Over the past decades, few concepts have gained such prominence as resilience, the capacity of a system to deal with change and continue to develop. There has been an explosion of research into ways to promote or undermine the resilience of various systems, be it a landscape, a coastal area or a city. However, the multitude of suggested factors that enhance resilience has led to a somewhat dispersed and fragmented understanding of what is critical for building resilience and how an understanding of these factors can be applied.

Applying resilience

A resilience approach to sustainability focuses on how to build capacity to deal with unexpected change. This approach moves beyond viewing people as external drivers of ecosystem dynamics and rather looks at how we are part of and interact with the biosphere – the sphere of air, water and land that surrounds the planet and in which all life is found. One of the main ways in which people depend on and interact with the biosphere is through their use of different ecosystem services, such as the water we use for cooking and drinking, the crops we grow to nourish ourselves, regulation of the climate and our spiritual or cultural connections to ecosystems. People also change the biosphere in a myriad ways through activities such as agriculture, and building roads and cities. A resilience thinking approach tries to investigate how these interacting systems of people and nature – or social-ecological systems – can best be managed to ensure a sustainable and resilient supply of the essential ecosystem services on which humanity depends.

This publication is a popular summary of the book “Principles for Building Resilience: Sustaining Ecosystem Services in Social-Ecological Systems”, published by Cambridge University Press (2014). Both these publications reviewed and assessed the different social and ecological factors that have been proposed to enhance resilience of social-ecological systems and the ecosystem services they produce. They present a set of seven principles that are considered crucial for building resilience in social-ecological systems and discuss how these principles can be practically applied. The seven principles are 1) maintain diversity and redundancy, 2) manage connectivity, 3) manage slow variables and feedbacks, 4) foster complex adaptive systems thinking, 5) encourage learning, 6) broaden participation, and 7) promote polycentric governance systems.

In the following pages, each principle is presented along with an example of how it has been applied. Of course, there are no panaceas for building resilience. Indeed, all the principles presented here require a nuanced understanding of how, where and when to apply them, and how the different principles interact and depend on one another. Before applying any of the principles, it is essential to consider what you want to build resilience of, and to what (e.g. fires, floods, urbanization). Simply enhancing the resilience of the existing ecosystem services in a landscape can entrench and exacerbate inequalities, such as where poor urban communities suffer the effects of flooding caused by agriculture or forestry activities on privately owned land upstream. Important trade-offs exist between different ecosystem services (e.g. crop production and biodiversity), and it is not possible to enhance the resilience of all ecosystem services simultaneously. With these caveats in mind, the seven principles provide guidance on key opportunities for intervening in and “working with” social-ecological systems to ensure that they remain resilient and able to provide the ecosystem services needed to sustain and support the well-being of people in a rapidly changing and increasingly crowded world.