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.