When Donald Horne described Australia as the 'lucky country', he wrote not praise but a warning.

Building Better: From Risk to Resilience

by Lesley Seebeck

When Donald Horne described Australia as the 'lucky country', he wrote not praise but a warning. It's easy to confuse one's brilliance and decisions with simple luck. Luck has a long tail in Australia's case, but—Horne's point— we cannot rely upon luck. Better to look at the attributes of survival and success. Research tells us that commitment, determination and effort—grit—is a much more telling indicator.

Indeed, across history, grit is a recurring constant: in Australian forces at Gallipoli, in Londoners during the Blitz, in Russians at the Battle of Stalingrad. Of course, the final decade of the 20th century was coloured more by victory and its rewards, but grit, and the more comprehensive term, resilience, has made something of a comeback since 2001. In good part, that's because we've realised some risks are hard to control in an increasingly complex world. Terrorism, flood, drought, fire, cyber-attack and pandemics have proven persistent threats.

With the announcement last Budget of a significant package of measures, resilience has reached the level of policy tagline. However, given resilience has been cast as a response to risks, it's worth considering both a little further.

Risk itself is a means of thinking about the future. It's the anticipation of catastrophe.  In classical times, risks emerged from nature outside human control—acts of gods or Ides of March. Peter Bernstein argues that recognising and managing risk has shaped modernity using probability theory, insurance, and trading stock options. More recently, our understanding of risk and catastrophe has changed. No longer are they externally driven; now, with nuclear weapons, terrorism, cyber and climate change, we think of risks as being primarily generated from within or by our own 'risk society'.  

This latter understanding of risk considers human activityitself as problematic. That's a shift: seeing people as the main problem,needing to be controlled, is a hallmark of authoritarian states. Traditionally, it's been much less the case in liberal democracies. Yet, the response of governments of all persuasions has been to strengthen state power, whether for terrorism, cyber, or pandemics.  That's not been without cost to democratic freedoms, to trust in institutions, to economic burdens, to a blurring of our differences in ideological competition.  

So, we can welcome a shift to the language of resilience.  For one thing, it is less fearful of the future—resilience typically emphasises adapting, 'bouncing forward', not simply 'bouncing back'. It enables opportunity and agency.  

True, resilience has its limits—we wouldn't want to rely only on resilience as a counter to high-risk, high-consequence threats, for example, just as we would not rely on simple luck.  Nor is it cost-free. Typically, resilient critical systems allow graceful failure as a pressure valve to avoid sudden catastrophe. Assumptions of breakdown are built-in, with provisions for back-ups, alternate communication paths, excess capacity, and additional checks and balances. Resilience, done well, requires a degree of 'give' that's often antithetical to ideas of speed, convenience and efficiency in the modern economy and bureaucracy.  In resilient systems, decision-makers need to tolerate more frequent, if more minor, failures as the price of avoiding less frequent but larger ones.

Because resilience is an emergent property of the whole system and its experiences, there's no single switch that one can flick to make an organisation more resilient. Quick fixes may trigger unintended consequences, while vanilla compliance checklists offer a false sense of security.  

In short, resilience is open-ended and a wicked problem.  It's defined when tested, is subject to the evolving views of participants, and not amenable to a one-size-fits-all approach.  It is also inherently political: the implementation method can affect individuals and organisations' well-being and relative power.

Resilience has much to recommend as a policy goal.  But without constant testing, learning and adjustment, programs that promote resilience risk being little more than one-off grants, potentially reinforcing the status quo and decreasing adaptability. Thus, a resilience program could include a range of ways of testing and preferably strengthening resilience.  

Trying to enforce resilience without buffering, redundancy, extra checks, and bandwidth resilient systems and behaviours won't work. Instead, clarity around priorities—efficiency, compliance, convenience, speed, security, user-centredness, schedule, adaptation—help shape the decisions that can promote resilience.  

Last, resilience as a policy offers the opportunity for building better outcomes—every crisis provides opportunity. However, resilienceis not inherently democratic.  Resilience programs must be inclusive and ensure equitable treatment, particularly those directly affected by outcomes.  Else, resilience will become just another dried out, empty policy husk, and our society the worse for it.


Dr Lesley Seebeck


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