A number of SRU members (Christo Fabricuis, Dirk Roux, Lisa Heider, Cara Nieuwoudt and Abigail Crisp) participated in the third international conference presented by the Resilience Alliance (RA).  The RA champions the international discourse on resilience thinking; resilience being the capacity to deal with change and continue to develop. Resilience 2014 was hosted by the French Node of the RA and held in the south of France (Montpellier).

The rationale behind resilience thinking is that we live in a time of unprecedented development challenges, e.g. intransigent poverty and inequality constitute a major threat to human welfare and to planetary sustainability. There is an increasing interest in the transformability of social-ecological systems, i.e. the capacity of society to change the system’s state variables when current trajectories become untenable. But a critical dilemma faces humankind: how can more equitable and beneficial social development paths be stimulated in light of these challenges? While ‘talking resilience’ is rapidly gaining ground (e.g. the concept has become pervasive in EU policy documents), ‘walking resilience’ has proven much more difficult.

A sobering message that was prevalent throughout the conference is that institutions are failing humanity at an alarming scale. Even agencies that were once regarded as progressive and world leading examples in environmental governance (e.g. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority) are losing the fight against threats and degradation and many are no longer able to deliver on their mandates. An overarching cause seems to be the rate and scale of political, economic, social and ecological changes, and the inability of institutions/agencies to adapt and even transform in order to stay relevant. The difficulty of especially bureaucracies to be agile and responsive was epitomised by a statement made by the Deputy Director-General of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Marc Ch√Ętaigner. Mr Ch√Ętaigner said that Foreign Affairs is one of France’s youngest ministries, only 42 years old, so they are still finding their feet!

Advice that seemed to surface in several sessions during the conference is to (a) establish functional feedbacks loops across multiple social-ecological components and scales, and (b) build competency in being receptive and response to emerging patterns/messages.

A few noteworthy quotes (paraphrased by Dirk Roux) from Resilience 2014 are:

Brain Walker: ‘Resilience and development are complementary concepts. A resilience approach is not about working out and choosing an optimal pathway, because the context WILL change and then that pathway is no longer optimal and perhaps not even desirable. Rather work out where you don’t want to be and use the remaining possibilities as an envelope for encouraging novelty and emergence.’

Francis Westley: ‘Scientists that want to be successful in a transdisciplinary world need epistemological agility: depth in at least one field and an understanding of where other knowledge’s come from.

Francois Bosquet: ‘To anchor more resilient practices in a social-ecological landscape requires at least 15 years of dedicated commitment, which can be achieved through three consecutive five-year plans.’

Fikret Berkes: ‘Conservation of the future might well be based on co-management arrangements and co-learning facilitated by adaptive management. Scientists can be obstacles or catalysts to this process.’

Fikret Berkes: ‘People think that desperate times ask for greater control, when in fact the opposite might be true.’


- Text by Dr Dirk Roux