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What can nature tell us about improving our resilience?

Robert Hall, Executive Director of Resilience First 


During the 1970s resilience took on a distinct biological connotation. It was interpreted by ecologists as the ability of habitats to adapt to external changes and pressures over a long period.

Within reasonable bounds, forests, for example, can adapt to a constantly changing environment through the mix of tree species and the density of leaf cover.

The notion of sustainable ecosystems can also been seen in animal groups like ant and bee colonies. In such nests, insects can recover from considerable disruption by collaboratively working together to enact rapid repairs, irrespective of the cause of that disruption.

In fact, biological organisms have, over millennia, been able to respond to significant change without planning, predicting or tying their responses to complex threats. They simply adapt to solve the challenges they continually face. Hence, their success.

This is the theme of book entitled Learning from the Octopus: How secrets from nature can help us fight terrorist attacks, natural disasters and disease (Rafe Sagarin, 2012).

The author shows how human adaptability can mimic natural adaptation. The same mechanisms that enable an octopus to escape predators can be used to ward off infectious disease or deal with new terrorist threats.

This is a much better approach than that of reacting to past events and trying to predict future risks which “˜will only waste resources in an increasingly unpredictable world’.

Sagarin also argues that ‘decentralised and distributed organisational systems are much better at adapting and thriving in nature’.

This is because multiple agents provide more opportunities to identify threats, there are more chances to have specialised agents carry out tasks so that energy is not wasted, and they can respond selectively in real time rather than being uniformly paralysed by events.

At the human level, the brain itself reveals two important facets of resilience.

The left side of the brain performs tasks that have to do with logic such as in science and mathematics, while the right side has the more creative parts of our behaviour.

Resilience requires the same combination: the mechanical or “˜hard’ skills such as policies and procedures to provide direction and rules, while also having the more personable or “˜soft’ attributes of trust, learning and experience to cope with vital inter-relationships.

Using another human characteristic, our immune system is a great example of resilience by adapting to assaults from various unexpected microbes, manufacturing antibodies to destroy those invaders and then learning from the experience by boosting resistance in order to meet a similar future invasion. That’s why we generally overcome diseases.

While we may never be able to predict the next disaster, as Sagarin reveals, nature can guide us in developing our resilience so that we are not purely reactive but proactive, holistic and adaptable. 


For further reading, please visit our Knowledge Hub.


Photo by Peter Lloyd on Unsplash

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