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Revisiting resilience

Beware the limitations of popular ideas

This post originally appeared on the Yorkshire Universities website.

Unsurprisingly, a huge amount is being written about the coronavirus crisis. Publications are shifting their entire focus onto the pandemic (‘there is only one story in the world right now’, says WIRED magazine). There has been an explosion of academic publications on the virus, with peer review processes struggling to keep up.

In parallel, we’ve been looking through previous writing to find clues on how to deal with the crisis, and whether the warning signs were there. In 2015, Bill Gates explained how we are not ready for a future epidemic. In 2007, scientists in Hong Kong wrote a scarily prescient paper on coronaviruses, describing with great accuracy the ‘time bomb’ that went off in late 2019 in Wuhan, China.

One idea I’m revisiting is resilience. There are two sides to the concept. The first is empowering: a resilient place returns to normal as quickly as possible after a shock or a disturbance. Such places are flexible and adaptable, learn from previous crises, prioritise skills training, have inclusive societies, encourage innovation, develop diverse industries, and promote clear and transparent leadership. Although the terminology differs, policies around devolution and decentralisation to cities and regions have many of the same aims.

The other side is less rosy. As the concept gained traction in the early 2010s, cities in particular came under pressure to demonstrate their resilience. Leaders shouldered growing responsibilities for their city to tick the latest urban and regional policy boxes – to be sustainable, smart and resilient. However, as Lawrence Vale has written, ‘uneven resilience threatens the ability of cities as a whole to function economically, socially and politically’. Boosting resilience at a local level requires substantial resources and reliable support over long periods of time. Programmes to encourage resilience around the world have proven to be less than resilient themselves.

Shifting the power to tackle local issues and to respond to wider challenges from nations to regions is welcome. But if only responsibility is transferred, without accompanying resources where local institutional capacity and capability is limited, it is unlikely resilience – or devolution – will be successful. As we gradually turn to the economic recovery in the coming months, as government policies to ‘level up’ the regions return to the agenda, and as we consider how to prepare for future crises, it is worth revisiting the literature on resilience.

Photo by Alex Kim on Unsplash

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