Political Systems Resilience

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

The term resilience refers to “the ability of groups or communities to cope with external stresses and disturbances as a result of social, political and environmental change.”1 Political resilience then refers to the capacity of political organizations to adapt to, and evolve responses to, internal and external events, such as large inflows of migration, war, financial crisis, rapid changes in demographics, environmental change etc. A central aspect of resilience is the distinction between resistance and adaptation; where a resilient system is seen to be one that has the capacity to transform itself in response to changes within its environment.2 Such a macro-level process of adaptation within a sociopolitical system requires an effective process through which the system can sense changes in its environment; come to consensus surrounding the relevance of various risks and opportunities; develop a diversity of responses within the system and select those that are most appropriate given the context and then scaling these so as to deliver an appropriate response.3

Robustness & Resilience

All systems operate within an environment and they are dependent upon some set of input values from that environment in order to operate successfully. Whether this is the human body requiring an input of oxygen or a technology requiring the input of fuel or a government requiring the cooperation of its people. When the system goes outside of this range of required inputs its functionality and structure become degraded. In the way that a human without food will cease to operate effectively or a government without financial revenue will be rendered dysfunctional over time. Thus in order for the system to maintain functionality it has to maintain itself within a given set of input parameters.4

There are essentially just two different ways of achieving this, the system can work to control the input values so that they do not change – thus working to resist change – this approach is associated with the idea of robustness, which refers to a system’s ability to resist change. Or it can work to enable its capacity to adapt to a wide variety of input values in which case again it would be able to stay within the required input range. This second approach – where the system works to improve its capacity to adapt – we call adaptive capacity.5 Such an approach is associated with the idea of resilience, which allows for change but looks at the system’s ability to endure despite this change. Whereas resistance and robustness are about achieving “success” – i.e. successfully resisting change is what is valued – with resilience failure becomes more valuable than success as it is only through failing that we build up resilience; resilience is something that is learned through failure. Resilience is always about being aware and ready for unexpected risk. For a resilient community, a change is a learning opportunity, for a fragile community change is a crisis to be avoided.6

Both robustness and resilience are trying to achieve the same end, of maintaining functionality, but the first does it through resistance while the second does it through adaptation. As always the success of a strategy is contingent upon the environment within which it is being enacted. At low levels of change within relatively stable environments, the robustness strategy works well, but as the change becomes faster and systemic the advantage shifts to the adaptive strategy. We can see this within the business community, as over the past decades with globalization and information technology creating major changes in the business landscape, the terms agility and adaptation have moved to the forefront of management terminology.7

Resilience is likewise moving to the forefront of terminology in governance, particularly with respect to climate change and environmental degradation. But on a more fundamental level, the term can be connected to processes of change driven by globalization. As societies open up to global processes – as connectivity proliferates and people recognize their interdependence with processes and systems outside of their borders – a traditional form of security based on borders and resistance to change inevitably become replaced by a recognition of the need to be able to adapt in the face of larger processes of change. In a globalized world, no nation is able to control the flows of financial capital that affect their economy, no nation is fully able to control the flow of people and goods. In a world where powerful processes that shape people’s lives transcends the national level, the strategy of resistance becomes less successful. Resilience in navigating such larger processes of change – as globalization and environmental change – become of a more identifiable importance to nations and people.8

Distributed Intelligence

The capacity of the political organization to deal with change is a function of both the degree of change within the environment and also the level of awareness of the system to that change. Coupled to this are considerations relating to the internal structure of the system that enable or prohibit it from responding effectively to that information. On one level, governance is a process of steering or guiding an organization forwards in its development. Like all forms of management, it requires strategic leadership. In that process, the political unit has to amass information about the system and its environment and develop the appropriate models for interpreting it. In complex environments no one can predict the future, but the better we understand the environment and the better we understand the structures within the socio-economic organization the better we are able to understand the vulnerabilities and the degree of sociopolitical criticality.9

A surprise shock that leads to disaster is only a shock because of lack of correct models. An earthquake only comes as a surprise if we can not see the critical pressures building up over time. The earthquake comes as a surprise because we were not measuring the tremors; we did not understand what they meant; we did not identify the structural vulnerabilities within the infrastructure when building many high rise buildings in a centralized location etc.9 In a resilience paradigm, there are no such things as accidents. When one accepts that changes happen, even major changes, then all there is, is our degree of awareness and capacity to adapt to those eventualities. The burden of crises shifts from nature and acts of God to the internal organization of our societies and the capacities and awareness levels of our governance structures; both individual and collective. The civil war in Syria and the European immigration crisis are not just accidents that suddenly happened, they were there before their initiation in the inertia of those systems, inherent in the evolved political structures of the Syrian regime and society at large; in the racial division within urban European societies.

When we invest in the development of the appropriate models given the context, then “accidents” do not come as a surprise. From an assessment of how the organization governs itself – its internal structures and level of awareness to its environment – a conclusion to the degree of vulnerability of the organization can be drawn and from that change will not come as a surprise when it happens. If stable periods are used to make a reflection of the state of the system and the environment and how to build adaptive capacity then the system will be in a more resilient position. The resilience of a large social system like a modern nation state and its technological infrastructure is complex and systemic, it is not contained within some subsystem but in fact, is distributed out across many different networks. But this assessment of the internal resilience of the organization is not something that can be concentrated at the top of a hierarchy, it requires distributed intelligence and awareness from the entire organization.10

The political system thus has to be able to harness and take in the distributed intelligence and information of its members. For example, in Syria, a devastating drought beginning in 2006 forced many farmers to abandon their fields and move into cities creating a context that was conducive to the revolution.11 If such information about the changing climate and local conditions had been effectively harnessed at the time and combine with the other factors determining the critical state of the political system the revolution, would not have appeared such a surprise. 

This illustrates a key aspect in resilience surrounding the relationship between the local events and the overall systems of governance, the process through which the political system aggregates the local intelligence about events and imports that into the decision-making institutions. Such a process can not be effectively conducted through purely top-down structures but requires the implementation of effective mechanisms for harnessing the distributed capabilities of the community.12 Resilience is a distributed phenomenon and thus requires distributed organizations to maintain and develop. A centralized structure where information is fed into the center to be processed and then redistributed reduces the system’s capacity to respond in real time; likewise, the centralization of intelligence and information processing creates its own vulnerabilities.

Systems Integration

Political resilience is a function of both the environment, the system’s information processing capabilities, but just as importantly the makeup of its internal structures and processes through which it attempts to adapt and respond to the information received. In making an assessment of resilience it is critical to look at the internal structures that enable or constrain the political system’s capacity to process information and use that to adapt to the changes. The resilience of a political community is a function of its capacity for adaptation, but such a process of adaptation is prevented by inertia; the resistance to change. If the system can adapt to the changes then there is no problem, but inertia is what renders systems dependent upon a certain limited set of input values and thus exposed to the variabilities of change.13

Social inertia is a function of the divisions within society and the desires of those for whom those divisive structures benefit to maintain them without change. All societies create divisions, excluding certain members and promoting others. Privileged members become dependent upon the prevailing structures within society to support their existing way of life and resistant to change that may alter those structures. This is the same in the relationships of inequality between members of a community as between different communities and as between a society and its natural environment.

For example, the limitation of our capacity to respond to changes within our natural environment is a function of our dependence upon the input of certain natural resources. Those who are less dependent upon these inputs have a greater capacity to adapt and respond to the changes, while the likes of an oil company will likely represent the most inert structures given their dependence on the status quo.14 As with all applied political science, such stakeholder analysis and vested interest analysis is a prerequisite to understanding the adaptive capacity of a system and its resilience.

If we can learn one lesson from political history it is that people will create boundaries somewhere so as to have some control over their environment and such boundaries are resistant to processes of change. Taking down walls may sometimes be an appropriate thing in evolving new levels of political organization, but sometimes those walls are holding the ceiling up. Borders can be effective in as much as they work to support the development of structures that will overcome them.

Effective institutional structures can enable people to draw those boundaries larger; to expand them instead of contracting them, to make them prepared for when those borders are challenged. In an age of proliferating interconnectivity making a sociopolitical system resilient means reducing dependencies upon such borders to hold the ceiling up and being prepared for when the walls come down. For example, we can identify this dynamic in the current immigration crisis in Europe. We see the dependencies of many nations upon a relatively homogenous population in order to maintain national identity and institutions. As those borders are challenged the system quickly comes under stress, which becomes expressed through racism and nationalism.

Building resilience means continuously exposing those divisions between communities and recognizing the vulnerabilities that they present. If divisions within society are not considered beforehand when crisis strikes those divisions are quickly revealed and work to exacerbate the situation. Again this can be seen in Europe’s current vulnerability to terrorism, which is as much to do with what is happening external to its borders as a function of the divisions within European societies; the immigrants that live in the marginalized and disconnected suburbs of Paris and Berlin are what threaten Europe’s security. Thus a discourse on political resilience without identifying the divisions within society based upon power, wealth, race etc. is very much limited in scope.15

Adaptive Cycle

Resilience is about transformation. The capacity of a system to take in some new phenomenon and go through a process wherein it develops the appropriate response. The process through which a system does this is called the adaptive cycle.16 Like evolution, the adaptive cycle is, in its essence, a process of creative destruction. In adapting the system experiences some external influence and has to change its state so as to respond to that. Those elements, structures, and behaviors that are rendered inappropriate given the new context are required to be removed, while the system has to select from and develop a new set of solutions so as to over time exhibit more of the characteristics that are functional within the new context. In this sense, adaptation and evolution are essentially the same, except that they play out on different scales and over different time frames. In both instances – both over the long term on the macro level or in the short term on the micro level – the political organization finds itself within a new context that it has to respond to and it must select from a variety of solutions that it has available to it and develop them.

An adaptive system is, therefore, an open system that is able to fit its behavior according to changes in its environment.17 It is one that recognizes the importance of diversity, which is quite a modern idea, for the ancients and medievals, diversity simply signifies merely that all but one are wrong. Having a whole pile of ideas that were wrong was clearly of little value to anyone. The idea of the individual undergoing a unique process of development, in some way separate from the whole of society or the state – in so doing developing diversity that is valuable to the whole organization – is in many ways a very modern idea.18 In relatively simple, stable and predictable environments there can be one correct answer and limited need for a diversity of opinion.

But as the level of complexity and scale of the change increases so does the scope of diversity need to be increased to match that. In complex environments, there is no correct answer, no one can know the whole environment, the most valuable insight is not the one that is correct – because no one has such an answer – it is the one that is best able to synthesize many different perspectives on a situation.19 Thus the emphasis shifts from homogeneity to diversity as a critical component in enabling adaptive capacity and resilience. In the context of the adaptive cycle a resilient political system is one that is able to successfully navigate the various stages of the adaptive cycle, so as to evolve, respond to change and continuously renew itself. This requires open systems of governance, which means they are able to sense the environment and develop inclusive platforms for people to self-organize in response to the information; institutional structures that can maintain diversity and perform processes of selection to find and foster the most suited, scaling them up to meet the changing demands as needed.19


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11. Hammer, J. (2013). Is a Lack of Water to Blame for the Conflict in Syria?. Smithsonian. Retrieved 4 July 2017, from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/is-a-lack-of-water-to-blame-for-the-conflict-in-syria-72513729/

12. Resilience: The Governance of Complexity. (2017). YouTube. Retrieved 4 July 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dxREbqtQXOQ

13. Understanding carbon lock-in – ScienceDirect. (2017). Sciencedirect.com. Retrieved 4 July 2017, from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421500000707

14. (2017). Secured-static.greenpeace.org. Retrieved 4 July 2017, from https://secured-static.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/planet-2/report/2006/3/the-oil-industry-and-climate-c.pdf

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16. Explaining the Cycle of Adaptive Change. (2017). YouTube. Retrieved 4 July 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NN5a6DoNUYg&t=186s

17. Adaptability | Wikiwand. (2017). Wikiwand. Retrieved 4 July 2017, from https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Adaptability

18. The Modern Political Tradition: Hobbes to Habermas. (2017). English. Retrieved 4 July 2017, from http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/the-modern-political-tradition-hobbes-to-habermas.html

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Systems Innovation

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