Can we actually measure resilience?

Can we actually measure resilience?

Resilience is a concept that is being applied to many different domains, from infrastructure’s response to extreme events to a child facing domestic violence. “Is there a common unit of resilience, relevant to all those different cases?” was the question behind a study recently published in the journal Earth’s Future.

While the concept of resilience has become an omnipresent ingredient of almost every discourse by politicians, scientists, or journalists in relation to climate change, humanitarian interventions, national security, food security, and more recently Sustainable Development Goals, it is embarrassing to admit that the world is still struggling to answer what seems, at first sight, a pretty simple question: “how do we measure resilience?”

The question sounds indeed simple, but is this actually that simple? Well… not really, and there are several reasons why.

First and foremost, the main reason for our struggle with the measurement of resilience is the fact that measuring resilience is not like accounting for income, assessing education, or counting the number of typhoon shelters built along the coastline of the Philippines. It is not ‘something’ that is quantifiable or measurable directly. In technical jargon, it is what we call a latent variable. The consequence is that there is, so far, no universal measure or “unit” of resilience.

The second main reason is the fact that resilience is a concept that has been appropriated and is being used by many different disciplines: ecology, psychology, urban planning, engineering, disaster risk reduction, food security, among others. Although experts from all those different disciplines agree with the idea that, all in all, resilience is about how to deal with shocks, each of them has a particular understanding of what resilience is really about (clearly, the resilience of a young child to familial stress such as domestic violence is not exactly the same as the resilience of a building or a bridge to extreme weather events). Yet both are resilience.

So how can we measure resilience in those two cases? And perhaps more importantly, can we use a common metric for both?

This last interrogation is the challenge that a team of researchers has decided to tackle. In an article recently published in Earth’s Future entitled “From Resistance to Transformation: A Generic Metric of Resilience through Viability”, those authors claim that they succeeded. Building on the different definitions of resilience found in the literature, they identified a continuum of five categories of resilience responses: (i) resistance, (ii) coping strategies, (iii) adaptation, (iv) adaptive preference, and (v) transformation. They then use a mathematical formalism (called viability) to reframe and boil down this typology of resilience responses into a generic metric and use it to actually measure resilience.

The result is compelling. The analysis not only shows that the metric can be applied to very different contexts (two very distinct cases are used for illustration in their article: the exploitation of renewable resources and the eutrophication of lakes – two seminal cases in the resilience literature). But the analysis also reveals some other interesting results.

It shows, for instance, that the resilience of a system/individual does not simply depend on the conditions characterizing that system/individual at the time it is affected by a shock, but also on the type of responses that they put in place. In particular, the two researchers were able to show formally that, by shifting from resistance to absorptive, or adaptive responses – and in some cases to transformation – individuals and systems are able to increase their level of resilience.

This result is important as it means that we can now help decision-makers and planners to prioritize the types of resilience responses that they should be supporting. Applied to programs such as humanitarian or food security aid, it means, for instance, that interventions aimed at encouraging the adoption of adaptive responses should be prioritized over those that simply ensure the short-term recovery of the populations that have been affected by disasters.

The result is critical for the SDGs, especially for targets 1.5, 2.4, and 13.1, where resilience is at the core. Measuring resilience will open the doors to making it stronger and, therefore, to achieving the vision framed in the SDGs for our planet.