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Resilience in the 21st century

New Global Resilience Institute helps manage challenges of 21st-century turbulence

 

Stephen Flynn Professor of Political Science, Founding Co-Director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security See More
Today, Northeastern will launch the Global Resilience Institute, which will lead interdisciplinary research and initiatives that advance societal resilience and contribute to the health, security, and sustainability of societies around the world.

But just what is resilience? And how will the Global Resilience Institute help build a more flexible, nimble world in the face of growing global turbulence? These are a few of the questions we asked the institute’s founding director Stephen E. Flynn, professor of political science with affiliated appointments in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Flynn offered his expertise here, as well as at the Global Resilience Institute launch event, Tuesday at 1:15 p.m. in the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex.

We hear a lot about resilience, but what is it, exactly?

Resilience refers to the ability to withstand changing conditions and to both recover rapidly and to adapt when disruptive events occur.

Bolstering resilience requires a comprehensive approach. Various academic disciplines have tended to think about resilience in related but distinctive ways. Engineers often think of resilience as being embedded in infrastructure and systems so when they are put under stress—such as from an earthquake—they won’t fail. Emergency managers define resilience as being able to recover when disasters strike. And increasingly, scientists involved with sustainability see resilience as the capacity to successfully adapt in the face of changes to the climate that might be slowed, but can’t be stopped.

The insights provided by multiple disciplines animates the approach we’re taking at the Global Resilience Institute: Resilience is a concept to which virtually every discipline can contribute knowledge—knowledge that will be helpful for managing the challenge of 21st century turbulence.

What makes a focus on resilience so timely is that we are increasingly witnessing the potential downside of our becoming more and more connected on multiple levels. Our growing interconnectedness is resulting in new dependencies and interdependencies that make us particularly vulnerable to disruptive events ranging from cyberattacks to pandemics. When a shock hits one locale or one node, it ends up cascading across the entire system, the entire network, affecting our whole society, sometimes with catastrophic consequences.

Why is it so important to take an interdisciplinary approach to studying resilience?

First, advancing societal resilience must occur on multiple levels. The most basic level is the individual—individuals need to have a better ability to cope with disruption and risk. The next is the neighborhood and community level—these shocks tend to impact more than one of us, and we’ll need to draw on the social capital of community to cope. (Think “Boston Strong” after the Boston Marathon bombings or banding together to deal with “Snowmageddon” in the winter of 2014-15). Finally, there’s a societal level that includes lifeline infrastructures like the power grid, the transportation system, the health sector, and so on. Building individual, community, and system resilience requires expertise ranging from psychology to network science, environmental engineering to public policy and law.

As a stepping-off point for our work, we ask, “What is keeping us from being resilient? What are the barriers?” There are five.

  1. The first is a science barrier: We don’t understand as well as we need to the interdependencies of the systems and networks on which we rely, with the result that we are too often blindsided when shocks play across them. This requires good models, grounded in fundamental science that can support decisions.
  2. The second is an engineering and urban planning barrier: Historically, we have invested in designs that improve efficiency and safety. Now we need to design structures, systems, and networks to be adaptive to a rapidly changing environment, to include the means for self-healing so that they can come back stronger after a shock.
  3. The third is an economics barrier: We can have the best and most resilient models and designs, but nobody is going to adopt them unless there are incentives for doing so.
  4. The fourth is a public policy and governance barrier: We’ve organized ourselves around jurisdictions, or sectors, but we don’t have an adequate planning and operational structure in place that can respond to the reality that the systems we rely on are interconnected and spread over regional, national, and international boundaries.
  5. The fifth is an education barrier: We’re not educating and training people to understand resilience and to work on deploying it at these multiple levels.

How is Northeastern uniquely positioned to break down these barriers?

There is cutting-edge research within and across all of Northeastern’s nine colleges that can uniquely contribute to overcoming these barriers. There are researchers in network science examining our interconnectedness; lawyers who understand the role of regulations and codes; political scientists who study public policy; marine and earth scientists studying the effects of climate change and urban-coastal sustainability; and so much more. Really, to take on any of the major strategic challenges that are confronting our global community today, you need collaborative efforts across the entire university.

“Resilience is a concept to which virtually every discipline can contribute knowledge—knowledge that will be helpful for managing the challenge of 21st century turbulence.”

Stephen Flynn Founding Director of the Global Resilience Institute

Over the past decade, Northeastern has been focusing on discovering the solutions to global challenges in health, security, and sustainability. The university’s new strategic plan adds resilience, innovation, and entrepreneurship as areas where Northeastern will be bringing its research efforts to a new level. Resilience not only leverages the contributions researchers have been making toward these global challenges, but provides a focus for integrating these efforts as well.

This is what the Global Resilience Institute is really about—finding a way to knit together the learning and collaborative research happening within each discipline in order to build resilience on a broader, more cohesive scale. I know of no other university that is better positioned to lead on the issue of resilience than Northeastern.

What role will the Global Resilience Institute play in furthering resilience research and practice?

The institute will have three roles. First, it will help identify and stimulate interdisciplinary research already underway at the university that will help us address individual, community, and systems resilience. In other words, the institute will play an important role in catalyzing this research across the university community.

The second is the in-house work we’re doing that draws on the funding support we’ve received from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to advance an understanding of resilience that can mitigate the effects of disasters and help impacted communities to recover. This work builds on major projects we have undertaken following disasters such as Superstorm Sandy and “Snowmageddeon,” among others.

The third role is providing linkages and leadership to the top research centers and universities around the world—including the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany and others—who are doing cutting-edge research in specific areas of resilience. Northeastern is committed to building a research network that allows lessons to be shared across national borders. The only way we can meet this urgent global imperative is to take it on globally.

Across these roles we are relying on the hard work of many terrific Northeastern undergraduate co-ops and graduate student researchers. It’s important for us not only to advance our own work, but also to help train the next generation of resilience leaders.

Does the 21st century present particular challenges for resilience?

The timing for this couldn’t be better and couldn’t be more urgent. We’re facing a period of growing turbulence, too much of which has been self-inflicted. Our natural environment has become more volatile, our interconnectedness has created a new vulnerability, the threat of bad actors is increasingly prevalent, and our reliance on technology has spawned new cybersecurity threats. From a hazards standpoint, we’ve got a lot to deal with.

The other piece that’s equally urgent is overcoming a misguided mindset that has become more deeply embedded in our body politic over the past 50 years. After World War II, Americans started to believe that if we applied enough muscle, enough money, and enough intellect, we could eliminate risk. That became our focus: to do whatever it takes to get the risk down to zero. The downside of that was that we started neglecting our longstanding capacity to deal with risk when it manifested itself—something we were really good at as a society up through World War II.

Those who first came to America weren’t running away from adversity—they were willingly taking on risk. Sailing across the Atlantic Ocean was extremely dangerous and wasn’t something that a sane person probably should have done in the 16th and 17th centuries. The pioneers who pushed westward knew that dangers lay before them. Every generation of Americans was confronted with adversity. And they overcame that adversity, bestowing to their children and grandchildren a sense of optimism and confidence in our individual and collective capacities to build a better world and a brighter future. In recent years, we have been squandering this resilience legacy. So, the race is on to reclaim and strengthen it.