Is systemic change the same as increasing resilience?

I blogged before about the systemic change work I did last year. Recently, I have been reading up a bit on resilience and resilience thinking and was stricken by the similarity of the thinking between that field and what we have come up with as a way to see systemic change in market systems.

In the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science, Folke defines resilience as follows [1]:

Resilience is having the capacity to persist in the face of change, to continue to develop with ever changing environments.

Or in other words:

Resilience is about cultivating the capacity to sustain development in the face of expected and surprising change and diverse pathways of development and potential thresholds between them.

In our paper on systemic change [2], we write that

Systemic change is most likely to be achieved when influential actors or networks of actors become aware of how change happens, and their role in realising the evolutionary potential of the economy. These influential actors need to develop the capability to engage in, collectively discover and continuously shape their institutional landscape.

Saying that systemic change is about actors in the system need to develop the capability to engage in, collectively discover and continuously shape their institutional landscape is nothing else but to say that the system actors need to cultivating the capacity to sustain development in the face of expected and surprising change, als Folke puts it.

To illustrate this idea, we use the example of how to make economic systems more inclusive, where we say that:

By implication, it is not sufficient for a development programme from outside the system to improve market access for a particular target group of beneficiaries, like micro / small enterprise, marginalised women or people living in poverty. Rather, the aim should be for the relevant actors in the system to become able to recognise that some groups are left out or that some negative patterns are repeating and react to that.

Again, the focus on increasing inherent system capability to recognise what is going on and react to it – also in the face of change, both expected and unexpected.

In our research paper, we suggest seven principles for economic development programmes who attempt to achieve systemic change. There is a striking parallel with seven principles that were developed for policy makers to building resilience socio-ecological systems [3,4]. Our seven principles and the ones from resilience thinking field are compared in the table below (thanks Liza Van Der Merwe for pointing out this similarity!).

7 principles for resilient ecosystem services
(from [4])
7 principles for market system development
(from [2])
P1: Maintain diversity and redundancy. In a social-ecological system, components such as species, landscape types, knowledge systems, actors, cultural groups or institutions all provide different options for responding to change and dealing with uncertainty and surprise. P3: Strengthen variety by embracing diversity. Building up a repertoire of ideas, modules and concepts that can be tried in different combinations makes it possible for actors to design novel responses to unexpected situations.
P2: Manage connectivity. Connectivity can be both a good and a bad thing. High levels of connectivity can facilitate recovery after a disturbance but highly connected systems can also spread disturbances faster. P2: Shift from market failure to market fitness. Markets, where different economic actors connect, should be used as enablers of a decentralised search and discovery processes to nd ideas and solutions that work.
P3: Manage slow variables and feedbacks. Social-ecological systems can often be “configured” in several different ways. In other words, there are many ways in which all the variables in a system can be connected and interact with one another, and these different configurations provide different ecosystem services. P4: Create and maintain situational awareness. It is critical for actors engaged in economic development to be aware of what is happening around them. This awareness is central in a process of continuous exploration, learning and adaptation.
P4: Foster complex adaptive systems thinking. In order for us to continue to benefit from a range of ecosystem services, we need to understand the complex interactions and dynamics that exist between actors and ecosystems in a social-ecological system. Management based on ‘complex adaptive systems thinking’ that appreciates these interactions and the often complex dynamics they create can enhance the resilience of social-ecological systems. P5 Manage the complicated and explore the complex. Complicated and complex situations need to be approached differently. Complicated situations can be managed, complex situations need to be explored because outcomes are not predictable.
P5: Encourage learning. Knowledge of a system is always partial and incomplete and social-ecological systems are no exceptions. Efforts to enhance the resilience of social-ecological systems must therefore be supported by continuous learning and experimentation. P6: Strengthen organisations that encourage and support self-discovery. In well-functioning economies, so called meso organisations support or shape all kinds of economic transactions. Central to the effectiveness of these organisations is their ability to detect patterns at the level of enterprises and consumers, interpret them and respond accordingly. This requires an on-going process of learning and adjustment within these organisations.
P6: Broaden participation. Participation through active engagement of all relevant stakeholders is considered fundamental to building social-ecological resilience. It helps build the trust and relationships needed to improve legitimacy of knowledge and authority during decision making processes. P1: Shift from changing allocation to enabling evolution. Instead of trying to fix selected under-performing market functions, market systems programmes should adopt an evolutionary approach to promoting inclusive economic change. This process requires relevant local actors and their networks to actively lead a process of exploration of what is possible to shape the evolution of their economy.
P7: Promote polycentric governance. Polycentricity, a governance system in which multiple governing bodies interact to make and enforce rules within a specific policy arena or location, is considered to be one of the best ways to achieve collective action in the face of disturbance and change. P7 Continuously link top-down and bottom-up development. Top down is when new ideas are introduced in an autocratic or controlled way, immaterial of which level of a hierarchy, organisation or society it originates from. Bottom up is about participation, about democracy and about collectively choosing between alternatives. Development practitioners need to understand how top down and bottom up can be connected and better integrated.

There is still room for interpretation and the principles could be matched differently (for example, our P4 “Create and maintain situational awareness” could also be matched with Biggs’ P5 “Encourage learning”). But I still find it striking that the thinking behind it let to such similar results.


[1] Folke, C. 2016. Resilience (Republished). Ecology and Society, Vol. 21(4):44.

[2] Cunningham, S. and M, Jenal. 2016. Rethinking systemic change: economic evolution and institution. The BEAM Exchange. (Available online as longer Technical Paper or brief Discussion Paper.)

[3] Biggs, R., Schlüter, M., Biggs, D., Bohensky, E. L., BurnSilver, S., Cundill, G., … & Leitch, A. M. 2012. Toward principles for enhancing the resilience of ecosystem services. Annual review of environment and resources, Vol. 37(1):421-448.

[4] Simonsen, S. H., R. Biggs, S. Maja, M. Schoon, E. Bohensky, G. Cundill, V. Dakos, T. Daw, K. Kotschy, A. Leitch, A. Quinlan, G. Peterson, and F. Moberg. n.d. Applying resilience thinking, seven principles for building resilience in social-ecological systems. Stockholm Resilience Centre. (Available online.)

One thought on “Is systemic change the same as increasing resilience?

  1. Hi Marcus
    The reason I suggested “Manage slow variables and feedbacks” are comparable to “Create and maintain situational awareness” is due to how we implement this principle in practise.
    When we want to establish situational awareness in our (essential service) organisation to improve our resilience, we ask divisions to identify key risk indicators to be monitored (often these are slow variables), to define safe operating envelopes, and alert thresholds that should raise a flag, or result in a response / intervention (feedback mechanism required). The resultant intelligence constitute situational awareness.
    Yes our context is not economic development or social-ecological systems, but I suspect the principles can be more generically applicable. How you work out the implication of principles in practise has to be contextual.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s