Resilience and Communities – Adapting to Disruptive Change

Can we truly improve the ability of our human systems to adapt to disruptive change? Attention is now focused on defining, fostering, measuring ‘resilience’. Yet, a widely-shared understanding of the referents of ‘resilience’ may be lacking. And it may be especially so for the concept of ‘community.’ Failure to come to grips with the multilayered, cross-cutting, contested, and ambiguous natures of community raises serious challenges to promoting and achieving the improved ability of human systems to adapt to disruptive change.

  • Charles Rutheiser, Center for Community and Economic Opportunity, Annie E. Casey Foundation


Introduction by Gordon Feller

I think perhaps there’s no better person to tell you about what happens in a community like a city when disruption occurs. We’ve asked Charles Rutheiser to come here from Baltimore. He’s with the Annie E. Casey Foundation. He’s with their Center for Community and Economic Opportunity. His next book will be a book about leadership which will come out in the spring. We thought it would be a good thing to follow Peter with somebody who asks the question “What happens when those disruptions in supply and those shocks in price show up in our neighborhoods?” Charles, thank you very much for joining us.

Charles Rutheiser

Thanks very much, Gordon. I’m not a tech guy; I’m a people guy. I have to be honest with you. I have a very deeply ambivalent relationship to technology, especially digital technology. As you can see, that’s my one and only slide. But some of what I heard today and yesterday excites me, thrills me. A bunch of other things scare me, worry me. I’m deeply concerned. A few things actually −repulse is too strong a word− really, deeply worry me because I have a feeling our technical mastery of some of the basic elements and principles of the universe, our ability to integrate the physical and digital world have given us a false sense of how we can predict and control our various kinds of social worlds. That’s just laying that out there. That’s my particular bias.

I was trained as a cultural anthropologist. I’ve been in philanthropy for 10 years but I used to be a university professor, a big critic of urban development, how cities got built before I realized I have to be part of the solution rather than just saying, “Something shouldn’t work” and figure out how you actually go about doing it. It’s been very difficult to shake my professional training. It’s given me an interest not only in social organization but in language and systems of ideas, belief, metaphors, especially the power of metaphors to shape thinking. I almost went rogue today sitting and listening to all the metaphors that were flying fast and furious yesterday. I had to restrain myself and wanted to talk to you about a concept that a lot of people are talking about these days. That’s the concept of resilience. I didn’t really hear it very much over the last 2 days. I was a bit surprised. This may be a population that hasn’t been infected by that particular idea virus yet. But there are a lot of folks, a lot of smart people who are talking about the concept. The Rockefeller Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, New America, Cisco, the Federal Reserve Bank, there are lots of folks in the national security space, Department of Homeland Security, HUD are all talking about the need for resilience. Part of my job at the Casey Foundation −the really fun part of my job− is to track these new ideas that come out into the world that circulate within the networks of powerful thought leaders and decision makers that get translated in policies and practices, get implemented on the ground, and have a whole set of consequences, not just the results we seek to obtain but the unintended consequences that come from our actions. Maybe it’s because I’ve read a lot of dystopian science fiction as a kid, as a young adult and still, this vision of the technologically smart city of the future really worries me because I think we are taking a lot of things for granted. We’re being a little blind to some of the deep vulnerabilities we’re creating by creating these vast, highly complicated, robust yet extremely fragile systems.

The whole discourse on resilience now is talking about how we can respond to vulnerability. I think events in the United States over the last 10 years have made use acutely vulnerable to thinking about vulnerability. The 9/11, Katrina, the 2008 crash all made us think about how perilously close to the precipice we are on many things and how we’ve taken things for granted. There’s this big emphasis especially for those people who design and think about very formal and deep metabolic systems of cities and nations like transportation and electricity to figure out ways in which we can make these systems able to respond to disruptive change, things that can’t be anticipated to continue to function and go back to the baseline and so forth. There’s this whole notion of being able to engineer or architect resilience of these vast systems. It’s great. We can think about redundancy. We can think about modularity. We can think about getting all these kinds of feedback loops that help tell us when things might be going off the rails and how we can adaptively respond.

There’s another very important part to resilience. It’s not planned at all. In some ways, it’s really a common thread in the history of human civilization. That is the ability of systems, particularly social systems, systems of people to self-organize and adaptively respond to change not by just bouncing back to a previous state but bouncing forward and dynamically reorganize. It’s that piece that I think is so very compelling about resilience. One of my observations of literature −and I have a whole reading list that’s appended to the website for those of you who have not read it, there are loads of very interesting literature to read− has been sneaking this notion of engineering resilience into this notion of complex adaptive systems. It’s somehow figuring out how we can hardwire human societies to be adaptive. There are lots of issues with that. There are lots of problems. It’s the sort of thing that pops up and comes along.

In general, I’m a big fan of the resilience discussion. I think it provides a very new way to reframe old debates to help us get out of dead-end polarities and ways of thinking. Really, there should be a question mark after “next big innovation” because the jury is still out as to whether or not resilience thinking is going to be part of this.

One of the key things though, −and this is the most challenging part here− is that the thinking of resilience has been largely thought of as within a scientific paradigm. It ignores that fact that resilience is also a value. There are some authors, particularly Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy, in their book that talked about resilience being the next moral quest of the 21st century, which is really, I think, upping the game. It just begs the question then: what is the relationship between resilience and other kinds of moral imperatives like sustainability or efficiency or profitability? There’s been a curious reluctance to acknowledge the presence of giant systems −perhaps one of the most resilient systems− is that of our systems of belief. If you take a look at world religions, for example, that have lasted 2,000 years, those are examples of belief systems −disembodied, to be sure− that have the power to adapt and change to contemporary circumstances. We need to look at that realm of belief just as well as we have been looking at these hard-and-fast things that we have been talking about the last 2 days.

My biggest beef with the current discourse on resilience has nothing to do with the concept of resilience. It has to deal with the concept of community. I do it all the time. You guys do it. In 13 instances yesterday, people talked about “the” community. It’s the sort of thing that drives me nuts. It’s the old college professor in me but that is a very, very misleading notion. Community is as fuzzy as resilience is, even not more so. By referring to community in a certain way as if it was a natural system, a kind of module within a city that we can then try to build resilience of is misleading in a couple of senses. One, it’s because communities are referred to as spatial units on one hand. Planners, politicians and philanthropy are very guilty of drawing lines on the map all the time and then making these lines as if they were the boundaries and containers of natural systems. Anyone who’s been in the business of community development knows that those lines have very little relationship at times with the social activities that are going on on the ground. People go back and forth across those boundaries all the time. The boundaries that are drawn by official folks do not correspond to the boundaries that exist within people’s heads. There’s some fuzziness there that we need to accept and not take this notion that the units that we create are the ones that are there.

One of the things that excites me about the new digital technologies is that we’re no longer a prisoner of census tract and zip code-level data. In some cases, these lines get drawn because those were the census boundaries are. Those were our data. The ability to free data from those kinds of constraints I think is going to be tremendously empowering. It’s going to run into a lot of the inertia of these former systems that have been created and imposed and still enshrined in bureaucratic practices.

Community as a spatial construct is only one sense of the term. Communities are also social constructs that have nothing to do with space. They are created by race. They are created by religion, interest group. This group here −Meeting of the Minds− is a community of a kind. The key thing about communities is that they are bound not only by boundaries but by a shared sense of identity. The communities that we’re working with in the cities, they’re twenty, thirty, forty, fifty thousand people. We have this romanticized version of community sometimes that it’s a group of relative equality and face-to-face interaction. But in many cases, the things that we’re branding as communities are actually little cities unto itself that are fragmented, hierarchical, to a certain extent, fixed and we cannot assume there’s this degree of unanimity and shared feeling within that.

Finally, new technology has this ability to completely reorder the landscape of community. As Mac McCarthy mentioned yesterday, it can either reaffirm some of these lines, the social and officially imposed demarcations but it can also explode them. He’s not quite sure where that’s going to happen. This whole notion of what a city is −community is not just the neighborhood level. The city itself is a kind of community. Some cities have a much greater sense of community. There’s a way in which identities of cities and ideas of cities are shaped not by scientific discourse but by the cultural imagination of the popular media. I live in Baltimore. I meet someone for the first time and they go, “Oh, The Wire.” If you have a Chamber of Commerce person from Baltimore or a person in the City Council and have them twitch all over the place, you mention that because it’s not a very flattering portrayal of Baltimore. It’s a real portrayal of a certain part of Baltimore, just not the entirety of Baltimore. There’s truth in fiction. That fictional series captured the reality of many communities, communities that have been isolated from opportunity, communities that are not plugged into the digital world and it’s going to take a lot to do this. I think unless we’re very intentional about recognizing the unevenness and inequality that exist on the ground within cities, communities, regions, and nations, there’s a very real tendency that all these new stuff that we’re creating is just going to reinforce and obscure those kinds of connections and inequalities. I’ll just leave you with that. I’m hoping to provoke a conversation, not necessarily here but at lunch, afterwards via email, via Twitter and so forth to really get you thinking about resilience and the literature that’s emerged there as well as how we go about and take for granted notions of community. Thanks.

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