We all know what resilience is - it’s the ability to bounce back and recover quickly from difficult situations. And we know how that’s supposed to look like.
We’ve all been able to recover from difficult situations at some point in our lives. That bicycle fall as a child. Past separation from romantic partners. Moving beyond painful comments at school, work or at home. More often than not, we know how to bounce back as individuals. But what does it mean to bounce back as a system?
Systems resilience isn’t dissimilar to individual resilience. Systems are resilient when they continue to carry out their function in the face of adversity; a resilient system does not break down when disruptions unfold. COVID-19 has been a huge stressor to most local, national and global systems. And we’re learning a great deal about its impact.
In the face of the virus, we observe a myriad of behaviours. One of the first behaviours that emerged was hoarding, where survival of the self takes precedence on everyone’s minds. When we don’t feel safe or secure about our own basic needs, we see survival as a relative, individualistic concept. We feel threatened by others’ consumption habits. We engage in the act of shaming and blaming.
This highlights a fundamental lack of trust in the system we live in. And ironically, just observing the act of hoarding in others begets more hoarding – when we see others stock up on resources, we feel compelled to do the same. This is how interconnected we all are; whether we like it or not, whether we notice it or not.
As the virus unfolds, we also notice a different kind of behaviour. We see people whose first thought and concern is for the immunocompromised, for the marginalized and the people adversely affected by the virus. The people who recognize that we must put an end to the relative characteristic of survival and instead push forth a more absolute nature of survival: “we can all get through this together”. Thinking for and as a collective is a defining characteristic of systems thinking.
If our systems were to truly be resilient, we cannot focus on simply making sure that we still exist tomorrow. We need to shift our focus to how we can work to make the current system we live in sustainable and malleable enough to embrace and adapt to disruptions. Survival is making sure that we still exist tomorrow. But resilience is not merely survival. Beyond continued existence, resilience is continuity.