By Dynamiq Senior Consultant Lacey Croco

As someone who has been involved with “resiliency” work, a phenomenon that has been gaining traction with communities through the initiative of the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities and other efforts, I often find myself thinking about the movie Princess Bride. Let me explain.

I can’t help but think about Inigo Montoya’s classic response of, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means” to Vizzini’s repeated use of, “Inconceivable!” I do not think resiliency means what we think it means. Although the term is used widely in the emergency management community, multiple definitions exist, many of which are vague or too all-inclusive to the point of being ineffectual. This lack of agreement leads to confusion and hampers our conversations about this issue. Instead of offering another definition, I recommend changing the conversation.

We are currently asking, “How do we become more resilient?” when we should first be asking, “How do we reduce the level of turbulence in our environments?” Framing the conversation in this manner helps individuals, communities, and organisations to look collectively at the effect of chronic stressors and acute shocks, and focus on how to address those effects through resiliency and other activities.

So, what is a turbulent environment? Barbara Gray provides the following description of what occurs when turbulent conditions exist: the emergence of interrelated, rapid outcomes (which) exceeds the existing organisational matching capabilities, rendering the environment increasingly uncertain and unmanageable for the organisation (1991, p.231).

Although her definition applies to an organisation, one can easily substitute the words “individual,” “sector,” or “community.” Both chronic stressors and acute shocks can create a scenario of turbulent conditions.

Why does this matter? While increasing resiliency is a time-and-resource worthy endeavor, our overarching goal should be to reduce turbulent conditions in our communities and organisations. Looking at the chart below (which is not a diagnostic tool, but rather allows individuals to gauge the level of turbulent conditions in their community or organisation), one can see how chronic stressors and acute shocks interact with each other. If you have a low chronic stress level, but suffer a high impact from the consequences of a shock, the level of turbulence may still be severe. Similarly, if the scoring is reversed–low impact from a shock, but high impact from chronic stressors–you will also find yourself in a highly turbulent environment. This chart provides a way for individuals, communities, and organizations to quickly self-assess the main source(s) (stressors or potential shocks) of turbulent conditions. Armed with this knowledge, they can then develop strategies to address any problematic areas.

The lack of a clear and concise definition of resiliency has led to a lack of clear and concise strategies. This confusion often stems from the misuse of words. ”Mitigation” and “preparedness”, for instance, are often treated as synonyms for resiliency, despite describing activities that are very different. In this section I will outline five distinct activities that are the critical links needed to overcome a turbulent environment–they are often used interchangeably, but actually mean very different things: Mitigation, preparedness, resiliency, adaptability, and sustainability.

If the assessment of chronic stressors is high, strategic activities focused on sustainability and adaptability can reduce turbulence. Sustainability related activities include designing and implementing practices that can be upheld and reducing or diversifying dependencies without creating additional chronic stressors. Adaptability strategies address chronic stressors by taking more flexible measures that may modify current practices or create entirely new methods in the way resources and protocols are designed, developed or implemented.

Overcoming turbulent environments:

1. Resiliency
2. Adaptability
3. Mitigation
4. Preparedness
5. Sustainability

Lowering the effect of potential acute shocks can be done through mitigation, preparedness, and resiliency. Mitigation strategies reduce the level or risk or the severity associated with specific shocks (e.g. flood walls and green space to reduce flooding risks). Preparedness activities include not only proper resource availability and planning, but also designing and simulating acute shock scenarios. Finally, resiliency strategies, which are fundamentally about human behavior, give individuals, communities, and organizations the capacity to bounce back after a shock. This includes activities such as learning how to leverage networks, how to collaborate, how to mentally rehearse your response, how to shift mental models, and how to identify individual, community and organization triggers that may prevent or delay the ability to bounce back.

Breaking down actions into these five categories, and aligning each with reducing the impact of either a stressor or shock, may help communities and organizations know how to take tangible steps toward the goals that are outlined in the varied and wide-ranging definitions of resiliency. This is achieved by first having the conversation about the turbulence in our environments, and then the conversations about how to we can become better at adaptability, sustainability, mitigation, preparedness, and resiliency practices.

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