Strategies for Resilience: Before You Save the World, Prepare to Save Yourself
by Wayne Visser
Wayne Visser (South African, born 1970) is an author, social entrepreneur, speaker, researcher, and lecturer in future-fitness, sustainability, corporate social responsibility, and purpose-inspired business. He is director of the think tank consultancy Kaleidoscope Futures, founder of CSR International, Chair of Sustainable Business at the Gordon Institute of Business Science in South Africa and a Senior Associate at the University of Cambridge.
The world has this nasty habit of changing without our permission; in fact, without us having so much as poked it in the eye. And so we – as individuals, organisations or whole nations – often find that we are no longer the agents of change, but rather its victims. Change happens! And we are left somewhere between mildly irritated and battling for our very survival.
According to Business Week, the average life expectancy of a Fortune 500 company is between 40 and 50 years. One-third of the Fortune 500 companies in existence in 1970 had vanished by 1983 – acquired, merged, or broken to pieces. Looking across the full spectrum of companies, large and small, the average life of companies may be as low as 12.5 years.
Can we really afford to talk about long-term sustainability, when short-term survival is so hard to achieve? The sobering fact is that we face a future in which saving the world may have to wait, while we save ourselves first. Chances are, we will even have to give up the smooth and swanky practice of sustainability, while we get down and dirty in the trenches of rough, rude resilience.
The bad news is that our silky green spandex outfits are probably not going to survive the trip. The good news is that resilience can be learned and planned for in advance. In a world of increasingly volatile sustainability challenges, there are five strategies for resilience that can dramatically increase our chances of survival when the waves of disruptive change come crashing in. They are to: defend, diversify, decentralize, dematerialize and define.
A defensive strategy can take on many forms, the most obvious of which is to insure against catastrophe, whatever form that may take. This only works if the crash is not systemic, but it is a good start. Other tactics include having a crack-squad of trouble-shooters trained to respond in times of crisis, and building up reserves for the proverbial rainy day, which may turn out to be a tsunami.
A diversification strategy applies to people, products and markets. For example, if you bet your corporate life on being a fossil fuel company, rather than an energy company, or if you are locked into a local market without any global investments, you are highly vulnerable. Likewise, if you hire an army of clones, your lack of diversity will leave you brittle in the face of change.
A decentralization strategy is based on the same rationale that inspired the Internet. By decentralising information and building in redundancy on local servers, the Internet is far less vulnerable to being ‘taken out’ in a single hit. In the same way, by decentralising operations, infrastructure and solutions – as with decentralised energy for example – we can be better prepared to cope with disruption.
A dematerialization strategy means moving to an industrial model that reduces dependency on resources. The only viable way to do this in the long term is to shift to renewable energy and to optimise the circular economy. Hence, anything we can do to decouple economic growth from environmental impacts is a step in the direction of greater resilience.
A defining strategy is about giving people a purpose to believe in. Victor Frankl, survivor of four Nazi concentration camps and psychiatric author of Man’s Search for Meaning, gives compelling evidence that our resilience under extreme circumstances often comes down to having an existential belief about something worth living for. Can sustainability offer us this compelling cause?
By pursing these five resilience strategies, individuals, organisations and even countries will be much better placed to endure the creative destruction to come. However, preparing for change is not the same thing as surviving it. Resilience is not a strategy, but an ability – one which is shaped and tempered in the fire of extreme experience.
At its heart, this ability to be resilient is about adapting when everything around us is changing – like an aspen tree. Aspen forests are able to survive frequent avalanches that literally flatten them. The trees survive and spring back up because they have an interconnected network of underground roots and their trunks and branches are highly pliable.
The key message is that the secret to transformational change in the world is connectivity and dexterity. After all, Darwin never claimed that the fittest would survive, only the most adaptable.