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Resilience Reflections #24: Being resilient about resilience

In this week's issue of Resilience Reflections, Michael Nagenborg recounts how nearly two decades ago, a snowstorm sparked his ongoing fascination with the relationship between resilience and equity within urban settings.

In this regular series by the Resilience@UT and 4TU Resilience , UT researchers share their personal reflections on current events and trends that impact our daily lives, exploring their implications for resilience. The series is just one of many UT initiatives responding to the urgent need to respond to rapid societal and environmental change. As an academic institution, we have a role to play in strengthening the resilience of the social, technological and environmental systems that support us. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.

Being resilient about resilience: Maintaining interest in your research

Philosophers tend to be stubborn. When we finally arrive at our roundabout and thoughtful ways of a concept and make it our own, we will not easily let it go. I tend to say that my superpower is stamina. But, in reality, I am just stubborn about some things.

I first learned about "resilience" from my partner. At that time, she was involved in a long-term study on mental health and resilience factors were a particular concern in the study, which aimed to understand why some people recover quickly from a traumatic life event and others don’t.

Back then, I was still working in the Security Ethics research group in the Interdisciplinary Centre for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities in Tübingen. Suddenly resilience became a hot topic in various domains of the post-9/11 world: Why do some societies recover more quickly from terrorist acts? What makes one society more resilient than another? And are there ways to measure and, maybe, increase resilience?  As you may already have guessed, I became mainly involved in the discussion which would now be labelled "social resilience."

What made resilience attractive to me is that it offered an alternative to concepts like safety and security which imply gaining control over everything that can go wrong. By contrast, resilience does not imply that bad things may happen in unforeseen ways.

Putting local resilience to the test

However, my most significant motivation is still the blackout in the winter of 2005, which affected the region on the German side of the border with the Netherlands. I was born and raised in that region, and my parents still live in a small town 25 kilometres from Enschede. (I became an academic to get as far as possible from that region - but that’s another story.)

In that winter, the main power line was taken down by a heavy snowfall. The blackout lasted for about one week. And the most amazing thing happened in the towns and villages which were cut off from electricity: namely, not too much. That is not to say that people weren’t worried and didn’t suffer from the cold. They did. But compared to what we expected based on the literature, e.g., a spike in crime or riots, things were calm. My theory is that the supplies on hand helped a lot.  People in my hometown like to celebrate special events there and, thus, the logistics and the materials were available to almost immediately put up huge tents, heat them and get the catering services running. I have not had the chance to carry out a study of this yet, but I did mention that I am stubborn, right?

The link between resilience and justice

What I also learned from looking at this case is that (at that time) most of the discussions on (social) resilience looked at the cases of New Orleans and New York in the aftermath of two hurricanes, which do not easily compare with the border region here. Hence, I started to raise questions at the intersection of justice and resilience about how resilience thinking could also contribute to making societies more just. I found this to be a particularly relevant aspect to address the needs of the urban poor.

I published a paper on urban justice and resilience, and I discussed the topic with colleagues from the Philippines, who thankfully assured me that the paper wasn’t bad for something written by a white guy in a Western country. So, we decided to hold a summer colloquium of the Philosophy of the City research group in Manila on the topic of "just and resilient cities.“ That was in the summer of 2019.

One pandemic later, it looks like the event is going to happen in Manila in the summer of 2024. I may not be able to attend due to the current budget restrictions which makes me feel a bit sad, but I am still stubborn. So, if there is anybody who would like to work on the blackout of 2005 or urban justice and resilience, just drop me a note! :)

About the author

Michael Nagenborg is a Philosopher of Technology who works on the interplay between cities, technologies, and human self-understanding. His current projects centre on measuring and mapping cities, urban design and urban resilience.

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