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Insights, inspiration and opportunities to create a more vibrant and resilient future.

What Does Resilience Even Mean?

Lyndon Valicenti

Resilience is a term used by many disciplines in many contexts, from psychology to business management. These days, we also associate resilience with the idea of adapting to the impacts of climate change. But what does that even mean?

The presumed root of "resilience" is the Latin verb "resaltarae," which means to rebound or bounce back. Across disciplines there is a general structure to definitions of resilience. Most start by pinpointing the system that is resilient, be it a city, supply chain, ecosystem, or person. Next, they describe the threat of change, for example a stress, such as a long-term adversity, or shock, like a short-term disaster or traumatic event. Finally, a resilience definition will often characterize the response to change. In the context of ecology, it is about the ability to maintain the status quo. However, recent scholarship on disaster recovery describes the response to change as an opportunity to “build back better,” so that the system improves its future ability to recover over time. 

Here are a few examples of resilience definitions:

The American Psychological Association defines it as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship issues, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors; essentially meaning to "bounce back" from difficult experiences. 

The Rockefeller Foundation defines the resilience of cities by their capacity to function, so that people living and working in cities—particularly the poor and vulnerable—survive and thrive no matter what stresses or shocks they encounter.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s working definition of regional resilience is the ability of a region to maintain and improve quality of life in face of hazards, stressors, or shocks by reducing vulnerabilities across the interacting built, natural, and social systems and by increasing the capacity to adapt over time. 

Defining it is one thing, actually building it is another. The act of building resilience, or improving the adaptive capacity of a system, requires two key strategies. First, we must minimize its exposure to any hazards or threats. Second, we must reduce the system’s sensitivity by addressing the root causes of its vulnerabilities. When it comes to climate change, resilience building involves everything from strengthening the social cohesion within our most vulnerable populations to creating redundancies in our energy and water systems. And, as it turns out, these strategies often make sense regardless of the threat or context.