Illustration by Anna Resmini
Resilience applied to regional and environmental planningAn interpretation for engineering design
During my professional career as an infrastructure designer, I have increasingly met the concept of resilience applied to regional and environmental planning and life cycle analysis of infrastructure (mobility, energy and resources). So, in the last few years of work, I’ve approached the topic more closely, concentrating in particular on the most recent research into resilient thinking, which I’ve found increasingly pertinent to managerial and design practice. The main feature of resilient thinking is the movement towards integration and inclusion strategies and the dismantling of the logic of efficiency as the only possible solution in the management of the critical stages of a project (economics, society, company, project, team, etc.).
Scientists and intellectuals at the Stockholm Centre for Resilience identified 7 pillars of resilient thinking and action, starting from natural sciences, mathematics and sociology, and arising from the conservation of eco-system services but they can also be intuitively extrapolated from the needs of design thinking and resilient management.
“Support diversity and redundance” is the first pillar of resilient action. This means acting on the composition of the active elements of the system, conserving or extending them. Therefore, redundance has to be valorised because it allows the system to withstand the collapse of a part of it, fielding a substantially equivalent one or with a minimum of difference in the response. In parallel, it is good to preserve ecologic diversity since the excess of uniformity and homologation makes system responses more fragile. Grafting redundant, diversified critical components onto the governance structure of a system enables the mechanisms that create different points of view, custom response strategies, learning and self-organisation of parts of the system to be valorised.
A second pillar that affects the resilience of a social-ecologic system is the management of connectivity. Rigid connections make the system fragile; instead, a network of flexible connections favours modularity and the creation of independent micro-networks, increasing the resilience of the system. As a result, a good connection, balanced and not too intricate, is an excellent tool for the management of a shock.
The influence of each person on the network of connections should not be forgotten in this context – from a social point of view, people are players of a system immersed in a network of connections. The intensity and ramification of these links can influence the reaction of the system.
How these two pillars have applications in the design field (impact on ecologic networks, maintenance of the continuity of existing eco-system services, etc.) and the creation of infrastructure (stakeholder management, indication and involvement of regional communities) is clear.
In a rapidly changing context, the management of slow variables, underlying the system and operating in the long term, and knowing how to interact promptly with retroactive mechanisms (third pillar) is essential for the conservation of the services that the system produces. Knowing how to indicate the feedback mechanisms that trigger uncontrolled disturbance (floods created by erroneous regional planning, traffic congestion generated by lack of planning of the impact of construction sites on the existing transport system, etc.), helps to keep balanced the system on which work is being done.
The world we work in consists of a network of connections different in scale and type which originate an unpredictable system and are able to self-regulate (Complex Adaptive Systems – CAS). Knowing how to design with this fourth pillar in mind means embracing resilient systemic thinking. CAS thinking is not a reductionist thought; on the contrary, it drives us to invest time in the analysis of the mental models of the different players involved, the structure of the decision-making system, and the removal of cognitive barriers to change. This means knowing how to collocate our actions and our project with awareness of the scale of action of our system and the relationships with others. CAS thinking drives us to explore scenarios rather than assess risks, and imagine evolving, adaptive interactions instead of crystallising strategies and unchanging tactics.
The fifth pillar is concerned with learning which, in this case, should go back to its deepest meaning, i.e. learning by experimenting in the field. People talk of adaptive management (where the experimentation and assessment of alternative hypotheses are essential management steps), adaptive co-management (which unites learning and the sharing of knowledge with the different players) and adaptive governance (which codifies the organisational structure in the relations between players, organisations and parts of the system with the aim of creating new social rules and co-operation levels). These are three approaches that focus on learning as an essential part of operational and project management, validating the theoretical and planning assumptions in the field.
Extending participation (Pillar 6) means opening the analysis to a sufficiently wide number of players to ensure credibility, understanding and sharing of the aims (public and stakeholder engagement). An adequate extension of participation is especially fruitful in the first, evolutionary stages of a complex system. From the point of view of the social components of the system, the increase in resilience is obtained through the expansion of the network able to indicate retroactive effects or signs of proximity to critical thresholds.
The seventh pillar indicated by the Stockholm Centre for Resilience is the promotion of polycentric governance systems. Co-operation between institutions and organisations, in addition to the limits of scale and traditional governance, strengthens connectivity and enables the appropriate players to intervene in time in the face of change and disturbance. Polycentric governance creates learning and experimentation opportunities, extends the margins of participation, improves connectivity, favours modularity, improves the chance of obtaining a diversification of the responses and creates a redundance that reduces governance errors.
What makes resilient thinking interesting on different fronts is its characteristic insistence on change and bottom-up logic, the invitation to innovation, adaptation and opening towards the influences of the environment, even when we seem to reduce our level of control over it.
Therefore, resilient thinking is a notable way of interpreting to deal with current, complex topics close to engineering design and management, like sustainability and the impact of an infrastructure operation, new management policy or the organisation of a team.
In the specific case of flow infrastructure, the requirement to assess multiple scenarios instead of focusing on the risks connected to a single configuration open the way to strategies of innovative design, like life cycle design. Indirectly, it is a stimulus to valorise the preliminary stages of design in the analysis of the knowledge of the environmental, social and economic context and start a sustainable infrastructure operation because it is able to improve the resilience of the ecologic (and anthropologic) system it is part of.