CERI Project Highlights: Key Takeaways from Dr. Jenny Hodbod's Two-Part Resilience Webinar Series
By Kylie White, Research Assistant
The year 2021 has brought lots of attention to the concept of resilience. Over a year into the COVID-19 Pandemic, many of us began to ask questions: How did we not see this coming? How do we prevent this from happening again? And perhaps the most importantly, how can we use this as an opportunity to “build back better”? Building resilient communities and resilient systems in our world has become an extremely important task for communities worldwide, but it is also a daunting and somewhat cryptic one that many are still trying to understand. In order to prevent resilience from simply remaining a ‘buzzword’, the MSU Center for Regional Economic Innovation’s Comprehensive Economic Recovery Initiative (CERI) put together a taskforce of individuals and thought leaders to think critically about how to implement resilience into our communities and systems as well as how to teach others to understand resilience and be able to do the same. One product of this CERI Resilience Planning taskforce was a Two-Part Resilience Webinar Series, hosted by Dr. Jenny Hodbod, a member of the REI network and CERI Resilience Planning taskforce.
Dr. Jenny Hodbod is an Assistant Professor in the MSU Department of Community Sustainability, where she researches and teaches the topic of resilient food systems – environmentally and economically sustainable food systems that can equitably feed a growing global population whilst adapting to security threats such as climate change, changing preferences, and economic shocks. An environmental social scientist, she has over ten years of experience in operationalizing social-ecological resilience theory and has carried out resilience assessments on three continents, across the spectrum of urban to rural food systems.
This series, which went live in the Spring of 2021, approaches the topic of resilience from two aspects: Introducing the Principles of Resilience and then using that knowledge to conduct a Resilience Assessment of the given area of interest.
Principles of Resilience
Part one of this series provides a basis for thinking about resilience in our systems. Dr. Hodbod explained that to begin thinking about resilience means identifying the resilience “of what?”, “to what?” and “for whom?”. In other words, defining the resilience “of what?” first requires identifying the Social-Ecological System (SES) you are interested in and its boundaries (i.e., are you interested in a city, a food system, a household etc.). Identifying the resilience “to what?” means identifying a specific shock or disturbance of interest that has made an impact or could make an impact on your focal system Resilience “for whom?” investigates who is a part of the system of interest and how these different actors have responded or might respond to different types of shocks, to account for the various perspectives and experiences of all members. Not everyone experiences resilience in the same way, so this step helps to ensure that equity is incorporated into the resilience plan for a system.
Another key principle of resilience is that SESs are extremely complex and dynamic, and therefore, a context specific approach must be taken to each problem rather than attempting to adopt repeatable solutions, particularly as not everyone within a given system will adapt or react to change the same nor has the same capacity to do so. Resilience includes both the capacity to recover from shocks but also to intentionally change to become better or stronger, instead of staying static or "going back to the way things were”. A SES will be resilient if it can persist or adapt to maintain its identity or if it can transform to support an intentional new identity. Unintentional changes indicate a lack of resilience in a system.
Dr. Hodbod shared seven principles that support the self-organization and thus the resilience of the SES. Those seven principles are to maintain diversity and redundancy, manage slow variables and feedbacks, manage connectivity, encourage learning, broaden participation, promote polycentric government, and foster complex adaptive systems thinking.
Lastly, it is important to understand that resilience is not inherently good or bad but is a property of a SES. All regimes of a SES will create winners and losers, so supporting a regime that takes a focus on improving equity and development is important. Breaking resilience may be important when the regime is unequitable. The concept of resilience should not be viewed as the "answer" to our problems; instead, resilience should be based on the idea that we do not have all the answers and that we must take risks, try new things, and have a deep enough understanding of our systems to release and reorganize resources in a controlled manner to allow for stronger reorganization and recovery.
Part two of this webinar series focused on the process of assessing the resilience of a SES rather than measuring it. Assessing resilience acknowledges and can help to understand system dynamics, while measuring the resilience of a SES (or trying to boil complex dynamics down to a few metrics) may block a deeper understanding of system dynamics needed to apply resilience thinking and inform management actions. Resilience assessments must be context specific, interdisciplinary, and participatory to be accurate and effective. Dr. Hodbod suggested activities that can be used to inform a resilience assessment, such as timelining to help identify major events in the history of the system. The overall result should be an understanding of the SES and its dynamics to inform an adaptive management plan, co-produced by stakeholders, which can help to identify components that foster resilience or components that foster erosion. Lastly, it is important to understand that resilience assessments are not fixed processes—especially when trying to intentionally create change—they need to be iterative and support monitoring over time.
Ultimately, building the resilience of Social-Ecological Systems is a process that takes time and patience, and it must include attentiveness to details and identifying key indicators to track over time to understand why they change or do not change. Therefore, resilience planning benefits the most with a backward-looking perspective, as it is difficult to accurately assess the resilience of a SES while an event is still happening. Consequently, smaller scales are generally easier to assess because they have shorter time scales. Finally, we must remember that since resilience of systems is not inherently good, resilience must be diligently assessed and planned for in a way that is beneficial and equitable to as many people as possible.