Business and government must collaborate on resilience

Williamsburg Bridge, Brooklyn, Hurricane Sandy, 2012
FlickrReeve Jolliffe
Williamsburg Bridge, Brooklyn, Hurricane Sandy, 2012

Following the impact of Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, the concept of resilience and its relationship to sustainability has been attracting a great deal of attention on the part of policy makers, business executives and community leaders.

There are many interpretations of resilience in fields as diverse as medicine, ecology, engineering, urban affairs, finance and supply-chain management. From a systems perspective, resilience has been defined as the “capacity for a system to survive, adapt, and flourish in the face of turbulent change and uncertainty.”

For communities and corporations, resilience implies preparedness and agility. At a national scale, resilience is closely linked with the security and sustainability of critical resources, including water, energy, food and minerals, and many valuable services that we receive from the environment.

A classic definition of a sustainable society is “one that can persist over generations, one that is far-seeing enough, flexible enough and wise enough not to undermine either its physical or its social system of support."

In practice, sustainability is both a goal and process. The goal is to balance economic development with protection of the environment and public health. The process for achieving this goal includes innovation in science and technology, adoption of a systems approach to management, development and application of comprehensive analytic tools and approaches, and flexibility in the enforcement of rules and regulations.

Although resilience is sometimes confused with sustainability, in fact they are complementary. Sustainability tends to focus on long-term goals and strategies, while resilience tends to focus on preparing for unexpected disruptions that may destabilize an otherwise sustainable system. Indeed, improving resilience is actually the first step on the journey to sustainability.

In today’s hyper-connected world, any strategy that relies on “steady-state” conditions will be challenged by chaotic external pressures and turbulent change. This is especially true today since the incidence of natural disasters is increasing, in part due to climate change. According to insurance giant Munich Re, in 2013 North America saw the world’s sharpest increase in the number of natural catastrophes during the past 32 years, a trend that appears to correlate with climate change. Other destabilizing pressures include global economic development, urbanization, natural resource scarcity and radical political movements.

Federal agencies, business leaders, academic and non-government organizations are moving to make sustainability and resilience a strategic national imperative.

A 2012 report of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, "Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative," issued a major recommendation:

“Federal government agencies should incorporate national resilience as a guiding principle to inform the mission and actions of the federal government and the programs it supports at all levels.”

And in January 2013, EPA in cooperation with the National Science Foundation, the National Council for Science and Environment, and the Dow Chemical EPA hosted a workshop on resilience and sustainability. Papers from this workshop are now highlighted in a special issue of the Solutions Journal. In a featured paper in this issue, "Resilience: Navigating toward a Sustainable Future," we argue for a systems approach that treats every crisis as an opportunity for adaptation to the “new normal” and for sustainability improvement.

Businesses are already responding to resilience. A recent Harvard Business Review paper by Andrew Winston notes that companies in the vanguard are beginning to make what he calls “the big pivot.” This represents a profound change in strategy, operations and business philosophy that will make organizations more resilient and help them create new value in a hotter, resource-scarce world.

“To be resilient, companies must transform their strategies in three ways," Winston wrote. "They must rethink their vision, embracing radical innovation and a long-term mind-set; redefine their valuation methods to account for unpriced costs and benefits; and pursue new kinds of partnerships to achieve goals beyond the reach of individual firms.”

In the decades ahead, the world will face daunting challenges. Population is expected to grow to 9 billion people, an increasing majority of whom will live in cities, and the pressures on natural resources will continue to mount. Sustaining a growing and vibrant economy will require transformative innovations in sustainable design, risk management, urban planning, industrial technology and environmental policy. The creative power of innovation is more necessary than ever to meet the challenges of reducing humanity’s global environmental footprint while alleviating poverty and advancing human rights.

Business and government must become stronger partners to assure synergies between environmental protection, economic growth and social equity. Better communication will be needed to help public citizens understand the complex linkages among these issues.

Looking ahead, we believe that a government–business partnership model should be based on the following principles:

  • Leverage advances in science, technology and innovation.

  • Promote resilient and sustainable business practices and solutions.

  • Collaborate across federal agencies and between business and government.

  • Enhance public understanding and support of sustainability as a priority.

  • Strive for consensus across political factions to enable positive action.

All sectors of U.S. society will need to work together to advance these principles, which are essential for assuring continued American prosperity and competitiveness. Becoming more resilient is the required path towards assuring a safe, secure and prosperous future for ourselves and future generations.