Resilience, Industry and Infrastructure

16 November 2020


Reported by Alice Millington, CSaP Policy Intern

How can resilience be defined in industry and infrastructure? Surpassing risk management, is resilience thinking the route forward manage the indeterminable threats of an increasingly interconnected world?

“More than just a metaphor” – resilience thinking offers real value to complex systems management in our increasingly uncertain world, claims Dr. Kristen MacAskill. In the third of our online resilience seminars for Policy Fellows, two speakers – Dr. MacAskill and Professor Peter Guthrie (University of Cambridge, Department of Engineering) – led the discussion on the pressing need to agree and act upon working definitions of resilience, particularly in the context of infrastructure, where their expertise lies.

Dr MacAskill opened the discussion, detailing how the 2011 Christchurch earthquake altered the course of her civil engineering career. The goal of recovery after Christchurch was to rebuild with ‘resilient’ infrastructure — but it became essential to define what ‘resilient’ infrastructure meant. This prompted her return to academia, and formed the basis of her PhD research. It has become increasingly clear that industry must distinguish between ‘risk management’ and ‘resilience’ — concepts which are often used interchangeably, yet differ in significant ways. Risk management requires the identification of a specific risk, an assessment of the possible consequences, and then (re)directing resources towards its mitigation. This relies on assumptions concerning our predictive power that are becoming incompatible with the increasing complexity of today’s world. Further, this can deflect our focus away from low-probability events, which leaves infrastructure vulnerable and unprepared. The concept of resilience, on the other hand, embraces the notion that our future is uncertain, and will be influenced by unpredictable socio-technical contexts. Whilst the argument that resilience thinking is “agnostic to threat” was acknowledged, Dr MacAskill disagreed: a resilient system cannot be developed without sufficient consideration of context. Ultimately, though resilience is an emerging framework, competing against the more established paradigm of risk management, resilience offers a far more appropriate cognitive toolkit, forming a basis from which we can make truly robust decisions.

Our second speaker, Professor Peter Guthrie, followed closely behind Dr MacAskill’s lead. Importantly, he distinguished that ‘risk’ is something that an organisation has identified as an external threat – something which must be guarded against. Resilience, conversely, is an internal property of a system; it provides the capacity to adapt to indeterminable threats. The latter is inherently more protective, particularly when acknowledging the latent biases of industry. Professor Guthrie noted that risk thinking in many organisations is often quite narrowly drawn: outlining what is felt assessable, known, and quantifiable. People tend to stick to the risks they find comfortable to assess when drawing up risk registers, which often leaves them vulnerable to those risks which aren’t included. Frequently, it is these that later catch them out.

In the discussion that followed, the Policy Fellows offered examples wherein resilience thinking might lend strength to their respective fields. In the face of Covid-19’s economic shocks, the lack of resilience of financial systems was brought to the fore. This prompted discussion on whether the capitalist imperative for efficiency can be compatible with systems resilience. If maximising margins relies on the removal of all that can feasibly be trimmed out, can they accommodate the extra adaptive capacities required to develop truly resilient systems? It was a challenge that left many wondering about what a world with inbuilt resilience would look like – and more pressingly, how we might get there.