Katrina BrownFollowing our interview with Georgina Mace, chair of the Royal Society’s ‘Resilience to extreme weather’ report, we caught up with expert working group member Katrina Brown. Katrina is a Professor of Social Sciences based at the Environment and Sustainability Institute at the University of Exeter.

How has Katrina’s work developed, one year after the publication of our resilience report?  Find out more below about innovative ideas and exciting projects relating to resilience building.

What do you consider to be the greatest achievements of the Royal Society’s resilience report?

The report came at a really important time for international commitments to sustainable development, disasters and climate change. It was significant in being able to demonstrate the links between these concerns, and to suggest the ways in which resilience concepts can help build preparedness and capacities to respond, and shape better futures for both developing and developed countries.

In my field, international development and environmental change, many aid and development organisations are grappling with how to operationalise ‘resilience’. There have been a number of different proposals for resilience metrics in order to monitor and evaluate the outcomes of resilience-building investments. One of the most interesting developments has been DFID’s new aid strategy published in November 2015. This attempts to fuse mainstream development strategies with responses to disasters and extreme events using a resilience-building approach. 

How has your work developed since working on the report?

I spent the first half of last year in Townsville in northern Queensland, Australia, working with CSIRO and James Cook University. Researchers and policymakers there were really interested in the findings of the Royal Society’s resilience report. I worked with a team of researchers to better understand the vulnerability and resilience of the Great Barrier Reef. We were especially interested in how different sections of the public valued the reef and how coastal communities are motivated to manage it more sustainably.

One of my most exciting projects is funded by the AXA Research Fund. The project is called ‘You, me and our resilience’ and aims to devise innovative ways of engaging people to discuss multidimensional aspects of risk, climate change and poverty.

We have been working with theatre groups in Kenya and the UK, using different forms of participatory drama to understand the sources of vulnerability and resilience in coastal communities. We devised two performances this year: ‘Gangavasi’ with S.A.F.E. Pwani group, based in Mombasa, Kenya; and ‘Weather the Storm’ with Golden Tree Productions from Cornwall. Each explored what happens when coastal communities are hit by extreme weather – storms and floods. Through drama we are able to engage with the emotional aspects of risk and portray the interactions of everyday activities with major catastrophes.

How can cross-disciplinary approaches inform resilience building?

Resilience is a multi-dimensional and cross-disciplinary concept – that’s one of the things that really inspires me to work with it, but it’s also one of the challenges. As well as engineering and ecology, the concept is used in human developmental sciences – including development psychology, applied health, urban planning – and, increasingly, community development and even international development. It is often used to understand how individuals, especially children, are able to do well despite experiencing trauma early in life.

Resilience has also become prevalent in looking at how communities can work together and respond to disasters – such as floods or earthquakes. But resilience is not just about preparedness and response or adaptation, it is also about how to create and exploit opportunities and build long-term sustainability and transformation. My own work has applied resilience thinking from social ecological systems and human development to propose a human-centred, dynamic approach for informing international development in an era of climate change, as set out in my latest book, ‘Resilience, Development and Global Change’.

One of the strengths of the Royal Society working group was that it was made up of experts from different disciplinary backgrounds, and with experience from different regions of the world. Such an interdisciplinary approach is vital for addressing the complex problems emerging from a rapidly changing world. We need a wide range of approaches. I believe the resilience report made an important first step in testing some of those approaches, for example in evaluating ecosystem-based and hybrid defences against extreme weather.

How might such novel approaches inform decision making in light of recent events?

We are currently in the midst of an El Niño event, and around the world, we are witnessing some extreme weather events, which may or may not be a result of climate change. However, it is likely that as El Niño intensifies there will be further extremes. There are strenuous efforts to develop preparedness and early warning systems in advance of these events. I think the opportunity to work with on-the-ground agencies to support these efforts is absolutely vital. This requires state-of-the-art monitoring and forecasting, rapid response and deployment, and above all close co-operation between governments, private sector organisations, scientific and technical agencies, civil society and NGOs.

I’ve been really amazed at the potential for cross-cultural learning from our work so far with drama groups, policy-makers and researchers from such different backgrounds. It highlights the possibilities for learning from each other. I will be working on this in the coming year; developing a film from the ‘You, me and our resilience’ project to share with communities and technical audiences, to consider how it might open new avenues for resilience building in vulnerable communities.

Find out more about Katrina’s latest book, ‘Resilience, Development and Global Change’, and about ‘You, me and our resilience’ at katrinabrown.org