The past year certainly proved the adage that “the only constant is surprise”. From election results and extreme weather events to emerging diseases and price spikes, surprise these days appears to be, well, not so surprising. It seems that despite massive advances in knowledge and technology, our ability to predict and control the future remains flawed and inadequate. Many may blame this on our incomplete knowledge, calling for more data, more certainty and more control.

But what if the world is inherently unknowable, unpredictable and truly uncertain? What if our knowledge of the world, its ecosystems and people, their behaviour, values and choices will always be partial? Partial not only because of the infinite complexity of millions of parts all interacting with each other in ever-changing ways, but also because the world is a rapidly moving target, where the scale of human enterprise is now so large and evolving so quickly that knowledge of how things work today may be out of date tomorrow.

truck/Elsa Wikander/Azote.

Illustration: Elsa Wikander/Azote.

If this is the case, then our mechanistic and reductionist ways of understanding and managing our world as a jigsaw puzzle – where we study and analyse a few of the pieces well and then assume a knowledge of the static whole – will not be enough. It goes without saying that this way of doing research and development has led to substantial gains in human well-being, from vaccines to increased crop yields. But in the words of C.S. (Buzz) Holling, a founder of the science of surprise, this approach alone will lead “also to a journey on an uncertain sea of changing social values and consequences”.1-2 1. Holling, C. S., 1986. The resilience of terrestrial ecosystems: local surprise and global change, in Sustainable Development of the Biosphere. Eds: W. C. Clark and R. E. Munn, pp. 292-317. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Download page: Book available as PDF at IIASA 2. Holling, C. S., 1996. Surprise for science, resilience for ecosystems, and incentives for people. Ecological Applications, 6(3), 733-735. DOI: 10.2307/2269475 See all references

A mechanistic way of thinking lets us down when we try to predict and control the future of our planet; it makes us think that with incomplete knowledge we can design optimal and efficient futures that reduce uncertainty and surprise. In reality, these solutions are partial, and may even be pathological, producing outcomes with a semblance of certainty and an overconfidence in their ability to deal with surprise, instead making people more vulnerable to change and surprise.

Take for example gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of wealth, sub-prime mortgages, and industrial monoculture-based food production. These all seemed like great ways to optimise economic development, home ownership, and food production at the time, but have instead had devastating effects on inequality, global markets, the environment, and our health – mental and physical.

city and river watercolor/E. Wikander/Azote

Illustration: Elsa Wikander/Azote.

Holling, together with several scientists working on the challenges of sustainable development in the late 1980s, described another way of understanding the world. Their more integrative approach is based on the premise that knowledge will always be incomplete and surprise expected. And while knowledge can be mobilised to reduce some uncertainty, ecosystems, human activities, and their interactions over time and space will always be inherently uncertain and unknowable.

Some 30 years later, this way of thinking, now called “resilience thinking”, is receiving increased attention as a potential route to address the major sustainability challenges that we face. Drawing on insights formed from multiple lines of evidence built by people working in many disciplines, systems and sectors, resilience thinking teaches us to:

(1) recognise, relate to, and find ways to govern the pervasive cross-scale dynamics of an intertwined planet. The world today is a hyperconnected place where small changes in one part of the world ripple both quickly and slowly through regions, connecting across scales and landing unpredictably in far-distant places. Climate change, food prices, disease outbreaks, trade, migration, regional instability – our interconnected global culture is a grand panorama of local, regional and worldwide dependencies. Being cognisant of the potential and power of these cross-scale interactions will be as important as local investments to address sustainability challenges.

(2) move beyond the reductionist understanding of one-way flows of benefits or costs between the environment and society towards an understanding of deeply intertwined social-ecological systems connected across scales. By recognising this intertwined nature of our world, food, for example, is managed not merely as a flow of calories from soil to mouth, but rather as a co-evolved interplay of human preferences, diversity of food sources, strong socio-cultural ties to landscapes and food varieties, food prices, and global economic dynamics. If ignored, these links become decoupled and production goes awry, leading to obesity and health challenges that threaten some of the recent gains in global development.

wheat and soil watercolor/E. Wikander/Azote.

Illustration: Elsa Wikander/Azote.

(3) expect the unexpected. We must reject the assumption of linear and incremental change – assumptions that climates will change in gradual and predictable ways, that economies will continue to grow at rates similar to (or greater than) those seen in the past, that the rate of technological innovation will match the impacts of environmental and climate changes, that we can predict the road ahead by looking in the rear-view mirror.

Instead we need to start thinking about our uncertain future in new ways. Adapting incrementally to change, by building higher walls, intensifying food production, tightening immigration controls, or drilling deeper for minerals, water, and fossil fuels, is no longer a solution. Instead we need to rethink our food, economic, energy, security, and other systems as we find ways to target the roots of the problems, to open up opportunities for navigating change and surprise, and to develop our capacities to transform and actively shape the changes to come, so that we can thrive from change.

Resilience thinking encourages arenas for safe-to-fail experimentation, facilitating transformative experiments at small scales and allowing learning and new initiatives to emerge and spread across levels and scales. But in a world dominated by a reductionist, command-and-control worldview, where uncertainty is seen as something we don’t yet know rather than a fact of life, resilience thinking has a tenuous hold. And as such, resilience thinking is easily misunderstood and misused in the search for solutions such as “disaster resilience” or “climate change resilience”.

This is the space into which Rethink steps forward, in an attempt to explain, explore and expand what resilience thinking has to contribute. Taken together with the many others ways of thinking and knowing that exist in the world, resilience thinking offers a way for us to become truly comfortable with the unknowability of the world and its future, and our ways forward in it.