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Why we need resilience now more than ever

Our director of partnerships, James Goodman, introduces a new report focused on understanding what a resilient Britain could look  like and what we need to do to get there.

COVID-19 has sent massive shockwaves through our systems. Our already struggling healthcare service has been forced to rise to enormous new challenges, whilst food and energy production and distribution, how we care for our elderly and vulnerable, how we manufacture and distribute goods, and even how we govern and make decisions have all been called into question. 2020 has highlighted a severe lack of resilience within our society.

Many of our national systems have almost toppled at different points in the year, and the ramifications of this turbulence in everyday terms – such as employment, health and people’s individual wellbeing – on top of the still-present threat of the virus itself are still playing out.

With all this said, the crisis could have been worse. Who knows what would have happened if individuals hadn’t come together with their communities to coordinate and support the most vulnerable in our society?

Sustainable resilience is about so much more than being shockproof.

We know from discussions with Big Local partnerships across the country that individuals have played an enormous role in local resilience throughout the crisis. It has been communities that have stepped in to prevent food systems from breaking down, kept up distribution of medical supplies, made sure people were being looked after, and kept their neighbourhoods connected and informed.

It is clear from this current vantage point of (relative) calm that the communities were able to do this vital work to keep each other supported in the face of such total shock to our systems because they had access to:

  • resources
  • connections
  • people
  • local knowledge.

But, sustainable resilience is about so much more than being shockproof. It’s about building slack into our systems; about ensuring that they have the capacity to respond, change and evolve in the face of ever-shifting circumstances.

It is worth drawing a comparison with natural ecosystems; after all, ecosystems are by necessity, and almost definition, ‘resilient’. Their purpose is to survive and provide the conditions for individuals to thrive and perpetuate their gene pool. Resilient ecosystems are rich with biodiversity. Species are interdependent in a complex web of relationships; they are dynamic and responsive. ‘Decision making’ is completely distributed – which is to say, there is no centralised hierarchy sending out instructions, but of course, this comparison can only take us so far.

Suffice it to say that over the course of hundreds of millions of years of evolution, nature has successfully avoided producing anything quite so brittle, fragile and exposed to shocks as the systems we have created to guarantee our essentials for life (food, healthcare, governance, and so on) in Britain.

The incredible response from communities around Britain to the myriad crises of 2020 has shown that responsibility needs to be distributed if resilience is going to be possible.

Our new report with New Local Government Network (NLGN), Towards resilience: Redesigning our systems for a better future, explores the concept of resilience by kicking off a wider conversation about how it can be achieved. It identifies five domains in which many of these interrelated systems work together, and suggests the need to focus our attention there to produce and maintain resilience. The domains are:

  • Economic resilience
  • Public sector resilience
  • Community resilience
  • Environmental resilience
  • Workforce resilience

The report demonstrates that whilst the pandemic has shown that we urgently need to reconfigure in each of these domains so we can weather the storms that face us in the future, it also provides hope that our society and economy has the ability to evolve and change.

Any transformation of the scale and depth that real resilience demands isn’t just about making lots of small changes and it cannot be directed by or from the centre. The incredible response from communities around Britain to the myriad crises of 2020 has shown that responsibility needs to be distributed if resilience is going to be possible.

This is why, over the coming months we will be exploring what a shift towards this kind of resilience could actually look like, working with a range of different organisations, individuals and actors with different roles and perspectives on what resilience means and looks like for them. Throughout, we will be asking what the role of communities is, and how central and local authorities can support them.

We will be starting this process with a wider discussion on resilience and reflections on the questions this report poses. We’ll then be looking to link up with specialist people and organisations with a stake and interest in resilience across different sectors to better understand what is needed to create an overall more resilient Britain. For more information and to find out about future events take a look at #TowardsResilience

Read the report

What do we mean by ‘resilience’?

Resilience is a simple concept. It refers to the ability of a system to withstand disruption and recover within a reasonable period of time. It is a product of attributes such as flexibility, resourcefulness, responsiveness and diversity.

In the context of public policy, it tends to refer to approaches that attempt to deal with issues holistically and at their root, rather than just addressing symptoms. As such, in this paper, we use it to refer to a drive to redesign and regenerate our systems and infrastructure so that we can create a better future. It does not mean working out ways to buttress things that already exist but are failing and unsustainable.