Territorial Resilience 

The ability to bounce back or to reorganise?

June 2021

As Europe shifts from crisis to recovery modus, there are increasing talks about resilience. The underlying question is, how could Europe, its countries and its regions become more resilient to possible future shocks.

The talks about resilience suggest, that the pandemic crisis has been lost as a chance for change to a 'new normal'. Indeed, the tendency is to try to go back to pre-pandemic ‘normal’, although it is widely accepted that this will not be possible, as the pandemic has left too many scares. This is a lost chance for a transition of our society, economy and value systems e.g. towards a more sufficient economy, reductive modernism or green Keynesianism, able to achieve a sustainable management of the commons (as opposed to the current ‘tragedy of the commons’) and keeping social disparities in check. In short, it is a lost opportunity to move towards resilience.

In general terms, resilience describes the ability of a system to ‘bounce-back’ or return to its pre-shock position. In other words, for regional development resilience is determined by the adaptive capacity of an economy, which affects its ability to maintain a long-term growth path. Accordingly, key ingredients in the resilience debate are e.g. economic diversity and openness, innovation, social capital, quality of territorial governance and access to funding and resources.

However, isn´t resilience as the ability to ‘bounce back’ or ‘return to equilibrium’ is a misconception? It would imply that there is a ‘true equilibrium’. Isn´t resilience rather to be understood as the ability to reorganise after a shock to the system?

The question is, which shocks are considered and how big are these shocks to the system. In that sense ideas about resilience are always shaped by system and the shock addressed. While the COVID-19 pandemic stands for a past shock, other shocks are announcing themselves. Climate change, loss of biodiversity and increasing societal inequalities are expected to bring about much more severe shocks than the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thinking about how to increase resilience to these shocks leads to completely different conclusions than thinking about resilience to shocks similar to the COVID-19 pandemic. Firstly, they require decision-making in which costs and benefits are separated by very long time-lags. Secondly, they are about intrinsically complex coupled social–ecological systems. Thirdly, they are about producing global collective goods that go beyond the scope of unilateral ‘single-best efforts’ of any player. (Duit et al., 2010).

How to ensure the capability to navigate under uncertainty? That is the basic question. Consequently, resilience relies heavily on territorial governance capacities, including knowledge management, self-organisation and the capability to learn and willingness to adapt.

Foresight.Knowledge about the complexity of our present world and its dynamics is essential. However, this needs to come with a forward-looking perspective. Foresight approaches teach us that many disruptive changes actually come with early warning signals. However often these are weak signals that easily go unnoticed or are only noticed by a few players.

Capacity to react. If resilience does not mean to ‘return to equilibrium’, as there is no ‘true equilibrium’, it means a constant need to find ‘new’ equilibriums balancing stability and flexibility. This requires the capacity to react and think about possible alternatives and new scenarios and how to achieve them.

Transformation willingness. Knowledge foresight and adaptive capacity will only help, if there is also willingness to transform. This goes together with a shared vision of how a desirable future responding to changing circumstances could look like. This implies overcoming societal inertia to take a shock as opportunity for long-term strategic change. As if it would not be difficult enough to define a shared vision for the future which is substantially different from the presence, the transformation willingness needs to move from vision to action. As there is no blue-print of the future, this action will need to balance between a high degree of (a) experimentation and self-organisation, and (b) powerful and fullhearted effort to change. In other words, it needs to balance between allowing for diverse semi-independent networks and players to test their ways to the vision (Duit et al., 2010) and a full out ‘mission economy’ where all efforts are aligned to move towards the envisaged future (Mazzucato, 2021).

Things need to change. For this we need to answer the question, what change we want. What future do we want? Today’s main driving forces for change tend to be responses rather than proactive. They are driven by fears and a nostalgic desire to revive the past. It seems this has been further accelerated by the pandemic. Today, change rarely is driven by positive future visions or dreams. Today, Martin Luther’ Kings ‘I have a dream’ speech would risk not remain unheard rather than accelerate change.

Suckert and Schommertz (2021) describe this as ‘future fatigue’ in society. After a crisis, which lead to increased social disparities, it is even more difficult than under normal circumstances to establish a shared vision of what a positive future might look like.

If resilience concerns the ability to reorganise rather than to ‘bounce-back’, we risk to stand empty handed. It seems, the future itself is in crisis (Suckert and Schommertz, 2021). This links to the debate about the imaginary crisis (Mulgan, 2020) and need to move from ‘what is’ to ‘what if’ to crate the future we want (Hopkins, 2019). In short to come out of this crisis and prepare for better resilience we need to develop a commonly shared division for Europe and its territory (cESPON, 2019). This vision needs to offer a future for all places and people in Europe (Territorial Agenda, 2020) and guide a wide range of policies and investments – following the idea of a ‘mission economy’ (Mazzucato, 2021).

by Kai Böhme

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