Volume 6, Number 3 – September 2009

Building Resilient Communities: Some Initial Thoughts

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For many American communities, the past few years have been filled with almost constant change.   Unfortunately, most of the change has been unwelcomed.  Communities like New Orleans and Galveston have been devastated by natural disasters.  Meanwhile, places like Detroit have been hit by equally devastating economic disasters.  Few places have been spared by the current economic downturn.

Whenever disaster strikes or business cycles go south, community leaders vow “Never Again!”  Yet, as they turn to rebuilding and restructuring, they never really commit to that vow.  The understandable desire for quick results tends to trump more long-term thinking about how to build a resilient community for the long haul. 

If there’s one silver lining from the current downturn, it’s this:  communities appear to have more interest in resiliency.  Much of the thinking on this topic originates in research on how communities can better anticipate and react to natural or man-made disasters.   More recent writings have more an economic or business focus, as leaders grapple with responses to the economic downturn. 

There is a lot of activity around these issues—in the US and across the globe.   For example, in 2000, the World Bank set up the Provention Consortium, which has subsequently published dozens of helpful resource guides on disaster prevention and recovery.  In Canada, the Center for Community Renewal has been promoting its concept of community resilience since 1998.  Similar efforts have been underway for some time in Australia and New Zealand.

The US is something of a late-comer to these discussions, but a number of interesting projects are underway.  Oak Ridge National Laboratory is operating a Community and Regional Resilience Institute.  In addition, many research centers focused on issues of homeland security are also developing new approaches to promoting community resilience.  Finally, many organizations committed to localism and “buying local” also seek to better understand community resilience concepts.

While there’s lots of interest in the concept of community resilience, there’s no single agreed upon definition.  And , there’s no consensus on all the steps required to achieve resilience.  However, a couple of things do appear to matter.  Experts in fields as diverse as disaster prevention and recovery, homeland security, and economic development seem to generally agree that resilient communities share the characteristics of being participativeconnected, and adaptive.   These types of communities will be better positioned to adapt to changing economic circumstances, or to more immediate natural or man-made disasters.

What do these terms mean in practice? And, specifically, how can or should they relate to economic development activities? Participative communities are those with healthy social networks where citizens can easily and effective engage in community decision-making.   If we want to build more resilient communities, we need to get more people involved in local decision-making.  In fact, researchers with British think-tank, Demos (www.demos.co.uk), have argued that governments should set a goal of having at least 1% of the population directly involved in decision-making.

Connected refers to the presence of strong networks where citizens and businesses can regularly interact with peers, learn from one another, and do business together.  From an economic development perspective, the growth of new types of business networks, such as San Diego’s CONNECT or North Carolina’s Council for Entrepreneurial Development, are examples of cases where these connections have made invaluable contributions to local prosperity.  New models of open innovation also capitalize on the growing importance of these network-based organizational models. 

Finally, resilient communities are adaptive. Communities with more open participation and strong connected networks are better able to adapt to change.   From a pure economics standpoint, California’s Silicon Valley would likely rank high on any measures of adaptability.  Over the past several decades, the region has faced numerous downturns—from defense downsizing to the dot-com crash to our current downturn.  Yet, it has always been able to “reinvent” itself in response.  The reinvention process is underway again, and it’s taking an interesting form with the region becoming more focused on environmental sustainability and resilience.  For example, the most recent benchmarking reports produced by Joint Venture Silicon Valley (www.jointventure.org) place special emphasis on the region’s ability to manage workforce transitions and to respond to the impacts of climate change.  We can expect other communities to follow suit with their approaches to climate prosperity.

As this brief review likely suggests, there is a lot of interesting thinking and research underway on the broad topic of community resilience.  Some of the ideas are half-baked, some are still emerging, and some contain real insight and inspiration.  While future directions are somewhat unclear, it is clear that community resilience is going to become a more important part of the economic development profession.  The question is:  will we grapple with these issues now or wait for another disaster or economic downturn?

Other Resources:

What’s New at EntreWorks Consulting?

  • On June 16, 2009, EntreWorks’ Erik Pages testified on “Equity Capital in Rural America” before a meeting of the US House of Representatives Rural Caucus.
  • This Fall, you can find Erik speaking at several other venues:
    • Pennsylvania Council for International Education, Harrisburg, PA:  October 2
    • Virginia Business Incubation Association, Staunton, VA:  October 27
    • Economic Development Institute, Indianapolis, IN:  November 11
    • International Economic Development Council Training, “Technology-Led Economic Development,” Baltimore, MD:  November 1