No Recipe for Resilience

A new guide to resilience has no theory to offer.

Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, by Andrew Zolli with Ann Marie Healy, Free Press, 2012, 336 pp., $26.00.

Andrew Zolli, the executive director of the "global innovation network" PopTech, defines resilience as "the capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances." In their new book Resilience, Zolli and his co-author, playwright Ann Marie Healy, attempt to show how individuals, institutions, communities, economies, or ecosystems can attain resilience and bounce back from adversity.

It is a text replete with a hodgepodge of stories covering items and events as diverse as bank failures, tuberculosis outbreaks, the Haitian earthquake, the collapse of ocean fisheries in Palau, large-scale power outages, crime waves, the plight of orangutans in Borneo, the psychological problems of concentration camp children, algae blooms in the Great Barrier Reef, military groupthink, arsenic-contaminated drinking water, HIV/AIDS, Swiss alternative currencies, post-9/11 terror networks, and agricultural conditions in rural Kenya, among other things. You might think, in light of this variety, that there is no one set of general principles that would encompass them all and provide a universal solution or recipe for success. And you would be right: there isn't one. Indeed, sometimes the strategy that solves a given problem is flatly contradicted by the next case in line.

Take the massive power failure that began in Ohio on August 14, 2003, and then spread outward, ending up, according to Zolli, "the largest power outage in North American history." Among the factors that caused it was the simultaneous failure of the alarm software that otherwise would have notified the local operator, who could have taken corrective measures. But in this case, the initial collapse triggered others in an expanding wave, as electrical grid managers fruitlessly continued to route electricity through the damaged area. Against this, Zolli offers us the "grid of the future," a system characterized by real-time monitoring and reaction, anticipation of demand, and the isolation of component parts to prevent cascading ripple effects. (Strangely, Zolli is silent about backups or redundancy, although a backup alarm system might well have prevented the initial outage from spreading.) He also envisions "microgrids—tiny, autonomous, self-sufficient, distributed systems," and, ultimately, the disappearance of power grids altogether with the dawn of "personalized energy," an idyllic era in which "each individual home becomes a solar power grid and a gas station."

According to this scenario, the resilience of electrical power systems lies in their atomization, in being massively and finely distributed. But the very next chapter, called "The Power of Clusters," is about cities, places where "density, not distribution, is being selected for." In cities, bigger and denser is better: "the bigger a city is, the more it delivers per capita…they get more efficient—predictably efficient—as they get bigger and faster." The resilience of cities, then, lies in the polar opposite of distribution: in density, in concentration, in being tightly-packed.

So is resilience a function of distribution or of concentration? The answer is, It depends. The problem with Zolli's argument, and with his book, is that while resilience may be one thing (the ability to bounce back), the ways to achieve it are many and diverse; they are highly dependent on circumstances, on the nature and scope of the problem at hand. Why do things bounce back? There is no why, there are whys—reasons and causes that are as heterogeneous and manifold as the situations themselves.

So Zolli doesn't really have a theory, schema, principle, or set of principles that explains resilience. Quite the opposite, as he explicitly acknowledges. "There's no single recipe for every circumstance," he says. "Many aspects of a given system's resilience are defiantly context specific. The particular approach that makes one organization more resilient in a given situation may make another more fragile. (Note the use of the word 'more'; there are no absolutes in resilience, no binaries, just measures of more and less.) Every resilient solution is unique to its setting and not necessarily a sure path to others' success."

The closest Zolli comes to giving a general recipe for resilience is when he offers his Goldilocks solution: "Goldilocks had it right all along: Resilience is often found in having just the right amount of these properties—being connected, but not too connected; being diverse but not too diverse; being able to couple with other systems but also being able to decouple from them when it hurts. The picture that emerges is one of strategic looseness," or, as he calls it, "adhocracy." Which is another way of saying Making it up as you go along.

But if he doesn't have a theory of resilience, what Zolli does have is a lot of pretentious rhetoric, for his presentation is couched from within a seemingly bottomless pit of polysyllabic social science telegraphese, code words, and a heavily jargon-laden meta-nomenclature in which familiar ideas are dressed up to look new, or at least more impressive. Thus we have "fragilities" (weak spots) and "adaptive capacity" (a Plan B), plus "network weaving," "tight coupling," "extrinsic dependencies," "feedback loops," "selective decentralization," "time signatures," "risk compensation," "multihubs," "facilitators," and such Delphic utterances as "A crowd's collective accuracy equals their average individual accuracy minus their collective predictive diversity," whatever that means.

Nor is much of Zolli's approach to problem solving particularly original. He takes us yet once more through the chestnut concepts of game theory: the prisoner's dilemma and the Tit-for-Tat strategy. And he deems it "a powerful lesson" that "Resilience benefits accrue to organizations that prioritize the collection, collation, presentation, and sharing of data," as if it were news that knowledge is valuable.

This book is like a false pregnancy: Noise and commotion everywhere, labor pains and other signs of imminent delivery, but in the end there is no baby.

Ed Regis is coauthor of Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves, forthcoming from Basic Books in October.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    "A crowd's collective accuracy equals their average individual accuracy minus their collective predictive diversity," whatever that means.

    It means they get results, you stupid chief!

    You know what else is resilient? A weed. And Hitler analogies.

  • Fluffy||

    Thanks, Homer. I had forgotten that one.

  • Killazontherun||

    You know who weren't resilient and who didn't bounce back from adversity? The druids. However, this is a good beer.

    http://beeradvocate.com/beer/p.....tstart=30

    Introduced to Scotland by Welsh druids in the 9th Century, elderberry black ale was part of the Celtic Autumn festivals when the "elders" would make this strong ale and pass the drink round the people of the village. The recipe was taken from a 16th Century record of domestic drinking in the Scottish Highlands. Elderberries were used for many natural remedies to cure sciatica, other forms of neuralgia, influenza and rhumatism as they contain tannins and fruit oils. Ebulum is made from roasted oats, barley and wheat boiled with herbs then fermented with ripe elderberries.
  • Schu||

    It only scored an 85!

  • Killazontherun||

    I blame that on the emergence of hopsheads who can no longer judge stoutier brews on the merits of the type.

  • Killazontherun||

    Of course, the more I drink IPAs the more I become a hopshead myself (Stone IPA is solid), but I like to zig zag and switch up every few weeks to keep the palate honest.

  • Sevo||

    Killazontherun|7.14.12 @ 1:29PM|#
    "You know who weren't resilient and who didn't bounce back from adversity?"

    The Neanderthals.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    The 2011 Boston Red Sox.

  • Sevo||

    The Wehrmacht!
    Oops: "You know what else is resilient? A weed. And Hitler analogies."

  • ||

    And retards.

  • Killazontherun||

    Bwahahahaha! I remember those tears well. So few expectations this year, yields far fewer tears, sadly.

  • ||

    "The Neanderthals."

    Actually, there are a very significant amount of Neanderthal genes around. Most of us see 'em when we look in the mirror.

  • ||

    "Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!"

  • Killazontherun||

    "Bravely taking to his feet, he beat a very brave retreat. A brave retreat by brave Sir Robin."

  • Killazontherun||

    'I fart in your general direction.'

    [damn it, why did the Sir Robin song come back to me so easily, and the best quote of the movie, a mere line away slip my memory!?!]

  • BakedPenguin||

    Did you partake in much rejoicing last night?

  • Killazontherun||

    Nah, just looked after the kid and dicked around here while my gal worked her tush off. Damn shame, those minstrels looked tasty.

  • SKR||

    Can't I face a little peril?

  • ||

    I wave my private parts at your aunties.

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    "Brother Maynard! Consult The Book of Armaments!"

  • Ted S.||

    Better than elderberry wine.

  • Ice Nine||

    Needs more syllables, Homes.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Sounds like this book sullies the otherwise totes legitimate field of game theory.

  • Old Mexican||

    So is resilience a function of distribution or of concentration? The answer is, It depends. The problem with Zolli's argument, and with his book, is that while resilience may be one thing (the ability to bounce back), the ways to achieve it are many and diverse.


    Nah, he's taking a post-hoc approach to resilience. What makes resilient systems will depend on how well they cope to things that already happened.

    Oh, my hero.

  • ||

    OT: Blind squirrel finds a nut, lefty commentariat eats the furniture.

  • Sevo||

    OT:
    Concern grows over Chinese Olympic unis; shrinkage feared:
    http://www.sfgate.com/news/art.....707009.php

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    What the hell is a "global innovation network"?

  • ||

    Clue #1. Inscrutable phrase or name

  • Killazontherun||

    From the national Review comment section under the latest Sowell article, is a perfect illustration of just how confused progressives are:

    Actually, it IS the government's money. They have legal ownership since they legally (i.e., Constitutionally) taxed it from you.

    If this is you espousing some kind of anarcho-libertarianism line, if you are just saying they don't have a moral right to it, fine. But legally, it's theirs. And they use this money to buy a lot of stuff, some of which, at least, the people want them to buy.

    See, the idea that the money you earn is your money is just some fringe libertarian anarchist sentiment. Who would believe such nonsense? Except every human being on the planet not infected with the progressivist virus, that is. Yeah, we're the fringe.

  • Sevo||

    "But legally, it's theirs."

    Translation:
    The government has the guns. Tough.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    They have legal ownership since they legally (i.e., Constitutionally) taxed it from you.

    If this is you espousing some kind of anarcho-libertarianism line, if you are just saying they don't have a moral right to it, fine.

    The law is the law. It's not a matter of right or wrong. OBEY. Except when....

    And they use this money to buy a lot of stuff, some of which, at least, the people want them to buy.

    Vox populi, vox dei. Commentariat, we are witnessing the dark tides of doublethink crash and break over the shores of liberty.

  • Fatty Bolger||

  • General Butt Naked||

    What about Mitt Romney? Is he running on the right themes? Will he have a mandate if he wins?

    "He made one speech that I thought was outstanding, addressing a long-term problem. And that was the speech about K-12 education, and he pointed out the degree to which the United States is falling back. . . . We know that economic growth in the long run is correlated to education achievement."

    That praise is so faint that I can see through it.

  • Sevo||

    Pretty sure I could drive a truck through it.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Schultz is probably the best former Reagan cabinet member, but it's a shame that he didn't argue against the WoD while he had some power.

  • pandora888||

    steeljewelrymanufacturer.com is the world's leading stainless steel and sterling silver jewelry manufacturer and wholesale stainless steel fashion jewelry supplier.

  • ||

    data," as if it were news that knowledge is valuable. http://www.maillotfr.com/maill.....-3_10.html

    This book is like a false pregnancy: Noise and commotion everywhere, labor pains and other signs of imminent delivery

  • Nike air max womens||

    o one set of general principles that would encompass them all and provide a universal solution or recipe for success. And you would be right: there isn't one. Indeed, sometimes the strategy that solves a given problem is flatly contradicted by the next case in line.

  • Coach Panto||

    Thanks Nike, finally somebody on point. Not that I don't love The Holy Grail, but this book sounds interesting, and I want to read it and relate it's findings to libertarian ideas.

    What Zolli might be casting about for is a theory of spontaneous order. In my studies into systems engineering, I have found the existence of several simultaneous control loops operated by people to solve complex problems. These loops control on requirements, design, problem investigations, correction tradeoffs, and verification methods, implementation, etc.

    My attraction to libertarianism is that I have found that the degree of spontaneous order achieved by teams is proportional to the commonality of their trade ethic:

    1. The best solving teams employ a meritocratic republicanism which is an effective combination of competition and cooperation....they amicably divide labor, listen to all opinions, and "trade off" the alternatives on commonly agreed merit criteria.

    2. The worst teams are beset by cliquish behavior, tyrannical supervisors, and a patronage system where yes-men are favored. Such teams do not "trade" well, they hoard information, play the blame game, and narrow their exposure to blame by shrinking their workload to as narrow and deterministic processes as possible.

  • Coach Panto||

    In short, libertarian principles (such as an idea marketplace and republican conflict resolution) enable complex spontaneous order to inductively solve indeterminate problems, and statist/tribalist principles kill it.

    Only libertarian cooperation/competition could solve the vexing European Swallow cocunut lading problem posed in the Holy Grail.

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