Jun 05, 2012

Designing for Resilience

Sarah Brooks's picture
Sarah Brooks
Director, Social Innovation

Earlier this month I had the privilege of co-presenting at SOCAP’s “Designing the Future” conference in Malmö, Sweden.

SOCAP, or Social Capital Markets, brings together social entrepreneurs, philanthropic funders, and impact investors dedicated to increasing the “flow of capital toward social good.” Back in September 2011, I led the Design for Social Innovation track at the SOCAP11 conference in San Francisco, and several others from Hot Studio set up drop-in consulting.

This time around I was joined by David McConville, President of the Buckminster Fuller Institute, and Mauricio Apablaza, from Oxford University’s Poverty and Human Development Initiative. Our talk focused on the idea of designing for resilience.

Concepts of resilience exist in the fields of physics and psychology. But our talk focused on a different, more holistic understanding of resilience; one that considers the capacity of systems—be they social, cultural, economic, or ecological—to deal with change and continue to develop, using disturbances to catalyze renewal, novelty, and innovation. In other words, how do systems respond to change, and how can they be improved by disruptions?

This aspect of resilience incorporates several different disciplines, notably the sciences and design, and stresses the interconnectedness of things and the way big systems work together. My co-presenters and I believe resilience has the capacity to fundamentally alter how human beings approach problem-solving on a global, systemic level.

One of the prime movers in the space has been the Brooklyn, New York-based Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI). Dedicated to continuing the work of the groundbreaking designer, inventor, and polymath Bucky Fuller (known for his geodesic dome, dymaxion car, among many, many other things), the BFI works to forward initiatives that fuse science and design. For the past several years, the BFI has sponsored the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, an annual design competition that awards $100,000 to support the “development and implementation of a strategy that has significant potential to solve humanity's most pressing problems.”

An example of resilience at work can be seen in the 2011 winner of the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, Blue Ventures, which leveraged marine biology to solve socio-economic problems in Madagascar. For years, indigenous coastal communities had been overfishing their main crop, octopus. As a result, octopus populations declined, forcing fishermen to become more desperate in their hunt for the eight-tentacled mollusks. It was a vicious cycle: the more they fished, the poorer the villages became.

The marine biologists from Blue Ventures proposed a simple, yet thoroughly counterintuitive solution: they told the fishermen to stop fishing for a few months during the octopus mating cycle, in order to give them a chance to repopulate. For communities already on the brink, the suggestion was risky to say the least, but bore immediate fruit. The replenished octopus population yielded the most fruitful harvest in memory. By working in harmony with the ecological system of the sea, Blue Ventures was able to improve the health of the economic system in Madagascar (without having to inject a single dollar of foreign aid or investment into the system).

Projects like Blue Ventures, and many others, speak to the enormous potential of resilience. In attempting to further the dialogue on this topic, David McConville and I looked at many successful projects that have incorporated ideas of resilience, and attempted to devise a set of design principles that could help people design projects and systems that incorporate resilience. We wound up with a dozen:

1. Open collaboration

Design across disciplines; integrate multiple perspectives; move beyond specialization, silos of excellence, and pillars of power.

2. Everything is (g)local

Solve problems and solutions in context, with particular knowledge; map capabilities and understand needs; combine explicit and tacit knowledge; gain trust through mutual respect and commitment to the community.

3. Scope before scale

Consider the implications and limitations of pursuit of scale; draw wide enough margins that the failure of one solution does not imply the impossibility of another; solve for whole systems.

4. Relationships are everything

Understand existing relationships; cultivate necessary relationships; build on interconnections and interdependencies; be inclusive with stakeholders; recognize and acknowledge partners.

5. Find the “trimtab”

This was one of Buckminster Fuller’s favorite expressions. The trimtab is a very small component in the steering mechanism of ships and planes that exerts tremendous control over the vehicle as a whole. It is a leverage point within an entire system.

6. Make the invisible visible

Visualize hidden patterns and interconnections; make assumptions and intentions explicit.

7. Be intimate with context

Immerse yourself in the environment you want to affect; increase healthy symbiosis; anticipate future trends and needs; understand change within oneself and within a locale.

8. Solve for patterns

Learn to see in wholes and solve problems systematically, not symptomatically; emulate nature’s principles, including flexibility, redundancy, and decentralization; improve the balances, symmetries, and harmonies within a pattern.

9. Fail gracefully

Design for short feedback loops between design, implementation, and analysis; iterate, again; make sure failures don’t make things progressively worse.

10. Attract, don’t force

Reform the conditions on the ground, don’t attempt to reform humans; go for the precessional effect; build a new model that makes the old one obsolete.

11. Stay humble

We can never know it all, and reason is not our savior; uncertainty is ever-present, as is ignorance as it concerns the ultimate consequences of our attractions; acknowledge the limits of knowledge.

12. Listen to intuition

A gut feeling is an intelligent thing; make friends with mystery.

Of course, these principles are just the first steps toward a fuller, more impactful application of designers’ skills and thinking to the kinds of systemic problems that resilience hopes to solve. The journey continues this June, when the next winner of the Buckminster Fuller Challenge will be announced. We’re curating resilience design resources on Scoop.it and Pinterest. And in April of next year, I’ll be hosting Compostmodern, a conference organized around the theme of resilience.


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