Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back

Andrew Zolli & Ann Marie Healy

305 pages, Free Press, 2012

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Anyone who attempts to popularize new research and emerging science runs a significant risk. That some reviewer will take you to task for oversimplifying, misinterpreting, or misleading isn’t really a risk—it is a certainty. The risk is that in attempting to make the complex understandable, popularizers stray too far, simplify too much, and misrepresent the research and its implications—as well as mislead readers. Holding the line between accessibility and accuracy is difficult. The main reason it is difficult is not the fault of the writer—it is the collective credulity of readers.

If you approach Resilience, a new book from Andrew Zolli, curator of PopTech, a TED-like annual conference focused on technology and social entrepreneurship, and Anne Marie Healy, a writer and journalist, with proper skepticism, it is well worth reading. But if you suspend your critical thinking capabilities, you will be misled.

The book attempts to bring research from a variety of domains to bear on the question of why some people, systems, and societies bounce back from adversity and others don’t. As Zolli and Healy define it, resilience is the increasingly critical ability to “anticipate change, heal when breached, and have the ability to reorganize … to maintain [a] core purpose, even under radically changed circumstances.”

Why is it so important to read this book with a skeptical eye? First, there are frequent disgressions that seem to have more to do with the authors’ desired social policies or personal interests than with resilience. The conflating of resilience—unquestionably good—with policy prescriptions—deserving of careful consideration—can easily be manipulative.

Second, there are instances where, despite a lengthy discussion, the authors don’t present disconfirming evidence. They present the example of Opower successfully reducing electricity usage via small nudges like putting smiley faces on power bills of efficient households. Zolli and Healy suggest that such programs are the key to solving various challenges. It’s an encouraging story, but it is not the full story. Opower has allowed rigorous testing of its program in 14 communities, and economists Hunt Allcott and Sendhil Mullainathan found in an August 2011 working paper that impact varied by 240 percent. Depending on which test results you use, the estimate of the value of the program varies by billions of dollars. But Resilience cites only optimistic evidence.

In another example, Zolli and Healy describe the volunteer eff ort to provide help in Haiti after the earthquake. Thousands of people set up online “crisis maps” and crowdsourced information platforms at the spur of the moment. No doubt, understanding how to spur similar efforts may improve societal resilience to disasters—but only if such volunteer efforts actually make a difference. On that question, the book is strangely silent. The only claim of impact in the book is a single statement from a relief coordinator made during the heat of the response. Yet neither Disaster Relief 2.0, the 2011 study by the United Nations Foundation of the Haiti relief and crowdsourcing effort (which found little tangible effect, but future promise), nor the vigorous debate about the usefulness of crowdsourcing for disaster response (exemplified by Paul Currion’s October 2010 posts on appear in the book.

Zolli and Healy frequently note when evidence is suggestive rather than conclusive, and they don’t appear to bend research to the breaking point. But these errors of omission highlight the need to read skeptically.

I’m also concerned that there is precious little guidance on how to put into practice all of the interesting information the authors present. Most of the advice they give is rather vague. And many of the examples they cite of putting resilience thinking to work either are still being tested, haven’t scaled up, or haven’t faced changed circumstances. In other words, they don’t meet the authors’ own definition of resilience, and so they aren’t good guides for those hoping to learn from them.

But let me return to my earlier point: This book is well worth reading, for resilience is the ultimate pathway to sustainability. And everything we touch would benefit from our ability to recognize resilience, cultivate it, and design for it. Learning more about resilience—and you will learn a great deal from this book, even if it is incomplete learning—will benefit you, your organization, and the world.