Building back better: Resilience means more than bouncing back

[Translate to english:] Windgepeitschter Baum auf Wiese
[Translate to english:] Foto KHAMKEO VILAYSING/UNSPLASH

Adapting to global shocks, transforming and creating new ways of functioning as a society: This is how reshaping a resilient future in the aftermath of a shock should look like.

06/01/2023 · News · Potsdam-Institut für Klimafolgenforschung · Umweltwissenschaften · Forschungsergebnis

Global shocks like COVID-19 are not exceptions or rare occurrences, latest science shows. As a result of human-driven activity in an increasingly hyper-connected world, events such as pandemics, financial crashes, food shocks and energy crises are becoming more frequent. A study published in Nature Sustainability picks up on these two findings. “After decades of increasing frequency of extreme events, the world finally recognizes a shift of the Earth system from a relatively stable state to an unstable one. COVID-19 is a manifestation of the Anthropocene, an age in which mankind has the dominant influence on the Earth system. Resilience is critical to deal with, learn from global shocks and to build back better,” states Johan Rockström, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research PIK and the lead author of the new paper.

To get a better understanding of resilience, firstly, Rockström and his co-authors looked at the definition of resilience: Instead of ‘bouncing back’ from a shock, they define resilience as having the capacities to live and develop with change and uncertainty. According to Albert Norström, co-author, head of Knowledge at Global Resilience Partnership and researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC), “a forward-looking approach is needed that reflects how people and nature are linked and interact from the local to global scales.” The scientists also present five key attributes that underpin this definition: diversity, redundancy, connectivity, inclusivity and equity, as well as adaptative learning. Organisations should consider and include these attributes in their resilience strategies to ensure adaptation and transformation in response to a shock. 

COVID-19 response strategies – persist, sometimes adapt, and rarely transform 

In a second step, the international team of scientists analysed COVID-19 resilience response strategies of 16 prominent intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank Group. Many of the COVID-19 recovery plans focused on returning to pre-crisis conditions and did little to build resilience to future shocks and stresses. Only four defined resilience. Furthermore, where resilience is defined, many definitions limit themselves to ‘bouncing back’ after a shock.

 The authors' findings reinforce previous research showing that resilience is often poorly articulated among international organisations and development agencies. Only a few of the response strategies recognized the importance of being prepared and able to adapt to future shocks. Even fewer reference being able to “transform” and create new systems and ways of functioning as a society when shocks make the existing system unstable. 

 “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the urgent need for a clearer and more operational definition of resilience that goes beyond simply bouncing back from a shock. Now is the time to start translating advancements in resilience science into broader-scale action that builds resilient and sustainable economies, societies and ecosystems in a post-COVID-19 world,” concludes Rockström. 

Original publication

„Reshaping a resilient future in response to COVID-19“, Johan Rockström, Albert V. Norström, Nathanial Matthews, Reinette (Oonsie) Biggs, Carl Folke, Ameil Harikishun, Saleemul Huq, Nisha Krishnan, Lila Warszawski, Deon Nel in Nature Sustainability Perspective.

Further information and contact

Presse release - Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK)