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Linking Resilience Thinking and Transformative Change: Taking Development Debates to a New Level

16 Aug 2017

Linking Resilience Thinking and Transformative Change: Taking Development Debates to a New Level
This contribution is published as part of the UNRISD Think Piece Series Linking Resilience Thinking and Transformative Change, launched to coincide with the Resilience 2017 Conference, Resilience Frontiers for Global Sustainability, hosted by the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Resilience Alliance in Stockholm, Sweden in August 2017. In this series, experts discuss examples of policy reform and their potential to foster transformative change and social-ecological resilience for sustainability. The series contributes to a better understanding of the political processes underlying a range of policy approaches and reforms, and aims to inform global policy debates about the kinds of change processes that promote sustainability and resilience. It complements the UNRISD panel organized at the conference.

In this opening think piece of the Linking Resilience Thinking and Transformative Change series, Dunja Krause sets the scene for UNRISD’s engagement with the policy and scholarly debates on resilience, highlighting the link to UNRISD’s definition of transformative change put forward in its 2016 Flagship Report Policy Innovations for Transformative Change. The piece introduces the key concepts of resilience and transformation used throughout the series, highlights useful links between them, and concludes by outlining some policy implications of resilience thinking for transformative change.

Dunja Krause is an Associate Expert in the Social Dimensions of Sustainable Development programme at UNRISD.

With little time left to tackle the paramount challenges of climate change and rapid environmental degradation, we are seeing increasing numbers of strategies, programmes and projects for climate change mitigation and resilience. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is triggering additional policy responses and huge aspirations for resource mobilization to support developing countries in their efforts to combat climate change. But beside the proliferation of policies and programmes, there is also a growing body of evidence that these responses often fall short of their stated objectives or apply a narrow framing and short-term thinking that actually undermines resilience to climate change in the long run (Adger et al. 2011; Funder et al. 2015).

Making policy responses work for both people and the planet is the core challenge of the current international development agenda. What is often missing, however, is a clear analysis of how the interlinkages between social and environmental systems shape the outcomes of policy interventions and influence resilience across different scales (from the local community to the national, regional and global). In this series of think pieces, scholars present a variety of examples of how socio-environmental challenges are being addressed, and the extent to which responses build resilience and foster transformative change. The contributions discuss cases that range from local, community-based approaches to national policies and international law. In the spirit of interdisciplinarity and breaking down silos that characterize both the 2030 Agenda and UNRISD work, this first piece introduces readers from social development disciplines to the concept and thinking of resilience, and introduces the UNRISD definition of transformative change to the resilience community.

Resilience as a development buzzword

The use of the term “resilience” has spread from its traditional applications in ecology and psychology through many different scientific disciplines. More recently (see Folke 2016) it has been taken up in global policy documents for sustainable development, with the need for building resilience recognized in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Addis Ababa Action Agenda, Paris Agreement on climate change, Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and New Urban Agenda. These agreements use the term normatively and—apart from the Sendai Framework—specify neither what exactly is meant by resilience nor the governance and policy implications of building it. Overall, resilience has a positive connotation when it is used in the context of development; it is seen as a desirable state of being able to adapt to shocks and withstand harm in the face of crisis.

However, this use of the term resilience may give rise to policy responses that address external shocks (such as climate change impacts) by fighting symptoms rather than tackling root causes. This runs the risk of promoting approaches that address drought or flood impacts, for example, but do not challenge the status quo which keeps putting the poorest and most vulnerable people at greatest risk. Attributing to resilience a positive connotation linked to robustness overlooks key aspects of the concept and falls short of both its potential and the transformative aspirations of the 2030 Agenda.

Resilience thinking goes beyond palliative approaches

The concept of resilience, and “resilience thinking”, is much richer and has the potential to inspire more than the palliative interventions to which it seems to be relegated by its latest use in global policy documents.1] Resilience thinking starts from a perspective of humans-in-nature: it sees inextricable links between social and ecological systems, which are complex and non-linear, characterized by feedback loops and uncertainty (see Berkes et al. 2003). Resilience thinking acknowledges that changes in ecological systems will impact social systems and vice versa. It accounts for the dynamic nature of social-ecological systems, and searches for ways to navigate them in ways that safeguard or improve social development and well-being within planetary boundaries. Resilience thinking thus goes beyond a narrow framing of resilience as the ability to withstand shocks. It looks at both the adaptability and the transformability of social-ecological systems as properties that influence resilience at different scales and at different levels of governance (from the local community to the national, regional and global) (Folke et al. 2010). Resilience thinking thus enables the distinction between the capacity to maintain a system in its current state (adaptability) and the capacity to deliberately create a new and more desirable system (transformability) (see Walker et al. 2004). This distinction can help identify parts of a particular social-ecological system where transformation is preferable to the status quo (or resilience in the narrow sense). Resilience, in this line of thinking, is intrinsically neither good or bad. [

Adaptability and transformability are needed for resilience

Strengthening adaptability is a dominant focus of many policies that seek to protect communities, ecosystems and the built environment against external shocks such as natural hazards and climate change. In the case of climate change, however, adaptability will not suffice to ensure social-ecological resilience at the global scale. Preventing the global climate system from tipping into a catastrophic state will require fundamental changes in systems of production and consumption at the regional, national and local levels, for example. Transformability at one scale may thus be needed in order to build resilience at another. This holds true not only for ensuring ecological resilience, but also for overcoming the economic systems that reproduce untenable conditions of poverty and social inequalities. In the case of climate change, profound and fundamental change will occur inevitably. The degree of systems’ transformability, however, will determine whether it is deliberate transformative change geared towards a desirable outcome, or the imposed result of a collapsing climate system.

Policy makers and development practitioners would do well to take more from resilience thinking than the need to strengthen social-ecological systems’ adaptability in the face of shocks. Indeed, the systems perspective of resilience thinking is helpful for analysing interactions between society and the environment, and for better understanding the interlinkages between different levels of governance—both of which are key for achieving the 2030 Agenda. So what can bridge the gap between the analytical advances in resilience thinking and the narrow way the term is used normatively in policies and practice? Building blocks include the notion of transformability in resilience thinking, the vision and aspiration of “transforming our world” expressed in the 2030 Agenda, and a definition of transformation that is specific about both desirable outcomes (such as sustainability, inclusion and empowerment) as well as processes to achieve them.

What UNRISD brings to the debate

UNRISD’s approach to transformative change outlines normative cornerstones for desirable transformations to sustainability and equity, with a focus on the processes needed to overcome unsustainable and inequitable practices. Bringing a social-ecological systems approach to resilience into dialogue with this UNRISD approach to transformative change can provide the development community with the tools to identify and strengthen the transformability property of resilience policies and practices, thereby moving them towards transformative change that is desirable and respects planetary boundaries. And because it is grounded in a strong evidence base from over five decades of research on power relations and the politics of change, the UNRISD approach to transformative change can help overcome the common critique that power dynamics are absent from many of the resilience debates.

Transformative change, which tackles the root causes of poverty, inequality and environmental destruction, can be driven by innovative policies that are grounded in normative values of social justice and environmental sustainability, and that are forged through inclusive political processes, equitable forms of partnership, multilevel governance reforms, and increased state capacity. It requires changes in social structures and relations, including addressing the growing economic and political power of elites, and patterns of stratification related to class, gender, ethnicity, religion or location that can lock people into disadvantage and constrain their choices and agency. It involves changing norms and institutions, both formal and informal, that shape the behaviour of people and organizations in the social, economic, environmental and political spheres. Because transformation processes are inherently social and political, they are prone to divergent views of what is desirable and necessary in terms of changes in policies and practices. Examining processes, policies and outcomes through an eco-social lens, as suggested in the UNRISD Flagship Report, is a way to support inclusive decision making for deliberate transformations towards social and environmental sustainability.

Policy implications of resilience thinking for transformative change

All too often, responses to socio-environmental challenges provide short-term solutions but undermine resilience in the long term. Adger et al., for example, studied nine regional policy responses to climate variability and change and found that “[i]n a majority of the examples, local and linked ecosystems are being actively undermined through efforts to address perceived climate risk” (2011: 763). Such results may arise when national or regional interventions are at odds with local sources of resilience. A classic example is the promotion of large-scale biofuel production to reduce dependency on fossil fuels. While aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate global warming, such policy incentives have led to large-scale land use changes and monocultures, as well as land grabbing (Fairhead et al. 2012). These practices erode crop and biodiversity, increase soil degradation, and have led to social exclusion (Bastos Lima 2012). In short, they have undermined local resilience.

Applying the insights from resilience thinking to the challenges of rapid environmental degradation and climate change helps situate specific policy interventions in broader social-ecological systems, and account for the dynamics of these interventions at different scales. In this way it can help identify appropriate strategies and policy responses that bring about desirable transformations where required without undermining long-term resilience. Linking resilience thinking and the UNRISD approach to transformative change can support decision makers in assessing whether they should focus their interventions on adaptability, transformability or a combination of both in order to achieve the sustainable development outcomes they seek through fair and transparent processes.


Adger, W. Neil, Katrina Brown, Donald R. Nelson, Fikret Berkes, Hallie Eakin, Carl Folke, Kathleen Galvin, Lance Gunderson, Marisa Goulden, Karen O'Brien, Jack Ruitenbeek, and Emma L. Tompkins. 2011. “Resilience implications of policy responses to climate change.” WIREs Climate Change, 2:757–766. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/wcc.133

Bastos Lima, Mairon G. 2012. An Institutional Analysis of Biofuel Policies and their Social Implications: Lessons from Brazil, India and Indonesia. Social Dimensions of Green Economy and Sustainable Development, Occasional Paper No. 9. Geneva: UNRISD. www.unrisd.org/publications/bastos-lima

Berkes, Fikret, Johan Colding, and Carl Folke, eds. 2003. Navigating Social-Ecological Systems. Building Resilience for Complexity and Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fairhead, James, Melissa Leach, and Ian Scoones. 2012. “Green Grabbing: a new appropriation of nature?” The Journal of Peasant Studies, 39(2): 237-261. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2012.671770

Folke, Carl. 2016. "Resilience." Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science.

Folke, Carl, Stephen R. Carpenter, Brian Walker, Marten Scheffer, Terry Chapin, and Johan Rockström. 2010. “Resilience Thinking: Integrating Resilience, Adaptability and Transformability.” Ecology and Society, 15 (4):20. http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol15/iss4/art20/

Funder, Mikkel, Ian Christoplos, Esbern Friis-Hansen, Lily Lindegaard, and Adam Pain. 2015. Making the Green Climate Fund Work for the Poor. DIIS Policy Brief, Copenhagen: Danish Institute for International Studies. https://www.diis.dk/files/media/documents/publications/pb_green_climate_fund_web.pdf

Olsson, Per, Victor Galaz, and Wiebren J. Boonstra. 2014. “Sustainability transformations: a resilience perspective.” Ecology and Society, 19 (4):1. https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol19/iss4/art1/

Walker, Brian, Crawford S Holling, Stephen R. Carpenter, and Ann Kinzig. 2004. “Resilience, Adaptability and Transformability in Social-Ecological Systems.” Ecology and Society 9 (2):5. http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol9/iss2/art5/

UNRISD (United Nations Research Institute for Social Development). 2016. Policy Innovations for Transformative Change. Implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Geneva: UNRISD. www.unrisd.org/flagship2016

1 There is a rich literature on the resilience of social-ecological systems to environmental hazards and climate change. See, for example, Folke 2016; Folke et al. 2010; Olsson et al. 2014.

Photo: UNMEER/Martine Perret (CC via Flickr); Rodion Kutsaev (Public Domain via Unsplash)


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.