Enabling change in our Society, Environment and Economy (SEE)

Resilience of human systems

Are our human systems resilient or will they adapt, transform or collapse when the perfect storm hits us?

by Bob Douglas, March 2010

Humanity has always lived on the edge of trouble, but this time the future is looking pretty unpleasant. It is not just the combination of overpopulation and climate change, peak oil, global inequity, terrorism and the threat of nuclear war. It is also the progressive world-wide collapse of the ecosystems on which we all depend for our sustenance.

The planet is dying and we are pretending it is not happening because we haven’t yet got our collective act together to deal with these realities.   The polls tell us that action on climate change is falling down the political priority list and that climate change deniers are doing quite well in the struggle for the hearts and minds of people across the developed world. Eat drink and be merry………

Three weeks ago Australia 21 held a conference in Canberra to consider the application of resilience thinking to all this stuff. For this purpose, we brought some of the leading resilience scientists in the world together with a group of Australia’s policy makers.

Resilience thinking is systems thinking. It is about the way billions of complex self-organising and interacting systems, both those occurring in nature and those that are man–made, respond to shocks. If a system such as the global economy, the Australian health care system, a rainforest or a human body is able to adapt and maintain its normal function in the face of a severe external shock, it is said to be resilient. Whole systems and even whole societies can collapse quickly and completely if they are not resilient or cannot adapt or transform in a coherent way in the face of impending or unexpected shocks.

Resilience or continuation of normal function may not be what is always needed of a system. Sometimes it would be better if in the face of shock, or in preparation for it, the system modified itself or even radically transformed itself to deal with new external realities. Resilience thinking is as much about adaptation and transformation as it is about maintaining current functions.

Resilience has long been part of the vocabulary of psychologists, engineers, ecologists and defence science and is more recently being applied to human organisations and to society itself.

The resilience lens forces us back to basics to consider first of all, what the system is there for and whose interests it serves. How does the system of interest relate to systems, above, around and below it and how is its performance monitored? Are the things that are being monitored by those who manage it, the ones that are critical to the healthy operation of the system? If not, why not?

Many of the 200 participants in the Canberra conference were people involved in the management of agriculture and catchment authorities around Australia. But there were many also from the fields of health and social sciences and a sprinkling of economists and those involved in development of Australia’s infrastructure and our national response to climate change.

For people managing our landscapes, our health and education systems and the nation’s emergency response systems, there was both excitement and impatience for new tools and new understandings about practical ways to manage our human systems at various levels in a resilience–sensitive way. To better manage these we need case studies to better understand thresholds and tipping points as well as the feedback loops that operate across systems at various scales.

The worst kind of resilience is that which resists change when transformation is essential and there is plenty of it in evidence in Australia’s governance and our political systems.

Following decisions at a meeting of Australian Governments (COAG) late last year, resilience is now on government agendas across Australia.  Systems resilience thinking is now quite as important for policy makers in government and industry as efficiency and risk management thinking. An economically efficient system is not necessarily a resilient one and conventional risk management policies need to be tempered by a consideration of the desirability of adaptive or transformative change in the structure of the system.

At the conference dinner, Robyn Archer who is the Creative Director of the Centenary of Canberra, brilliantly applied resilience thinking to the systems which manage Australia’s creativity and the arts.  Expect to hear more of the R word as decision makers across the board come to grips with its implications.

Bob Douglas is Chair of the Board of Australia 21. Conference papers and links to the global Resilience Alliance can be found at www.australia21.org.au

With thanks to our


  • ACT Government Environment and Planning
  • The Association of Independent Schools of the ACT (AISACT)
  • Catholic Education Office (Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn)
  • Education and Training Directorate
  • ACT Government