Resilience: A Sustainability Prerequisite?

Green transition 8 June 2020 Patrick Moloney


Resilience, as both a term and a concept, has become much more pronounced in recent months due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. When describing our ability as a people, a society, an economy and indeed as a planet, to combat and fight COVID-19, the term resilience has been used again and again by health specialists, politicians and journalists alike. In the short-term, our attempts as a people and a society to become sustainable has been replaced by our need to protect our core functions and build resilience.  

Both terms and concepts are used interchangeably sometimes without fully understanding what they mean. Furthermore, the relationship between the two is oftentimes unclear leading to further miscommunication and flawed application. 

To reap the full benefit of combining resilience thinking with sustainable development, the relationship between the two, first and foremost, needs to be both understood and appreciated. The benefit of combining both is now more pertinent than ever as we transition back to a fully operational society, a society that needs to be both resilient and sustainable. 

Defining resilience

The Oxford English dictionary defines resilience as “the ability of a substance to return to its usual shape after being bent, stretched or pressed”. Other sources define resilience in a similar fashion i.e. the ability to recover or “bounce back”. When defining resilience within a broader context such as a community, the definition, however, needs be extended beyond that of the ability to recover or “bounce back”, because  once recovered, is  the community (or a component within it) still exposed and/or vulnerable to a recurring hazard?

A broader definition is the capacity of a system, be it an individual, a forest, a city or an economy, to deal with change and continue to develop (Stockholm Resilience Centre). It is about the capacity to use shocks and disturbances like a financial crisis, climate change or indeed a pandemic to spur renewal and innovative thinking. For a city, this could involve having the resources and leadership structures in place to help cope with and recover from a natural disaster, whilst maintaining key services and functions (the same could be said for any business or enterprise).

The ability to spur renewal and develop innovative solutions in response to a shock is a critical aspect of developing resilience. Merely returning to “normal” does not strengthen resilience but consolidates it, which may not be enough with respect to long term sustainability. If resilience is not prioritised, a particular business, sector, socio-economic group, or city will become more vulnerable to future shocks and will struggle to cope with associated impacts. It is important to stress that future shocks are inevitable.

Lack of resilience forces a population to focus on short-term requirements and take any action possible to survive and limit damage – this reactive behaviour will ultimately limit the ability to consider and develop long-term sustainability. 

Defining Sustainability

The Oxford English dictionary originally defined sustainability as: “capable of being endured/continuing to exist” which has now evolved into “the degree to which a process or enterprise is able to be maintained or continued while avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources“, the latter emanating from the definition from the UN report of 1987 “Our Common Future”, generally referred to as the Brundtland Report. The Brundtland Report defines Sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The concept of sustainability is popularly broken down into three dimensions: economic, environmental, and social — also known informally as profit, planet, and people. The triple bottom line from 1994 also incorporates these three dimensions to the “bottom line”. 

Sustainability - more than three dimensions?

But the world has moved on since 1987 and 1994 at an alarming rate. The challenges the world faced 30 years ago with respect to, for example, biodiversity loss, climate change or natural resource depletion pales in significance with respect to the scale of such challenges today. COVID-19 is a further example as to why three dimensions of sustainability are perhaps not sufficient to shoulder the multitude of hazards that we as a society today face.

The Five Capitals Model provides a basis for understanding sustainability in terms of the economic concept of wealth creation or ‘capital’(Forum for the Future).  These five capitals, namely natural, social, financial, human and manufactured can be adapted to also define the core pillars of a sustainable business, city or indeed a society.

Forum for the future

When defining how sustainability should be viewed, especially with respect to its nexus with resilience, rather than the three traditional core dimensions of environment, society and economy, five dimensions or elements (borrowed from the five capitals model) places a greater emphasis upon human health as well as the manufactured (physical) environment. The human dimension, in particular, deserves to be a stand-alone element of any business, city or society. This necessity is more evident today than ever before (evidenced by the fact that governments worldwide effectively shut down their economies due to the threat of COVID-19 to human health). It is important to note that all five dimensions would form a sustainable business, city or a society. 

The Resilience – Sustainability Nexus

The underlying principal of sustainability is to ensure that the ability of future generations is not compromised with respect to, for example, the environment, the economy or human health. 

A lack of resilience will pose a particular threat to vulnerable groups or systems, which will ultimately struggle to recover. This inability, if exposed to either prolonged or repeated disturbances or shocks, subsequently results in a system’s gradual decline. The recovery process, when a system or community is more vulnerable, will be more complex and invariably more expensive. If, however, resilience is strengthened or enhanced, a system will be more likely to withstand shocks and also recover faster and at less expense than a vulnerable counterpart. 

Resilience and Sustainability

Considering the number and magnitude of hazards that a business or community may face, disruption is inevitable – the ability to resist, absorb and become stronger is the differentiator.  

The ability to either repel impact in the first place or recover from impact in the short and medium term is of course central to building resilience but it is also crucial to developing long-term sustainability of, for example, a business. An inability to recover from inevitable impacts will result in slow decline in the medium to long term and therefore hinder the ability to develop in a fashion that will not impact future generations i.e. develop sustainably. Resilience is key to enabling a business or community to take proactive, forward-looking steps to engage in sustainable behaviours.

Strengthening resilience and Developing Sustainably

The resilience-sustainability nexus is further accentuated when determining the most effective approach to strengthening resilience and developing sustainably. We place a focus upon the interaction of the 5 elements (physical/manufactured, natural, social, human and economic) and how they can be managed collectively and systematically to ensure a sustainable and resilient business, city or society. To analyse any element in isolation could leave other elements vulnerable and thus the “collective” vulnerable.

Both building resilience and developing sustainably requires a collective and systems thought process, a process that places emphasis upon innovative solutions to ensure that a system does not just only revert back to “business as usual” but bounces back stronger and more sustainable in the long term. By  building resilience and, in tandem developing sustainably  we place a particular emphasis upon:

Strengthen resilience

Resilience is indeed a sustainability prerequisite 

Building resilience across the 5 dimensions (physical/manufactured, natural, social, human and economic) is key to a sustainable city, business, industry or community. Indeed, our ability as a human race to withstand, recover and adapt to shocks is critical to the concept of sustainability and sustainable development. 

Sustainability is about ensuring long-term prosperity while contributing towards social and economic development, a healthy environment and a thriving society, a society that enables future generations to also prosper and thrive. Yet it is clear that, in order for future generations to prosper and thrive, the five dimensions that are the foundation of a sustainable society have the ability to not only withstand shocks emanating from hazards but the ability to recover, adapt, innovate and grow. Thus, an essential characteristic of a society or a system that aspires to create and maintain a state of sustainability is that the society or system is indeed resilient.  

At Ramboll our ability to integrate science, engineering and economics with human health and environmental insight enables us to both fully understand sustainability in multiple spheres but also to understand resilience in the numerous facets in which hazards are presented. Recognising that resilience is a sustainability prerequisite for our clients’ businesses or organisations enables us to align the resilience – sustainability nexus for our clients’ specific contexts. 






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