This section contains more details about the project, plus thinks pieces and other relevant material.
See course Wising Up to Super-Resilience here
What is Super-Resilience?
Most organisations and initiatives work with a concept of resilience that often means just recovery from detrimental change (disasters, crises, emergencies etc.) – a bounce back mentality. Some consider the next stage, which is to use resilience as a way to improve functions and to learn from coping with change to be better prepared when new changes occur – a bounce forward concept. Panarchy is a term that is often used to describe ecological types of resilience where complex systems adapt through cycles of change that improve or learn each time round – this term can be applied to socio-economic systems.
Adaptive resilience is defined as ‘the capacity to remain productive and true to core purpose and identity while absorbing disturbance and adapting with integrity in response to changing circumstances.’
Super-resilience is the ability to anticipate different futures, to be attuned to weak and early signals of possible change, and to prepare to adapt in the moment as changes appear – it is a constant state of readiness that appreciates that the actual future that unfolds will not have been anticipated and that the learning from previous events and actions is vital but inadequate to cope with the future and that learning comes from not just experience but from imagination. The ‘super’ aspect, meaning ‘above’, refers to placing resilience thinking in a whole system, long-term context by considering the interactions and interference of all the complex global issues that are shaping the world and that any local considerations of resilience are bound up in this flux of change and must make sense within them.
Super-resilience requires the capacity to respond positively, and adapt to exceptionally high levels of challenge, complexity and uncertainty. This capacity could arise from personal or group skills, from technology, organisation structures etc. It includes integrating the highest levels of resilience skills currently available (logistical, emotional, spiritual), and the ability to learn and invent responses to the unimaginable.
Super-Resilience for whom?
My exploration of this topic is through two related projects. One is Scanning our Future, research which I am funding and leading with Schumacher Institute. Our aim is to understand the likely pressures and upsides of the next 20-30 years, gather best practice in super-resilience, identify where innovation is needed, and find ways to share all this with our target client groups (see below).
The other is Wisdom Tree: a small team I have gathered to offer resilience training to a distinctive feature of our approach is working in and with Nature as a guide to human resilience. For both projects, the key client groups are individuals, communities, and front-line work teams, such as health, teaching, care, and other public services.
Super-Resilience to what?
This is a key question. The UK Government has done a lot of work on resilience, but defined narrowly as responding to sudden emergencies: natural disasters, terrorist attacks and so on. These are significant stresses, and sadly they’re growing, but there are many others, and new ones ahead in the future. Here’s a short list:
A 10-20 year outlook
Think of significant increased pressures in the past 5-10 years, and imagine them increasing a lot further:
– Political and economic disruption through cyber-attacks (cf the last US Presidential election).
– Further growth in refugee and migrant movements.
– Major and minor terrorist attacks in developed countries.
– Further rise in income disparities and the wealth of the uber rich.
– More frequent and extreme weather events.
– Ongoing cuts in public services, leading to some significant problems (such as Grenfell Tower).
Now add some new pressures:
– Rise in food prices, and occasional supply shortages.
– Frequent cyber-disruption of daily activities (banking, social media, mobile phone use).
– The ‘culture of cuts’ leads to a significant rise in disruption from strikes, walkouts, and protest actions, by both workers and service users (e.g. NHS patients, commuters).
– The NHS have to make major policy decisions on priorities, e.g. cease life-extending treatments for anyone over 80.
– Technological innovations become more radical, and seem to have a life of their own (driverless cars, genetic modifications), driven by business profit goals.
– More to come…
Dimensions of super-resilience
In Scanning our Future, we are exploring eight dimensions, each described in more detail in following sections. The first four are more outward facing and logistical, the latter four are more inward facing. The three asterisks show the top priorities for our work.
1. Practical resilience for individuals: including home, phone, transport, food and utility supplies.
2. Practical resilience for front-line service teams: including funding cuts, and handling client demands and service failures.
3. Practical resilience for local communities: shared resources and services, mutual support, handling emergencies.
4. Harnessing technology: tailoring it to real human needs, and handling its pressures.*
5. Physical health: help from diet, exercise, complementary medicine, etc.
6. Emotional intelligence: processing fear, stress and negative feelings; handling conflict with others; deepening emotional support.
7. Spiritual resilience: finding inspiration and direction in challenges; growing through any sense of helplessness and despair.
8. Learning, leadership and invention: crucial skills in cultivating super-resilience.
Practical resilience for individuals
Over the next decade, interruptions to basic services like mobile phones, electric power, internet, are very likely. Why? Causes could include severe weather, cyber-hacking, disruption to satellite systems, and more. Food shortages and major food price inflation, service cuts, economic downturn are a few of the potential issues.
The sensible steps could include a backup power-system; a stock of basic food; and getting to know your neighbours. Super-resilience could include all this and more, for example new, robust technologies for the home, local food processing technology, etc.
Practical resilience for front-line service teams.
Through Wisdom Tree programmes, I’ve been working with people from a wide range of front-line public services: most of them feel close to burnout, and horrified by the future outlook. This comment is typical: from a team manager in an NHS hospital, “we’ve had years of rising demands and shrinking resources. It’s reached a stage where the quality and resilience is being ground out of my team. There’s a high risk of staff burnout and service failures, and the future outlook is literally unthinkable.”
One of Wisdom Tree’s aims over the next year is to work with these services to explore what’s ‘beyond the beyond.’ Here are some guesses at what super-resilience may mean here:
– Mutual support: the best front-line teams I’ve seen have an outstanding quality of mutual care. There are ways that this could be deepened even more: for example through emotional intelligence and spiritual resilience.
– Pass-back to clients: one of the big stressors on front-line services is the rising number, severity and complexity of client needs they are trying to serve. I believe that ‘pass-back’ will become crucial in future: spelling out to clients the limits of the service they can expect, and providing them with information and support to do more for themselves. This is already happening in the NHS, for example.
– Handling service failures: these are likely to get more frequent and severe in future, and part of super-resilience will be the ability of service teams to live with such failures, and even grow through them.
– Vision and direction: a team who are inspired can work wonders. Super-resilience probably requires teams to be empowered with a greater say in the vision and direction of their work.
Practical resilience for local communities
Think about the pressures which local communities have had to face over the past ten years: public service cuts, floods, riots, and more. Transition Network and others have done a great job at building resilience at this level. My guess about super-resilience for future challenges include:
– Methods to maintain communication locally if phones stop working. Maybe a new technology, or old: remember walkie-talkies and notice boards?
– A deeper level of coordination to identify resources and the people who would need most help in an emergency.
– Further growth in local communities providing services and shared facilities for themselves as local authorities and others cut back, and professional skills, funding sources, etc. to enable this.
– Emergence of ways for communities to nourish their members on the emotional and spiritual levels, to deepen general resilience.
– Figuring out how to involve more members of communities: often it’s a minority of usual suspects.
When do you date the start of technology? Whether you choose the spinning jenny, the motor car, the computer, it’s always been a curse and a boon. Often it raises the speed and complexity of life, and hence our stress levels. There are dramatic changes coming our way soon: for example, pervasive micro-intelligence; robotics; biotechnology; and more. Within the next ten years, technologies will become a lot more indispensable, and even more able to manipulate/shape human feelings and behaviour (e.g. social media is an early example of this trend).
The risk is clearly that most of this technology will be used to boost corporate profits, whatever it may claim, and may deplete our resilience more than helping. The scope to harness technology as an aid to super-resilience is vast, but it may require alternative thinking and small social enterprises to achieve this.
It’s clear that our bodies were not designed for the lifestyle most of us lead, and the rise in stress-related illness is alarming. According to HSE (Health & Safety Executive), in 2015/16 stress accounted for 37% of all work related ill health cases. It’s also very clear that emotional and spiritual concerns are causing physical health problems – these are explored below.
The knowhow available to help us create physical super-resilience is huge, and it’s now quite easy to tailor this to any individual’s condition and needs. Diet and exercise are the obvious starting points, but sustaining super-resilience is likely to require sophisticated help from what might broadly be called complementary therapies, for example:
– Herbal remedies and supplements.
– Shiatsu, Pilates, kundalini yoga, and other ways to help the body process stress and sustain high energy levels.
– Sound healing, aromatherapy, and methods to achieve deep relaxation despite high stresses.
– Greater understanding and better antidotes to physical stressors such as air or water pollution, electromagnetic radiation and others.
It’s clear that the stresses and complexities of modern life, including its technologies, put more emotional strain on us. The book Your Brain on Nature cites medical research showing how hours with smartphones and computers keep us in a continual state of anxiety and make it hard to relax.
There are many methods already available to develop emotional super-resilience: the obstacles are people’s willingness to use them, and a need to offer them in more accessible forms. Here are some examples:
– Mindfulness, NLP and other ways to process negative emotions.
– Assertiveness, Non-Violent Communication, and other approaches to handle difficult feelings and conflicts between people.
– Time in nature as a key antidote to the stresses of ‘screen world.’ Some GP’s now write ‘green prescriptions.’
There’s also great scope for innovation, such as:
– Use of smart, micro, personalised technology, like a stress monitor that intervenes with help when you’re upset.
– Widespread use of sound, smell, images, etc., as quick ways to calm individuals and groups.
– Deeper integration of physical remedies (diet, herbs, exercise, etc) with emotional support.
I’ve been exploring resilience for five years, and I believe that the spiritual aspect is one of the hardest to discuss or explain, but it is vital in super-resilience. So what do I mean by spiritual? In his excellent book, The Power of Modern Spirituality, William Bloom poses three questions which can help you recognise the spiritual aspects already in your life:
• In what kind of circumstances do you most easily connect with the wonder and energy of nature and all existence, and feel your heart touched and your consciousness awakened?
• When is it easiest for you to retreat from activity, pause and reflect on your life, so as to manage your life and next steps?
• What are your highest values and how do you express them as a form of service for the community of life?
He goes on to suggest three behaviours at the heart of all spiritual paths, whether or not these fit within a named tradition:
• Connection – sometimes, surely, your heart is touched and you connect with the wonder and energy of life.
• Reflection – sometimes already, you pause and reflect on your life and actions, and ponder how to change and improve.
• Service – and sometimes, of course, you have a clear sense of what is right and what is wrong, and you act so as to do good for others.
The term spiritual does not mean religious. You may have a spiritual path, as defined above, without any beliefs in God or connection to established religions. If this all sounds alien or impractical, it’s worth saying that many research studies show that having spiritual values and practices of some kind does increase resilience generally, and physical health and recovery in particular.
As life gets more challenging physically and emotionally, a spiritual perspective can help us keep a sense of purpose, meaning, connection to the bigger picture. This is getting more crucial because of growing trends which can leave us feeling alone and overwhelmed in a nasty, pointless world: the deluge of global bad news in mainstream media, the shift from personal contacts to hours alone with a screen, and more.
There are plenty of role models and teachers of spiritual resilience. For example, the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu have lived through repeated traumas both personally and in their homelands, but meet life hopefully, as in their Book of Joy. Malala Yousafzai, the Afghan girl shot by Taliban is another inspiring example.
So what would super-resilience look like on the spiritual level? I’m still exploring this, partly through workshop groups. Here are some of the threads in my exploration:
The writings of American eco-philosopher Thomas Berry, who highlights the importance of dreams (visions of hope), and of changing our myths or prevailing beliefs. He highlights the amazing creative wisdom of Gaia, Planet Earth, in evolving through repeated crises, and the need for humans to align and connect with this.
Deep ecology, a process created by Joanna Macy, drawing from Native American and Buddhist sources. She believes that most people are pushed into denial and inertia because they can’t process their pain and despair about the state of the Earth. Deep ecology is a powerful way to do this, and involves the support of a group as a key element.
Using deeper ways to learn from Nature, and in Nature. Processes connecting us with the wildness and wisdom of Nature can be a powerful source of new insights and motivation.
Learning, leadership and innovation
It’s clear that a lot of the future challenges to our resilience will be unforeseen. This includes not only sudden events (storms, terrorism), but major ongoing changes (Brexit, Trump). So super-resilience requires the skills to learn fast, to invent when facing the unprecedented, to find information and resources quickly, and to collaborate with others in crisis conditions.
Super-resilience requires the ability to anticipate different futures, to be attuned to weak and early signals of possible change, and to prepare to adapt in the moment as changes appear – it is a constant state of readiness that appreciates that the actual future that unfolds will not have been anticipated, and that the learning from previous events and actions is vital but inadequate to cope with the future.
Learning comes from not just experience but from imagination. The ‘super’ aspect, meaning ‘above’, includes placing resilience thinking in a whole system, long-term context by considering the interactions and interference of the complex global issues that are shaping the world and that any local considerations of resilience are bound up in this flux of change and must make sense within them.
Want to know more?
www.wisdomtree.uk.net: for info on open workshops and tailored programmes
www.naturalhappiness.net: for details of Alan’s model of wellbeing and resilience based on natural systems, and signup for Alan’s monthly e-newsletter.