Resilience and System Evolution
Resilience, or the ability to bounce back after a disturbance, is now a dominant theme in development thinking. It has all but replaced the older concept of sustainability — the notion of better maintaining system performance as a market when donors leave. While detractors of the latter term have referred to the downside of sustaining old structures that reproduce the very problems we are trying to solve, critics of the former note the overly one-sided nature of the resilience agenda. In my view, we need to integrate both concepts into a more inclusive understanding of evolutionary systemic change.
How do systems evolve?
For any system to evolve, three processes must be present and interacting. These threefold processes are apparent in all forms of societal as well as biological evolution. The processes are:
- Variation. Variation provides diversity and difference or the possibility of innovation, new forms and associations.
- Selection. Selection sets the direction of evolution by choosing certain characteristics or features out of the pool of variety.
- Retention. Retention is essentially a conservative force which integrates and routinizes that which has been selected into the mutually-reinforcing structure and dynamics of the system. That which is retained resists change through habit and inertia.
In development, we try to intervene in human systems to change some combination of these three factors. Generally we work more on the selection and retention processes — changing the parameters of what people desire, value, rules they follow, and so forth along with institutionalizing these changes so that they persist. As a general rule, we select for ways to maximize system performance — such as better functioning markets or more efficient delivery of services. The drive for “more bang for the buck” leads inevitably to variety reduction, reducing the very diversity and redundancies upon which resilience depends.
Resilience and robustness: Where is the happy medium?
In many of our interventions, selection and retention overwhelm variety. Let’s use an agricultural system for an example. Managers seeking to maximize yields, adopt more efficient practices and “prune away” the intertwined meshwork of diversity may inadvertently make the system less reliable (and therefore more susceptible to collapse). It is a well-known principle that the most efficient productive systems are often the least resilient to external shocks.
The opposite is also true. If managers try to maximize diversity and interconnections in a system in order to build capacity for resilience, you can inadvertently push the system into unwanted stagnation and undermine the very resilience and adaptability we were trying to establish.
Villages and communities are often maximally dense and connected social networks. The slow rate of economic evolution in many locales may actually reflect too much connectedness and interdependence. Moving the system towards a better balance between the capacity for resilience and the capacity for growth may require reducing some of the redundancy and diversity and increasing the efficiency of economic flows towards those that are more profitable and robust.
Systems thinkers have demonstrated that maximization of any single pole (variable) in a complex system is likely to threaten the sustainability of that system and its resilience as well. We have forgotten that a system cannot be designed (or evolved) to maximize both high performance (efficiency) and low risk (resilience). The two often pull in opposite directions. Systems that are healthy require an appropriate balance between capacity for resilience and the increasing efficiency and energy needed for robust growth.
This balance point is constantly changing. As we learn how to better facilitate the evolution of systems, we will also learn how to establish and constantly adjust the relationships between the forces of variation, selection and retention to guide systems toward more inclusive and desirable futures.