“What does ‘resilience’ mean, really? We are confused by how it is used.” – climate change adaptation workshop participant in Windhoek, Namibia.   

This question surfaced time and again during Learning Labs, the creative knowledge co-production workshops we conducted on the use of climate information in decision-making in African cities over the course of four years.

The question itself was somewhat ironic; the very term was a defining feature of the related project, named Future Resilience for African CiTies and Lands (FRACTAL) . Our mission was to help decision-makers, city planners, engineers, climate scientists, researchers and community representatives co-explore critical questions about climate change and development affecting three southern African cities. A workshop game that asked players to put their cards into designated buckets that represented broad classifications laid bare different interpretations for the same terms. Some saw resilience as a system’s ability to return to a previous state after a shock. Others thought resilience meant the ability of a system to change and transform into a new state.

The debate about how to interpret this single word – resilience – is newly resonant now, as the COVID-19 pandemic forces the world to think in new ways and with new urgency about its meaning. Our work addressing resilience in the context of climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction has shown that understanding of such basic words that are part of a complex conversation is vital. When people talk at cross-purposes, or interpret things in ways that are not anticipated, the outcomes are never optimal. At best, such objectives remain unmet. At worst, misunderstandings filter through into planning, policy and implementation processes.

“Our work shows that unclear use of language and terminology is a key barrier for climate action. ”

A standardized and more harmonized use of language offers a solution for this problem. Experiences in the field and related research underscore the important, often underrecognized role played by taxonomies – the agreed, standardized vocabularies that describe a given topic area.

The current pandemic discussions about resilience amplify this. Different interpretations of “resilience” proliferate. Are we talking wistfully about getting back to normal and “bouncing back”? Or are we instead rethinking and redefining things, and “bouncing forward” to a “new normal ”? Is our discussion limited to resilience to diseases, such as COVID-19, or to the world’s other great challenge, climate change? What qualities do we need to exhibit greater resilience? Are we talking about practical things (infrastructure) or more intangible matters (human possibility and community or even psychosocial resilience)?

The COVID-19 situation has presented the world with a greater appreciation of what recovery can and should look like, and how we all might pursue a more transformative agenda, one that allows us to achieve a more deep-seated resilience.

New life begins to emerge from a burnt forest in Thailand. Photo: chokchaipoomichaiya / Getty Images

This question whether resilience means bouncing back or bouncing forward to some degree reflects a long evolution of the use of the term. Historically, resilience thinking raised the notion of returning to a status quo, or  maintaining ongoing functions, structures, identities. It represented stability. In this vein, resilience might be referred to as “bouncing back” or returning to “business as usual”.

But later interpretations of resilience reflect the capacity for learning, adaptation, and transformation to effectively respond to changing circumstances. This means looking for responses that do not compromise long-term prospects, and will not  increase the likelihood of future vulnerability. Such resilience recognizes social, institutional and environmental elements in ways that mean avoiding a return to existing systems, such as a reliance on rigid economic systems, overexploitation of natural resources, and unsustainable patterns of production and consumption. As such, its aim is to flexibly and adaptively manage the complexities and uncertainties of our world .  We can all learn from the idea of “building back better”,  the phrase used by the disaster risk reduction community in an approach to post-disaster recovery that is one of four priorities for disaster risk reduction in the Sendai Framework .

“Meanings about resilience are important to understand because the design and implementation of policies depend on them.”

Enter taxonomies

This situation offers a current example of why taxonomies matter, and how they can affect our collective understanding, interpretation and response to a situation. As “The Accidental Taxonomist ” put it, taxonomies can be used “in the narrow sense, to mean a hierarchical classification or categorization system, and in the broad sense, in reference to any means of organizing concepts of knowledge”. In our work, taxonomies refer to a combination of the two.

Taxonomies have a role to play in making for a more effective global conversation on what resilience means. A taxonomy can shed light on nuances surrounding the term. It can reveal and compare synonyms that may mean the same thing to one group or discipline. For example,  climate-compatible resilience, disaster resilience, and building back better are terms often used interchangeably with resilience. A taxonomy can guide someone who is new to a field by offering suggested topics or recommendations for other related terms (and content) to explore – such as, in this case, transformation, learning or adaptation. These suggested terms are key to building awareness and knowledge about the depth and breadth of a topic area and its connections to other topics.

Figure 2: a branch from the climate change adaptation / disaster risk reduction taxonomy. Source: PoolParty software

A taxonomy can also include “scope notes” on how the term is used by differently by different communities, as is the case with the PLACARD Connectivity Hub.

This snapshot of the Connectivity Hub shows a visualized network representation of a taxonomy in the form of a glossary, definitions, suggested terms and content, and scope notes.

Snapshots of a taxonomy can also show the evolution of the use of a term over time. Raising awareness about how a term is used by different people and at different times is key to learning and creating a shared understanding, which itself is the way forward on collective goals and objectives.

A resilient pandemic recovery could involve different interpretations and different ways of achieving certain aims. These fundamental assumptions and notions about the meaning of resilience are important to understand because the design and implementation of policies depend on them. For example, one more transformative interpretation of resilience might look like the recommendations made by the UK Committee on Climate Change to the UK government , which make clear that “reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change should be integral to any recovery package”. The committee recommended that the UK Government prioritize actions according to six principles for a resilient pandemic recovery. These are:

  1. Use climate investments to support economic recovery and jobs.
  2. Lead a shift towards positive, long-term behaviours.
  3. Tackle the wider “resilience deficit” on climate change.
  4. Embed fairness as a core principle.
  5. Ensure the recovery does not “lock-in” greenhouse gas emissions or increased climate risk.
  6. Strengthen incentives to reduce emissions when considering fiscal changes.

These demonstrably relate to the creation of a “new normal” and the idea of transforming out of current systems to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to adapt to climate change in a way that ensures a long-term, sustainable future.

Flooding in South Yorkshire in the UK. Photo: Ashley Cooper / Getty Images

Ways forward

Our work has shown that the unclear use of language and terminology is a key barrier for climate action. To address this, we recently developed a practical roadmap for transforming online knowledge management for accelerated climate action . It describes how a taxonomy for climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction can be a first step to set the stage for a more informed global discussion of ways to address the climate and sustainability agendas,  more effective use of coming technological advances, and greater speed in achieving progress.

Developed for the PLAtform for Climate Adaptation and Risk reDuction (PLACARD) project, this roadmap focuses on the climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction communities in Europe. It is just a starting point. Nevertheless, the cutting-edge data science approaches it describes apply to wider sustainability agendas. These same concepts certainly apply to the new agenda the world is pursuing to recover from the pandemic hopefully in ways that we can all agree are truly “resilient”.