I mentioned some time ago I had been reading ‘Resilience Thinking’ by Brian Walker and David Salt. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Although I plan, at some point when I’ve more time, to write a ‘proper’ essay on the implications of resilience thinking for the arts, and for funders of the arts, I thought I would for now share some of my ‘notes in the margin’ –some quotes and thoughts. They concentrate on possible parallels in the arts world – and how Walker and Salt’s advice might be applied in the arts ecology - though the book is important in terms of climate and ecological change too. I’ll spread over a few posts to make it a little easier to read. (I know this one’s a bit long.)
1. ‘Resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure.’
Helpfully memorable and easily applicable to the arts or individual organisation and to the system. Disturbance might be a grant cut, a failed application, the loss of staff, change in audience or customer behaviour. It might also be a new CEO, an influx of funding, a funder wanting you to do something else, a sudden ‘hit’. How resilient are you? Can you absorb the shock and work in a way which doesn’t damage long term? Crucial at a system level – the system of organisations also needs to have resilience. (Put simply, for example, the poetry world can withstand one or two small presses stopping so long as others fill their space – in fact that is part of the system that brings new growth.)
The idea of systems is central. The easiest way to think about this is that things in a system interact in a complex and adaptive way – not in a simplistic, linear ‘crank the handle’ way. The book includes 5 case studies in the environmental field which illustrate this. But an arts organisation can demonstrate this too. There are factors to do with their quality and ‘efficiency’ that impact on them. But they also interact with how audiences are behaving and that ‘system’, with the ups and downs and changes in funders’ worlds, in the business world, in the broader economy, and in the political world. These are all arguably ‘systems’ that also interact in a larger one. It’s complex – though we do it to some extent without thinking - but you need to consciously ‘map’ all the systems to know what’s working on you.
2. ‘The Paradox of Efficiency and Optimisation:… Being efficient, in a narrow sense, leads to elimination of redundancies – keeping only those things that are directly and immediately beneficial… this kind of efficiency leads to drastic losses in resilience.’
You could relate this to how you shape your budget and programme, or to cuts in local authority funding. Worth the Chancellor bearing in mind when looking around for savings before the Budget. Simplistic efficiency today may have drastic knock-on effects when further shocks come. Systems work indirectly as well as directly so you need to look at the big picture. An obvious example of of 'simplistic efficiency' leading to less resilience is what happens when organisations choose not to build up a reserve in order to maintain or expand programmes. Reserves give not security for now but resilience for the future. They should be a measurement of health not wealth.
3. ‘There is no sustainable ‘optimal’ state of an ecosystem, a social system, or the world. It is an illusion, a product of the way we look at and model the world. It is unattainable, in fact… it is counter-productive, and yet it is a widely pursued goal.’
This is challenging to someone like me who’s talked a lot about sustainability and sustainable organisations. They go on to say that the common reaction when the model doesn’t quite work is to exert even more control, and I can see the truth in that – from government to arts funding to artistic directors. Models are not necessarily a bad thing – they can be useful if you use their simplification to explore how things might work – but you need to acknowledge they are models and not reality in all its complexity. So if there is no stable sustainable state, only an adaptive sustainability, we need to support people to adapt, to be as complex as they need to be, and to acknowledge that concentration on single aspects is likely to lead to less resilience when further change comes, as it inevitably will. Sustainability therefore comes from resilience, not vice versa, and is continually happening or not, rather than being acquired.