Leading Sustainable Organizations
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The term “resilience” has taken hold in the sustainability community over the past several years as a way to talk about responding to the anticipated next phase of environmental, economic and social change. In this view, change — especially climate change — is not likely to be incremental or predictable. And being prepared demands a strategy that is less focused on mitigating risk than designing for it.
Stephen Flynn, professor of political science at Northeastern University and Senior Research Fellow at the Wharton School’s Risk Management and Decision Processes Center, recently spoke at the Volpe National Transportation Center about the need for resilient design in critical infrastructure like bridges, highways and energy grids. Flynn is an expert on transportation and infrastructure security issues who takes a systems view of risk and resilience. He’s agnostic about the sources of risk to infrastructure: they could come from accidents, nature, economic decisions that affect maintenance, or malicious intent.
“It takes years to build most of these things, and they’re around for a long time. Waiting until we’ve identified a threat is too late,” he said. “We need to take risks into account at the design stage, and build for resilience.”
The focus of any organization concerned with resilience should be on whatever assures the continuity of business operations and the systems in which they’re embedded. “9-11 was a real wake-up call,” Flynn said, noting that businesses and supply chains were disrupted in ways few had foreseen or prepared for. “Companies that get knocked down and don’t get back up quickly enough often see that vulnerability reflected in their market share.”
The attributes of a resilient system include robustness, or the ability to absorb shocks and continue to operate; resourcefulness, being able to manage a crisis as it unfolds; rapid recovery, the ability to get services back as quickly as possible; and adaptability, being able to learn from experience and incorporate lessons learned to improve resilience.
In many cases, organizations will need incentives to build resilience into their processes, operations, and business models. One key indicator, Flynn suggested, is insurance.