As part of an ongoing youth leadership and organizational development series I help coordinate, we’ve begun exploring the concept of Resilience as a possible conference theme. I found the J.W. McConnell Foundation’s report: “In a World of Unpredictable Change, What Canada needs Most is Resilience” helpful. It was written in 2011 by former foundation President Tim Brodhead.
What follows are my polished notes from reading the report, outlining the key findings and important lexicon related to the concept and practice of Resilience. It will conclude with the tangible and conceptual relevance for my own work.
What is resilience?
The McConnell foundation’s aim has evolved over time from change to adapt and finally to resilience This concept of resilience underlies all their granting decisions.
“In a world that is increasingly unpredictable, interconnected, and facing complex social and environmental challenges, ensuring Canadians, and Canada, are resilient is the greatest guarantee of future prosperity and well-being.” (7)
Originally derived from the study of ecological systems, resilience is the emergent property of a system which allows it to respond and adapt to (often disruptive) change. The foundation defines resilience in several ways, and at different scales.
“We balance our desire for autonomy and our need for community, our thirst for change and our attachment to what is familiar… this combination of adjustment and continuity is resilience.” (7, my emphasis)
“A resilient system is one that remains healthy and successful while responding to shocks or disturbances”. (7)
“Individual resilience grows by acquiring skills grows by acquiring skills, assets, confidence, leadership abilities, and access to knowledge and social networks”. (7)
“Communities are stronger when there is abundant social capital, dynamic civil society, supportive informal networks, and a culture of active citizenship”. (7)
Note the scalar invariance of the principle. Resilience is something which elements within a system (individuals), and the system as a whole (society, environment) can be said to possess. I’ll expand below on this point.
The Foundation has themed their activities into four broad categories: inclusion, sustainability, active citizenship, and innovation.
Social inclusion must be appreciated and nurtured, it remains an aspiration in Canada. Traditionally, Canada worked towards inclusion through wealth distribution, and investments in public schools and hospitals. This becomes more difficult in slowing economic times. Stagnating economic growth and government revenues are shrinking public systems and services. Privatization and the business community cannot fill the void of public welfare (see 2008 crisis). This leads to increased strain on voluntary and community sectors; and increasing reliance on informal networks. Can institutions and informal networks collaborate to build systems of help and care?
Maintaining the natural system that sustains life and the social systems capacity to endure and adapt. The report has a great vision of sustainable communities: Sustainable Communities protect their environment, embrace diversity, work hard to achieve economic security, create opportunities for everybody, and aim to reduce inequalities; they are fed by their members active participation and sense of obligation to future generations.
Engagement and contribution create the sense of belonging we call citizenship. Many complain about a decline in participation; but traditional measures of participation may discount other ways people engage (ex: voter turnout). A diversity of values, perceptions, and understandings fuels resilience; but only when this diversity is coupled with inclusive participation.
The report makes an interesting point made about ‘engagement’ as being an unsatisfying end in and of itself. When relevant issues are being address and participants feel their input is valued, engagement happens. Not the other way around. This was the experience working with Youthscape (www.youthscape.ca).
Human imagination is an abundant and renewable resource. Schools and other institutions often suffocate it, or treat it as an inherent quality only present in some people or activities. To achieve resilience, we need to unleash the creativity and resourcefulness of all Canadians.
Applications of the report’s findings
I thought about the learnings provide within the report as being either tangible or conceptual.
The most tangible application immediately is the Social Innovation Generation (SiG), a project to build an ecology of social innovation which includes all sectors (government, private, academy, etc.). The SiG will build Canada’s capacity for social Innovation, mobilize new sources of capital, and create a culture of continuous social innovation.
Already the SiG Knowledge Hub (http://sigknowledgehub.com/) could provide a portal to which interested individuals and groups willing to learn (or learn more) about social enterprise, access resources and networks, and plan for greater social impact.
Conceptually, I found the scalar invariance the most applicable issue that surfaced in the report. Scalar invariance means that a principle exists and holds true at different scales (fractals are great visual representations of scalar invariance). In pursuing the application of this concept for leadership and organizational development, we need to be aware of what scale our intervention is aimed at. For example, nutritional workshops and meal planning may be poorly placed at an organizational development conference, despite the fact that an organization made up of well fed, healthy members will be more resilient.
Continuity vs. adaptation will be another difficult duality to navigate within the application of the concept of resilience. How will we know, or help organizers identify what needs to remain the same, and what needs to change (structurally) in their organizations in order to be more resilient? My first reaction is to return to the Form vs. Experience ideas presented at Campus Compass by Jonathan Glencross, originally developed by Warren Nilsson and Tana Paddock of Organization Unbound. We will need to work harder at recognizing the way we work is a form, or a means, to achieve a specific outcome, or experience. If we take this approach, and impart it to students, we will learn to intuitively recognize what needs to remain an integral part of the experience of change, and what we can be left behind as an outdated, or inefficient form.