at all. Human caretakers planted too few species or put out fires before they had a chance to do their work – to burn out the underbrush and release nutrients in seeds, for example. These forests became brittle and vulnerable. When disaster struck – a fire that was out of control or disease – the forest either did not go through the natural release and reorganization phases or took an extraordinarily long time – decades – to progress through phases that other forests would do in months or years. In organizations or movements, holding onto the status quo too long is similar to the overly managed forest. There is comfort in the maturity phase; we know what we are doing and how to do it. But that comfort can blind us to the need for release and reorganization, which brings renewal.

Resilience and Adaptability Cycle

For a deeper understanding of Resilience and Adaptability, visit our SiG Knowledge Hub.

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