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Understanding resilience

Despite these different perspectives, the concept of resilience is fairly straightforward. Here are some initial definitions that we can work with.

Resilience is understood to mean:

The ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate, adapt to, transform and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions through risk management. (UNISDR 2016) The ability of an individual, a community or a country to cope, adapt and recover quickly from stress and shocks caused by a disaster, violence or conflict. Resilience covers all stages of a disaster, from prevention (when possible) to adaptation (when necessary),and includes positive transformation that strengthens the ability of current and future generations to meet their needs. (European Commission 2019)
A society’s ability to resist and recover easily and quickly from such shocks and combines both civil preparedness and military capacity. Robust resilience and civil preparedness in Allied countries are essential to NATO’s collective security and defence. (NATO 2018) The ability to reduce the magnitude and/or duration of disruptive events. The effectiveness of a resilient infrastructure or enterprise depends upon its ability to anticipate, absorb, adapt to, and/or rapidly recover from a potentially disruptive event (National Infrastructure Advisory Council 2009).
The ability of a system, entity, community or person to withstand shocks while still maintaining its essential functions. Resilience also refers to the ability to recover quickly and effectively from catastrophe and the capability to endure greater stress (Lloyd 2014) The ability of a system to withstand or quickly recover from significant disruption (McCreight 2011)

While the final quote isn’t a formal policy, it does help capture the essence of what it’s all about. It could be said that it’s better if things bend but do not break. And if they do break, they should be easy, cheap and quick to fix.

The definitions of resilience contain many variable characteristics and key word associations often dependent or framed by domain specific conditions. These alternatives involve an orchestrated combination of tasks, strategies, technologies, activities, plans and innovative concepts which are focused on enabling society to resist, absorb, withstand and recover from a variety of external and internal threats to its existence.

These threats encompass many potential events including:

  • Ordinary disruptive events (such as periodic weather emergencies)
  • Catastrophic unitary crises such as earthquakes, solar geomagnetic storms and killer tsunamis
  • Massive targeted terrorist and cyber-attacks
  • The normal inherent risks of collapsed and failing social infrastructural systems
  • The concurrent risks of cascading concurrent and cataclysmic system errors (note Japan’s Fukushima quake that led to a tsunami and a nuclear disaster)
  • Accidents affecting a wide area of the population (accidents based on system failure or human error)

In each case, a contingency approach is needed to calibrate the risk of these events, measure society’s innate capability to respond, recover, and establish a mechanism that goes beyond simple degrees of emergency preparedness and response.

However, it should be recognised that the term contains many elements and levels of complexity. It spans societal and governmental boundaries ranging from families, to the governance of nations and the collective welfare and stability desired in the community of nations.

Your task

Do you think we can become resilient to all risks?

Share your thoughts and explain your answer in the comments.


Lloyd, R. (2014) Building Resilience: An Opportunity to Create Shared Value [online]. available from https://www.sharedvalue.org/groups/building-resilience-opportunity-create-shared-value [11 July 2019]

United Nations (2016) Report of the Open-Ended Intergovernmental Expert Working Group on Indicators and Terminology Relating to Disaster Risk Reduction [online]. available from https://www.unisdr.org/we/inform/publications/51748 [11 July 2019]

European Commission (2019) European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations - Resilience [online]. available from https://ec.europa.eu/echo/what/humanitarian-aid/resilience_en

NATO (2018) Resilience and Article 3 [online]. available from https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_132722.htm

National Infrastructure Advisory Council (2009) Critical Infrastructure Resilience Final Report and Recommendations [online]. available from https://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/niac/niac_critical_infrastructure_resilience.pdf [11 July 2019]

McCreight, R. (2011) ‘Introduction to Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Special Issue’. Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, 8 (2) [15 July 2019]

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This article is from the free online course:

Foundations in Resilience, Security and Emerging Technology

Coventry University