A new language of resilience

cput-design-sydelle-0390-Large-800x600How can we move from the derailed ‘development’ train to adopt a system of ‘resilience’? By integrating it into our culture and language, says Ezio Manzini.

Widely regarded as one of the world’s top design thinkers, Ezio Manzini was speaking at a recent “Cultures of Resilience” seminar held by the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). Virginia Tassinari from the MAD Faculty in GenkEdgar Pieterse of the African Centre for Cities and Ashraf Jamal from CPUT also spoke.

Behind the buzzword

According to Ezio, although the word resilience has been with us for centuries, it became a buzzword after theFukushima Tsunami in 2011. Not only was this a catastrophic event and the whole world watching but, because it was happening in a country that is perceived to be the epitome of rigour and control, it highlighted how fragile human systems are, particularly in the face of increasing climate change.

What brought the resilience buzz to the global conversation however, was Hurricane Sandy in New York in 2012. Although not as catastrophic, the fact that it was happening in New York made it very real to mass media. This also linked the word to the economic crisis, so that ‘resilience’ has come to be applied to more than climate and physical challenges, but also financial resilience.

What both these and other events highlighted is that the future is increasingly unforeseeable and the fallout radically more severe. Our ecosphere is fragile, said Ezio, and to make errors is human. We have to find a way to face the unforeseeable future that maintains the condition of life; more importantly, a good life.

In technical terms, Ezio described a resilient system as having:

  • A diversity of possibilities: Because we don’t know the future, diversity is a precondition and assurance on the future.
  • Some redundancy: To be able to choose different paths based on what the future throws us, the quality of coexistence gives the system fluidity and ability to change shape.
  • Feedback into the system: The capability to respond to and learn from messages from environment, changing direction if needs be.

The end of development

This is a dramatic departure from the current system based on the European tradition that human beings are at the centre of the universe, there is order behind chaos, and if we study and research enough, we will have progress, development (the structural changes needed to make progress possible) and economic growth (the resources for development to make progress possible).

However, Ezio pointed out, although the notion of progress dates back to the 18th century, the notion of development only dates back to about 1945, after the Second World War, when people started thinking that wellbeing should be brought to everyone, “like a train”. Development was simple, clear and successful – after all, we still talk about it today. It has become part of our perception and the way that we frame the world.

However, in an increasingly resource-scarce world with unpredictable challenges and complexities, the train is being derailed. Ezio quoted Wolfgang Sachs:

The last 40 years can be called the age of development. This epoch is coming to an end. The time is ripe to write its obituary… The idea of development stands like a ruin in the intellectual landscape… Development is much more than just a socio-economic endeavour. It is a perception which models reality, a myth which comforts societies, and a myth which unleashes passions.

Professor Ezio Manzini outlined the contrasting approaches of development – that wants to control, optimise, be effective and come up with big solutions for big problems – with that of resilience – that is about being error friendly, acceptable and adaptable, and considers the biggest problem to be the need to come up with smaller adaptive projects.

New words make new minds

So how can we not only redesign our worlds, but our mental states? We need new words to model reality, and the words must “fulfil human tension for improvement”. That is, Ezio feels that the words of sustainability – reduce, use less, be quiet, be conservative – goes against the human spirit.

Drawing from a workshop that Ezio had conducted with faculty members and postgraduate students of CPUT, the presentation showed how through the four steps of word generation, word clustering, writing texts and, finally, new word generation had identified three words:

  • Togetherness: Progress as enriching human relationships through individuality, connectivity and inter-dependence.
  • Acting: Progress as increasing diversity and redundancy by being active, allowing for differences, conflicts and suppleness.
  • Reacting: Progress as safe spaces for experimentation, thereby encouraging learning, incremental change and jazz-like improvisation.

Culture refers to our cumulative deposit of knowledge, beliefs, values, time, roles, relationships, etc, said Ezio. That is, culture is how we imagine ourselves in the world and what we think our role in the world is. We all talk from the culture to which we have been socialised. Can these words help us reimagine ourselves and our roles to model a new reality of resilience, rather than development?

Published by the Cape Town Partnership, 9 October 2014