View of the lido between Sète and Marseillan, France, where coastal protection measures, including beach nourishment have been used.

A year on from beginning work on the Royal Society policy project to consider human resilience to extreme weather and disasters, I had a second chance to step back and consider this tricky concept of resilience. A year ago I attended a conference on resilience run by Shell (see the blog I wrote). This year I was at the ‘Resilience 2014’ conference.

Happily this conference was held in Montpellier, France where the climate and atmosphere is highly conducive to considering these thorny issues over a coffee and croissant in a pavement café (only the black polo-neck and Gauloises were lacking).

So what conclusions did I come to? Well, like most issues when you get into them – it is more complicated than I first thought. I already knew that the term was used in the engineering field to mean how far a structure can be pushed and still return to its stable state, in the world of ecology, where the concept developed by Buzz Holling (resilience celeb alert: he was actually at the conference!) covers the idea of multiple stable states and thresholds (see ball and cup diagram below), and the sociology and development fields where resilience is seen as a process where there is no stable state but a need for constant modification, and perhaps transformation, based on a capacity to learn.

Engineering and Ecological Concepts of Resilience

As if that wasn’t complicated enough, I was reminded by speakers such as Astier Almedom that the concept is used in many other fields – in the political sphere it is used in rhetoric to foster optimism (perhaps also as an excuse not to address the underlying problems) – ‘we are a resilient nation’; in psychology; and it is even used in the field of medicine, where apparently attempts are being made to develop a ‘resilience drug’ to help overcome Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Like the Royal Society project, the Conference largely focused on the socio-ecological and development interpretations but even within these there is much disagreement about the concept – is it a universal concept or context specific (talks such as that by Chris Bene on measurement suggested the latter – we are a long way from any agreed metrics); how is it different from adaptation (I think it is broader: one element of resilience is the capacity to adapt or even transform?); and should projects build general resilience or specific resilience to the most likely hazard?

So is ‘resilience’ just a buzzword to replace ‘sustainable development’ as a concept everyone can agree with because everyone thinks it is something different? I think it has use as a positive concept (as opposed to say ‘vulnerability’) and as a holistic one which should force us to think of the whole system our actions are affecting. We just need to make sure that we don’t spend all our time debating the definition, rather than actually trying to make it happen. The latter is certainly going to be the focus of the Royal Society’s project – but you can judge for yourself when the report comes out later this year.