When was the last time you heard the term Resilience? Was it when you took high school physics class? Unless you have a job of planning for worst possible circumstances, you rarely even confront the term in day-to-day usage. Even talking about resilience probably feels morbid, like buying life insurance or planning your will.
Thinking resiliently: are ducks are flood-proof chickens?
[SOURCE: © PopTech, used according to Creative Commons License]
1: the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress
2: an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change
Engineers think a lot about resilience. They design their systems to be resilient so their airplanes and spacecraft, and a company’s Internet services keep functioning even when equipment fails, which it will do. For example, a typical Internet data center has redundant Internet connections and redundant electric power suppliers, in addition to on- premise power generators, just to keep running. Consider Netflix outage last Christmas Eve as an example of a failure of resilience. How many kids didn’t get to watch It’s a Wonderful Life, violating generations of family traditions?
Example of designing triple redundancy in subsystem B.
[SOURCE: Wikicommons, public domain image.]
Economic Resilience Is Not the Same As Economic Efficiency
In a data center, you need duplicate systems. In a spacecraft, you might want as many as three or more redundant systems. In a large national economy, such as the United States, you would want many ways of doing business to create resiliency. However, short-term economics doesn’t favor redundancy. It’s seen as a waste – overhead dragging down return. You can achieve greater efficiencies and higher margins with fewer channels, less fragmented markets.
Healthy competition in market economies is a form of economic resilience.
[SOURCE: © 2009 AvidlyAbide, used according to Creative Commons License]
In capitalism, resiliency is competition. You don’t have business waiting in reserve – they are all actively competing for opportunities in the market. However, when competition is reduced to a few or even none, as in an oligarchy or monopoly, suddenly you in a non-resilient system. Their customers are serviced by one or a few tightly integrated companies, with a single set of offerings and pricing, with one supply chain. Consider a few examples:
- Lose one automaker and the supply chain no longer sustains itself.
- The banking sector is now one tightly integrated system. Lose one Too-Big-to-Fail (should be called “just too big”), the whole system crashes down.
- A significant percentage of the world’s goods and components, are manufactured in China. A war, economic collapse, or other interruption in that part of the world will significantly affect the economy the rest of the world.
Resilient thinking isn’t just for engineers or economists. It’s also a personal mindset, one that two industrial revolutions employing human capital have whittled away from the population. Apply this thinking to yourself and your neighborhood:
- How many income streams do you have, and what happens if you lose your largest one?
- How many kinds of investments do you have if one class such as real estate or stocks, or both, were to crash, such as in 2008 or worse?
- How many employers are available in your neighborhood, if the largest one were to go out of business, or move to another city or country?
- How many grocery stores service your neighborhood, and how do you and your neighbors get food if the largest one were to go out of business?
Putting eggs in more baskets prevents against failure of the single basket, and spreads wealth between basket makers.
[SOURCE: © 2007 CCarlstead, used according to creative commons license]
Resilient Thinking is Different From Survivalism
When you encounter thought leaders in community resilience, such as John Robb, you might feel like you are reading about survivalists preparing for a forthcoming zombie apocalypse. Resilient thinking, however, is simply a different perspective. By asking the question, “how could I survive or even flourish if the worst case happened?”, you actually uncover low hanging fruit and new opportunities for enhancing your lives, and those in your neighborhood.
You can see the difference in mindset in two regions:
- The formerly extremely successful auto capital of the US, Detroit. It’s failure of resiliency stemming from overdependence on a single industry was perfectly showcased when Fox 2 news reporter Charlie LeDuff golfed the length of the city:
Published on Jul 3, 2012
Fox 2’s Charlie Leduff sets on a mission to golf from 8 Mile Road to Belle Isle, in a attempt to learn more about the city and it’s citizens. What he discovers is that the citizens are stranded on an island with little or no city services. Hope is slowly fading and so are the people.
- Silicon Valley, which has weathered several downturns over its history, the most recent in the post dot.com bubble when not only consumer Internet companies crashed, but simultaneous bubbles in enterprise software, and chips also popped. Some might say that Silicon Valley is just another Detroit waiting to happen, but I would argue The Valley isn’t just a single industry, but a several, with a prolific tendency to disrupt old industries and create new ones.
Much of the recent work of Silicon Valley has been disrupting industries, displacing entire classes of workers, both management and line workers. This is simply a dismantling of old 20th century structures. It is in the tools of this dismantlement that we can also find opportunities to develop our own resilience.
So with a new resilient mindset, how might we think about the subjects posed above?
- Automakers – how could auto companies turn into design companies? How might proprietary platforms turn into open source platforms where many small companies could compete for providing the best add-ons and modifications, or inventing the next breakthrough platform? How could assembly be brought local instead of centralized?
- Banking – for those that want stability of their finance, how can money be brought local for investment locally, with savings from shareholder and executive overhead spent locally?
- Manufacturing – “making stuff” is a sector that will continue to undergo disruption with technologies such as robotics and 3D printing, and related industries such as transportation and logistics continuing to be strained by volatile fossil fuel prices. How can local companies ensure their ability to provide goods to their customers given an almost certain future of supply chain and logistics disruption?
- Income streams – what other skills or enterprises do you own that can generate income, especially value beyond your hourly work?
- Investments – what kinds of assets do you own that have their own intrinsic value as opposed to derived or leveraged value?
- Area employers – how many customers in different kinds of industries do employers in your area service? Having multiple employers that supply the same industry sector isn’t much better than having a single regional employer.
- Food – how is local food production encouraged? Easy enough for me to ask in California, an agricultural powerhouse state with a fair climate, but there are creative ideas in places such as the Chicago suburbs.
I don’t pretend to have answers to all the questions above. The reason why so many of us have lost skills and the incentive to already be addressing above questions is because technology and efficiency of global providers have optimized away opportunities that previous generations had. However, these same technologies are now available to you, the individual. The tools available to us individuals are more powerful than what big companies have available today, and this is causing significant consternation to companies with 20th century command and control management.
The Maker Culture is Creating New Resilience
Billboard advertising hacker spaces in Silicon Valley.
So the trick is learning how to use these new technologies and find new opportunities for personal and local resilience. I’d like to introduce you to a rapidly growing movement called the Maker Movement. In a nutshell, the thought goes like this: are you sitting at home, only consuming other company’s ideas, or are you out making the world better by creating, adding to, and spreading ideas? All over the country these maker spaces or hacker spaces are sprouting up. Here in Silicon Valley – I can learn new manufacturing techniques, get classes on latest software and hardware techniques, or even learn how to hack the DNA of an E. coli bacterium.
So, do I practice what I preach? When I first learned about the Maker Movement through my colleague Mark Finnern, I realized I needed a new outlook. Since that time, I’ve started becoming involved in meetup groups such as the Silicon Valley Entrepreneurs, going out of my way to participate in hackathons whenever possible, and advising, new ventures such as the Instagreen project organized by vTricity. On that latter note, I can’t wait till the day we can reveal how Instagreen can help all of us and our neighborhoods increase our resiliency. Soon, very soon…