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Meeting the resilience challenge

Volume 7 Number 11 November 14 - December 11 2011

The selection of resilience as a theme for CHOGM is an indication of the seriousness with which it is now regarded broadly in academic, business and government settings. Dr Alan March, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute and Senior Lecturer, Urban Planning and Design, explores the issue.

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) was held 28-30 October in Perth, Western Australia.

While QANTAS industrial action took much of the media attention, the 54 leaders met for the 22nd time since its commencement in 1971 to set policies and establish initiatives at the Commonwealth level. Prime Minister Gillard chaired the 2011 meeting, for which the theme was: “Building global resilience, building national resilience”.

Resilience has its origins in physics and engineering and refers to the amount of stress a material can stand and still return to its original shape. Now widely referred to as the ability to “bounce back”, it has since been used in a variety of other settings, notably ecology, psychology, and disaster management. 

The selection of resilience as a theme for CHOGM is an indication of the seriousness with which it is now regarded broadly in academic, business and government settings.

In the context of climate change and the global financial crisis, CHOGM discussed matters such as food security, natural resource management, sustainable and balanced development, and human rights.

At the national level in Australia, resilience has been established as a key objective across a wide range of government tiers and functions.

The February 2011 Council of Australian Governments Meeting (COAG) in Canberra resulted in the issue of a communiqué with resilience central to its goals. It established as priorities for Australia the need for a resilient economy, and the central importance of planning our cities and towns to achieving this.

The communiqué highlights the centrality of sustainable growth to resilience, while improvements to health, disability care, education and clean energy are also directly linked with Australia’s ongoing resilience. Other recent COAG reports have also highlighted the importance of disaster management and youth connectedness to resilience.

The link between resilience and paths to greater sustainability is emerging as a strong and consistent theme for exploration.

However, a key challenge is to ensure that resilience does not become another buzz word that is more or less synonymous with sustainability. It is not sufficient to consider “sustainable development” when the ways we grow and supply food, capture and distribute water, or transport ourselves in cities, continue to be questionable in the long term.

Many of the mechanisms we have developed to achieve efficiency gains have concurrently made us much more susceptible to shocks as a series of inter-related risks.

The ongoing decrease in locally grown food has led to heavy reliance on food being transported long distances, mainly by road, to centralised food distribution points. The development of centralised reticulated potable water services, and in parallel with provision of sewage services over time, previously led to many advances in health and wellbeing in our cities.

The heavy ongoing investment in roads and freeways in Australia over more than 50 years has led to a pattern of city development that relies heavily on the private motor car. Many people in our cities have limited access to jobs, education or health services without the use of a motor car.

The mechanisms mentioned above have provided us with many benefits, but now also expose us to considerable risks due to widespread reliance on single systems. History is replete with examples of shocks to human societies. For example, if a break in the supply of petroleum were to occur, or water supplies were affected, our cities and towns would face serious setbacks in fulfilling functions basic to human life. The challenge now is for us to develop alternatives.

Governments and businesses are now seeking ways to make operational and to apply resilience thinking to a wide range of operations and responsibilities and Melbourne University is already producing considerable research in this area.

Resilience is an area that requires the deployment of specialised research in interdisciplinary ways. The central idea of a resilient community relies upon a number of elements functioning together: the physical layout of places; governance structures; social functions; and the mechanisms of distribution and collection.

The University has a key role to play in providing and testing innovative ideas and technologies in this complex area. Further, many of the things we already know about the nature of resilient communities are already our core “work”.

Resilience is a characteristic of places where education and diversity are promoted; where contributions to inclusive and stable governance are valued; where a broad economic base can soften the impacts of market fluctuations; where systems have redundancies incorporated into them; where the interconnection between human and ecological systems is recognised; and, where social difference is minimised.

Dr March leads the MSSI theme: Risk Resilience and Transformation.