Resilience at Scale — Recommended Readings

Coleman, Peter T. The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts. New York: Public Affairs, 2011.

Homer-Dixon, Thomas. Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2006.

Rose, Jonathan F.P. The Well-Tempered City: What Modern Science, Ancient Civilizations, and Human Nature Teach Us About the Future of Urban Life. New York: Harper Wave, 2016.

Thompson, Michael. Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value. New Edition ed. London: Pluto Press, 2017.

West, Geoffrey. Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

Resilience is the capacity to bounce back, when the context changes.  Scaling is the ability to maintain a level of interaction while growing the volume of interactions, often by orders of magnitude.  Being resilient at scale is the ability to bounce forward even while scaling beyond known boundaries.  The five authors in these highly recommended readings share their deep observations about what resilience at scale is and how to achieve it.

Physicist and complexity theorist Geoffrey West provides a rich journey through an understanding of how nature scales and what that means for the challenges facing humanity in the coming decades.  Looking for nature’s principles of growth, research on scaling shows that animals ranging from a mouse and a small bird to a dog to an elephant scale logarithmically in the relationship of their body mass to their metabolic rate.  With this ratio and many others (i.e., patents to population, income and assets to number of employees), Geoffrey West and colleagues suggest there are “a few simple rules that all organisms obey, indeed all complex systems, from plants and animals to cities and companies” (p2).  “When an object is scaled up in size, its volumes increase at a much faster rate than its areas…This has huge implications for the design and functionality of much of the world around us” (p41).  Nature does not scale linearly, rather nonlinearly.  “For every order of magnitude increase in strength, the weight that can be supported increases by one and a half orders of magnitude” (p45).  This ratio of areas and volumes lies at the foundations of nature’s scaling, maximizing metabolic rate by maximizing surface area.  The book shows how this logic applies to the scaling of resilient infrastructure.

Urban planner Jonathan F.P. Rose applies complexity theory to the urban setting, starting with its metabolic boundary, the area of food production it requires to feed the people in the urban setting.  He finds examples through history of cities where the metabolic boundary grew to support urban development with more and more people producing things other than food.  The metabolic boundary grew to be far greater than the boundary of where these people lived, and that requirement of building food production and transport systems far beyond the city boundaries lowered the city’s resilience, leading to the city’s eventual demise–more and more of its energy went into generating enough energy, a disastrous feedback loop.  For an urban setting to survive, as it scales, it must increase the coherence of, the circular flow of its metabolism of the energy, information, and materials flowing through it, the harmonic interaction of the community of citizens, compassionately balancing the health of the individual and the collective.  The book provides many examples where cities are developing these capacities.

Political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon looks at the energy return on investment, looking at the ratio of the energy produced and the energy required.  Pulling from many examples, the ratio must be “much greater than  1 to run a society” (p51).  Like with the metabolic boundary, if more energy is required to run the society than it produces, it loses resilience.  A change in its context, which continuously happens, leads to catastrophic failure.  There are many systemic stresses on an urban setting, and when they combine, the system can fail catastrophically, as the interrelated elements kick off nonlinear overload.  The more interconnected a system is, the more likely this is to happen, and the more the system has to be designed to be resilient to these shocks.

Michael Thompson frames catastrophic failure as an unexpected event in the mix of groups of people trying to evolve a system and those attempting to maintain a system.  The system can be experiencing continuous change, meaning the change happens smoothly, when all of a sudden it experiences discontinuous change, an abrupt, often massive change, which the system is often not resilient enough to survive.  This dynamic inevitably occurs in urban settings, generated by the dynamics between what some call the durable and others the transient.

Psychologist Peter Coleman explores the terrain of “intractable conflicts,” which seem to emerge in this space of scaling urban settings, where multiple stresses converge and lead towards catastrophic collapse, dramatically reducing a city’s resilience.  To address these complex problems, most people seem to oversimplify them, generating the conflict traps that Michael Thompson also described.  An initial step to resolve these conflicts, according to Peter Coleman’s work, is to conceive of the social phenomenon as a field of attractor forces, seeing the relationships among these attractors, and embracing the conflict, looking for evidence of what is actually happening.

The rich histories and case studies provided by these authors show the importance of embracing the complexity inherent in a network of interactions, understanding the deeper shared purpose that holds the interactions together and drives the desire to scale growth, for more to share in the deeper purpose.  It is possible to come together to see the shared purpose, the dynamics generating the boundary issues, the agreements that could generate new dynamics and sufficient resilience, avoiding catastrophic collapse while scaling growth.  It is also possible to agree on the evidence that supports the testing of these hypothetical shifts and measures the progress along the way.  This requires shifting from a theory of change to a principle-based, theory of impact resilience.  From looking at only the local, short terms needs and actions to address them, to looking at the local and overall needs, short and long term, and the dynamics that generate them.  This shift is a choice.


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