Resilience of what to what?

Jack Kruf | 2017

What is resilience? Well, there is no simple answer to this. Especially not regarding that of the ecosystem of a city. The concept, you might say, is in development in different sciences and recently entered the public governance domain related to the social-ecological system of society. Can resilience as indicator of the state of an ecosystem be measured? And if so, how are the living and non-living factors within and outside the measured system be calculated? Can it create true insight in the tone of city, society and nature. A first exploration of definitions.

Resilience is relatively new in public governance thinking. Can it be of help in finding the tone of city, society and nature?

Resilience is the new buzzword under public leaders and managers. Millions of years it played an essential role in natural ecosystems, now it has been launched as a new concept for thinking and acting from government perspective. But where is it about? The ability to endure stress and still be able to perform or the capacity to recover after a catastrophe? Maybe both?

The question can not be answered or even is meaningless without putting it in the context resilience of what to what? In our approach we focus on the resilience of the ecosystem city to specific external (abiotic, climate change)) or internal (biotic, virus attack) caused disturbances.

“Resilience has multiple levels of meaning: as a metaphor related to sustainability, as a property of dynamic models, and as a measurable quantity that can be assessed in field studies of socioecological system (SES). The operational indicators of resilience have, however, received little attention in the literature. To assess a system’s resilience, one must specify which system configuration and which disturbances are of interest.”

– Carpenter et al. (2001)

Holling (1973) introduced the word resilience into the ecological literature as a way of helping to understand the non-linear dynamics observed in ecosystems. Since then the concept diversified in all directions. Resilience is wide interpreted and used, it is a difficult to understand concept and therefore possibly of limited use for precise diagnosis and related public governance. Like accountability, the new normal, alignment, roadmap, risk, streamline and sustainability it can become a container or a buzzword.

“Resilience,” like love, is difficult to define, yet everyone – from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to government agencies, company boards, and community groups – is talking about how to build or maintain it. So, is resilience a useful concept or a meaningless buzzword?

– Brian Walker (2015)

For the core definition of resilience, we might to go back to the forest. It is a simple and therefore generally applicable definition.

‘Resilience is the ability to bounce back, basically in the face of disturbance, maintaining functions and structures of the system and recovering from the disturbance.”

– Rupert Seidl (2019)

The resilience of the ecosystem city is telling the story of the balancing act of the population in the present habitat of the city. Of course, there are many layers of habitats within the city and some justify to zoom in and consider resilience on a lower level. In general, it is like when you have plans to investing your money in stocks and funds: results in the past are no guarantee for the future.

It is with resilience like looking into the mirror: you know where you are and where you come from, not so much about where you are going and what will happen. It is hard to predict how future external developments influence the habitat of communities and whether they will exceed the resilience of the system and whether the system is able to tackle change properly.

To let resilience successfully – and Brian Walker (2017) from Resilience Alliance underlines the (urgent) need for this – enter the stage of public governance, it is wise to start with using it always in the context resilience of what to what (Carpenter et al., 2001). There is lots of work to be done for bringing in a proper landing place for resilience into the public domain. The first steps are there.

One thing stands out. In finding the tone of city, society and nature, the measurement of resilience can be helpful. But it is very complex. For that it has to develop further towards a more complete and refined concept. The of what to what question has to be built in.


Carpenter, S., Walker, B., Anderies, J. and Abel, N. (2001) From Metaphor to Measurement: Resilience of What to What?. Ecosystems 4, 765–781.

Holling, C.S. (1973) Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics. Vol. 4:1-23 (Volume publication date November 1973).

Seidl, R. (2019) Voices of Resilience.

Walker, B. (2015) What is resilience?. Project Syndicate.

Walker, B. (2017). Brian Walker at Resilience 2017. Stockholm: Omställningsnätverket Transition Network Sweden.