Image Credit: Ronnie Boehm - Contemporary dancer Sachi Cote (Detail)

The Verbs of Resilience

October 28, 02013

In the course of conversation with leaders, practitioners and critics, I sometimes encounter a set of questions about resilience thinking that unfold along the following lines:

Resilience (of the right things) seems self-evidently valuable, but is it more than a buzzword? If so, how do we put it into practice? What exactly do we do for people, systems and organizations to help them become resilient? And how do we measure the progress of our efforts?

These are trenchant questions. If resilience is to have real and lasting utility, we need models for it that can guide action, that can be rigorously characterized, implemented and measured and that are portable (within reason) from one circumstance to the next.

Before proposing any such model, however, we must acknowledge a complicated semantic mess. Today, the term “resilience” is used in a number of different, and sometimes conflicting ways: first, to signify a cultural and personal value in the society at large (one with a presumed, particular resonance in the American psyche); second, as a neutral property of systems and people (a usage that suggests that a given characteristic might be perversely resilient as much as positively so); and finally, as an affirmative goal in the face of risk, in domains as diverse as urban planning, climate adaptation, organizational design, psychology and disaster response, to name just a few. Amid this thicket of sometimes-divergent, sometimes-overlapping contexts, parties often use the same words to mean different things, and different words to mean the same thing.

To avoid confusion, we must carefully situate ourselves, and declare and limit the scope of our interests. Suitably, in this essay I’ll be referring to resilience in the “property of systems and people” context noted above, to describe the (mostly) beneficial ability to persist, recover or even thrive amid disruption.

Below is a simplified model of resilience, inspired by principles articulated by the Danish systems researcher Erik Hollnagel, that decomposes the concept into four, concurrent clusters of verbs — the things that constitute the “doing” of resilience. The clusters are focused on building regenerative capacity, sensing emerging risks, responding to disruption, and learning and transformation. Whether in a city, a group of neurons, a social-ecological system, a community or even a person, resilience is often found in context-specific variations of these activities.

Like any high-level framework, the above model sacrifices some nuanced truths for broader ones. It is not intended to express every detail, but to help us to explore common processes, linkages, metaphors and tradeoffs found in many circumstances.

This model posits moderate disruptions as a necessary, if painful mechanism by which systems are tempered, adapt, learn and reorganize. A resilient system isn’t one in which failures never occur; it’s one in which disruptions engender a healthy response one which enables a system to “bounce forward” as much as bounce back. It is further assumed that there are epistemic constraints – limits to what we can know and prepare for in advance – and that surprises are inevitable, and that we’ll make mistakes.


Image Credit: John Constable - Clouds (Detail) 1822 National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Poetry in the Cloud

September 16, 02013

The artist Doris Mitsch is best known for her gorgeous, super-high-resolution scanner-based images of natural subjects like flora, birds nests and sea creatures. These are not photographs in the traditional sense, but an alternative way of capturing images, as both the scanner lens and light move over the object to produce a composite with luminous, ‘impossible’ lighting conditions. (Disclosure: I am the happy owner of several of these.)

Now, Mitsch has assembled an equally remarkable work of poetry, entitled I’m Searching For Something So Undefined: Poetry Found in the Cloud, which seems perfectly in tune with the digital zeitgeist. I say ‘assembled,’ rather than ‘written’ because she didn’t actually write a single line of these compelling pieces. Instead she knit them together from found fragments of online content, all derived from Google searches – like the title pieces, I’m Searching / Je Cherche / Ich Suche, and None of My Jelly-Roll, I Ain’t Gonna Give, both of which you can read by clicking below:


I'm Searching

I’m Searching / None of My Jelly Roll, I Ain’t Gonna give (Click to Enlarge)


Each line of the first poem was extracted from the roughly 57,600 results Google returned for the phrase “I’M SEARCHING FOR”. Each line of the second was extracted from 514 search results for “AIN’T GONNA”.

Knowing the manner of composition encourages the reader (this one, anyway) to continuously flicker between three modes of reading: first, considering each line individually – wondering about its original author and context; then, collectively, as some expression of the ephemeral, “Internet moment” from which all the lines derive; and then finally as an entirely new poetic construction, with its own cadence and meaning. In some ways, reading these poems feels a lot like using the Internet itself, as our surfing yields hobbled-together brief constellations of meaning, cobbled together from vast patterns of inchoate data.

Most ‘data art’ takes the form of algorithmic arrangements of pixels on a screen – a medium that is so new the tools to produce it are still being invented. Mitsch’s poems, by contrast, manage to embed the Internet in one of our oldest artforms, yet with results that are no less revelatory.

You can (and should!) buy a copy of I’m Searching for Something So Undefined, along with the several other beautiful books by Doris Mitsch, available on Blurb.

Image Credit: Cy Twombly, Untitled (Roses) Gaeta, 2008

The Qualified Self

August 26, 02013

My colleague Robyn Brentano at the Garrison Institute recently shared a Buddhist parable with me, which is retold in the book Eight Steps to Happiness by the renowned teacher, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso:

In Tibet there was once a famous Dharma practitioner called Geshe Ben Gungyal, who neither recited prayers nor meditated in the traditional posture. His sole practice was to observe his mind very attentively and counter delusions as soon as they arose. Whenever he noticed his mind becoming even slightly agitated, he was especially vigilant and refused to follow any negative thoughts. For instance, if he felt self-cherishing was about to arise, he would immediately recall its disadvantages, and then he would stop this mind from manifesting by applying its opponent, the practice of love. Whenever his mind was naturally peaceful and positive he would relax and allow himself to enjoy his virtuous states of mind.

To gauge his progress he would put a black pebble down in front of him whenever a negative thought arose, and a white pebble whenever a positive thought arose, and at the end of the day he would count the pebbles. If there were more black pebbles he would reprimand himself and try even harder the next day, but if there were more white pebbles he would praise and encourage himself. At the beginning, the black pebbles greatly outnumbered the white ones, but over the years his mind improved until he reached the point when entire days went by without any black pebbles. Before becoming a Dharma practitioner, Geshe Ben Gungyal had a reputation for being wild and unruly, but by watching his mind closely all the time, and judging it with complete honesty in the mirror of Dharma, he gradually became a very pure and and holy being. Why can we not do the same?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this story lately, as I’ve been undertaking a learning journey with an iPhone app called Expereal.

The program is a sort of 21st-century update on Gungyal’s pebbles, intended to promote self-reflection. Once installed, at regular intervals throughout the day, Expereal asks you a simple question:

“How are you feeling right now?”

In response, you turn an onscreen dial, providing a subjective rating from 1 to 10. As you move your finger, a corresponding inkblot grows in size and color on the screen, from a subdued blue dot to a bursting crimson splash. (The precise meaning of these kinesthetic ratings is left for you to decide.)

Your responses can be further annotated with notes and photos detailing where you were when you made them, and with whom. Expereal also allows you to chart your assessments over time, and (of course!) compare yourself to friends and fellow users:

The app owes much to its conceptual forebears, like designer Nicholas Felton’s personal “annual reports”, in which he details various aspects of his experiences and interactions with people over the course of a year, and to various other Quantified Self efforts.

But there is something qualitatively different here, and it starts with nature of the question itself. How often do we actually, genuinely attend to our own feelings? (An A-type New York friend joked, “I can’t do that and keep living here.”) How often do we seriously ask others how they’re feeling, or get asked in return? Once a day? Once a week? And how well do we remember how we were feeling last Tuesday? Last month? Last year? Like the inky stains on the wineglasses after a party, these countless subjective states have somehow left their traces in us, but who can remember the taste?

Unfortunately, being given the opportunity to answer the question doesn’t necessarily mean that one will do a good job actually answering it, especially at the beginning. The first hundred or so times Expereal asked me how I was feeling, my assessments were the kinds of superficial ones you might respond with if a stranger asked you on the street: “I’m fine.”,All good.”, “Frustrated by a supermarket line.” Reviewing my answers after the first few weeks, it dawned on me: I had been politely lying to my smartphone.  There’s a humbling moment.

So I recommitted to answering the question less glibly. How was I feeling right now?

The ‘real’ answers were harder to get to, and often more surprising when they arrived. Much of the time, I didn’t really know what I was feeling – it was hard to pin down what largely felt like an ephemeral mishmash. Expereal rarely found me living in the present moment – usually, my mind was occupied with a chorus of distant concerns or distractions. In the middle of a conversation, Expereal made me realize I wasn’t listening at all to my partner, or to myself, at all – I was just waiting, bored and impatiently, for my turn to speak. Ouch.

Pushing past such uncomfortable observations meant taking a short break, and attending more carefully and more holistically. And with practice I got better. I began to observe that whatever I was feeling, I was rarely feeling it just in my mind, it was in my body, too. – not just my hands, but my posture, the way I held my frame. I was reminded of a wonderful PopTech talk by the Irish designer Orlaugh O’Brien, about her project “Emotionally}Vague”, in which she collected and overlayed hundreds of people’s self-reported drawing of where they felt various emotions in their bodies:

The aggregate picture that emerged in the project is striking. People reported that anger was ‘felt’ in the head and hands, while love, by contrast, was felt all over. “Anger is a force, love is field,” said O’Brien.  I certainly found the same.

More subtly still, I began to see how much of my own cognition was enactive, inextricably bound up in loops of perception and action, intimately connected to the systems that govern every modern life, including ones I had invented and taken on for my own purposes. The taxi, the railway station, the flickering of a neon light, the obligations to family and profession and countless other systems, objects and ideas all cycle through me continuously, leaving their stain, shaping my cognition and sense of self, in ways I had rarely attended to in the moment.

Answering the “How do you feel right now?” question over and over again has had other effects as well. It’s encouraged at least a little more generosity in me, made me modestly more likely to ask others how they are feeling, and ready to attend more carefully to the answers. Attending builds awareness, and awareness in turn is the pretext for empathy, generosity and equanimity.


Expereal is available on iTunes for free. You can read an interview with its creator, Jonathan Cohen, here. Note: a Facebook login is required to use the program. 

Image credit: Liftoff of Vega VV01

The Birth of a Meme

August 9, 02013

Google’s N-gram viewer allows you to watch the prevalence of certain words or phrases among the vast library of books that the company has been digitizing. As such, it’s a powerful tool for seeing patterns in our culture – so much so that it’s become a basic tool in the new field of culturomics, the computational analysis (and prediction) of human culture through the analysis of large-scales bodies of texts.

For example, use of the term resilience has more than doubled since 1990. More interestingly, here the graphs for five terms: ecological resilience, economic resilience, psychological resilience, community resilience, and social resilience:

You can literally watch the meme being born. (And a shoutout to my friend and colleague Charles Rutheiser for this idea.)

Image credit: The Richat Structure

Urgent Biophilia, Kairotic Time, and Sacred Space

July 22, 02013

One of the pleasures of my work is having regular contact with a community of thinkers whose collective interests wend (albeit in a eclectic way) through various tributaries of the contemporary arts and sciences.

When different constituents in this network start pointing to the same thing, it’s a pretty reliable proxy for its significance, or at the very least its interest. So it seemed more than kismet a few months ago when three unrelated colleagues pointed me to recent work by ecologist Keith Tidball at Cornell University, specifically his work on “urgent biophilia”.

Tidball’s contribution is a nuanced expansion of the term first introduced by E.O. Wilson in his 1984 landmark book, to express humanity’s innate preferences for living things, the “connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life”:

From infancy we concentrate happily on ourselves and other organisms. We learn to distinguish life from the inanimate and move toward it like moths to a porch light. Novelty and diversity are particularly esteemed; the mere mention of the word extraterrestrial evokes reveries about still unexplored life, displacing the old and once potent exotic that drew earlier generations to remote islands and jungled interiors …

To affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in mental development. To an extent still undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its currents.

Tidball elaborates on Wilson’s original concept of biophilia, connecting it to our response to disasters. He suggests that catastrophes may stir within us a vital instinct to reengage with nature, in ways that restore not only the environment, but also ourselves:

… when humans, faced with urgent disaster or hazard situations, when individuals and as communities and populations seek out doses of contact and engagement with nature to further their efforts to summon and demonstrate resilience in the face of a crisis, they exemplify an urgent biophilia … [T]he affinity we humans have for the rest of nature, the process of remembering that affinity and the urge to express it through creation of restorative environments, which may also restore or increase ecological function, may confer resilience across multiple scales.

Such an instinctive turn toward nature after disaster might initially strike one as counterintuitive.  After all, there might not be any such thing as a ‘natural’ disaster, but many catastrophes feature significant ecological disruption. It seems just as plausible that, in the wake of such tumult, people might turn away from nature, expressing a kind of ‘urgent antibiophilia’.

Yet, in my own conversations with people in disaster-affected areas around the world, engagement with the natural world often surfaces as an important part of the post-disaster healing process. In New Orleans, after Katrina, a woman described how she and her neighbors planted trees throughout their neighborhood, both as a symbol of their own commitment to place, and (in a spirit of defiance and solidarity) to assert new ecological ‘facts on the ground’. A tornado victim from Joplin, MS told me he replanted tomatoes almost immediately after the tornadoes, “just to have living things around”.

In these, and countless other similar encounters, the conversation is almost never about dominance or reasserting control over nature, but rather about communion, consolation, recovery, and the restoration of coherence. One often hears synonyms for words like awakening, reckoning, correction, redemption, rebalancing, and even liberation through the disaster event.

For understandable reasons, the dialogue around disasters rarely exceeds a tally of what has been lost, harmed and broken. Almost never do we speak about broader cognitive and spiritual shifts that sometime attend such disruptions, out of an understandable fear of diminishing what has been often horrifically rent apart.

Yet for some (certainly not all) of those in a disaster-affected community, the period after a disruption can be one of profound, even peak significance. The loss of the usual signposts of life that attend a catastrophe can also liberate us from social norms and expectations, freeing us to think and act in new ways, surprising even ourselves. Amid the sorrow and confusion that follow any disaster, some people in affected communities experience a deepened sense of meaning and purpose, of increased agency, possibility and commonweal. Connections to place, to community, and to nature intensify, becoming more vivid and more sacred. Individuals can find themselves slipping into an entirely different kind of time, called kairotic time – not the chronological time of days, but closer to the psychological time found in novels – measured by the internal psychological progress of its protagonists, through a series of dilemmas and contradictions, toward a moment of resolution and purpose. In kairotic moments, the subjective experience of time itself is enlarged and its meaning is transformed. A Haitian colleague once told me that the earthquake “crucified her old life and set her free in her new one”. The choice of words hardly seemed accidental.

What is true for individuals seems likely true for communities as well. If the preexisting bonds of trust and solidarity are sufficiently strong, the post-crisis moment can be one of collective imagination and creative possibility, liberated from at least some prior constraints.

It seems likely that these aspects of human nature – our urgent biophilia and the possibility of post-crisis kairosis – are intertwined and mutually reinforcing.  If that’s true, it suggests that ecological engagement and the design of restorative environments have critical roles to play in building community resilience in both the short and long-term.

Indeed, that’s the very premise of the Landscapes of Resilience project, led by Tidball, as well as Erika Svendsen and Lindsay Campbell, social scientists with the U.S. Forest Service, working with TILL, a landscape architecture firm in Newark, NJ, and others, supported by the TKF Foundation. The Landscapes project will collectively envision, design, build and measure two “open and sacred spaces” in Joplin, MS and New York City – places of ecological engagement, remembrance, shared stewardship, and psychosocial restoration. (In undertaking this work, the team would do well to connect with Milenko Matanovic and his colleagues at the Pomegranate Center, who have developed deep expertise in designing exactly these kinds of spaces with communities.)

Regardless of its outcomes, this project touches on important, and often under-appreciated aspects of our response to disruptions. First, the connections between our mental health and the natural environment are integral and profound, and need to be respected as a key enabler of the resilience of any community. Second, the cognitive, spiritual and social dimensions of disruptions take time to unfold, and should not be measured solely by what has been lost, but understood in much broader, longer-term and potentially transformational terms. And finally, the post-crisis moment may offer a unique window for positive intervention in a social-ecological system – one that we should be prepared for with the right tools and processes to help communities ‘bounce forward’ and not merely recover.