The self-resilient society

On Tuesday Demos launched a report I’ve authored called Resilient Nation. The report argues that we live in a brittle society with  over 80 per cent of Britons live in urban areas relying on dense networks of public and private sector organisations to provide them with essential services.  But our everyday lives and the national infrastructure work in a fragile union, vulnerable to even the smallest disturbances in the network. And both are part of a global ecosystem that is damaged and unpredictable.

So how does Britain protect against threats (like terrorism), hazards (such as natural disasters) and major accidents? Much of our infrastructure is outmoded and archaic. And with their narrow focus on emergency services and institutions, so are the policies that underpin it. The pamphlet calls for a radical rethink of resilience.  Instead of structures or centralised services, it argues that citizens and communities are the true source of resilience for our society. Resilience, I suggest,  is an everyday, community activity. It is people’s potential to learn, adapt and work together that powers it. Only by realising this potential will we succeed in building a resilient nation.

The report connects neatly with the Government’s own work on community resilience – which could be a central plank in the next iteration of the national security strategy and may be a public strategy in its own right. The general feeling I got from meetings with officials in central and local government and relevant agencies as well as from people in pubs, sitting rooms, warehouses and meeting rooms was that citizens and communities were the missing piece of the resilience jigsaw.

More often than not in the past no one really bothered to talk about what role citizens and communities could play and this was reflected in official guidance and advice where they were seen as ‘a problem to be dealt with rather than a source of help’.

In short – the shift towards a more citizen focused approach to resilience is happening…and in the summer the Government will unveil its own thinking on the subject (one hopes using the 4Es of community resilience ).

And then I remembered the Government’s response to the Pitt Review and I began to have serious doubts about whether such a strategy will succeed.

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John Robb on resilience

A few weeks back I interviewed John Robb, the military futurist and author of ‘Brave New War.’  We discussed the irruption of Latin American drug gangs into West Africa. Robb sees this as symptomatic of a broader push by “global guerrillas” – armed transnational criminal organisations – to take advantage of weaknesses in the global system:

We have a global market system that is subverting the nation state, so gaps where local control is lost are going to spring up all over the place, even in relatively developed states. There will be lapses where non-state groups like global guerrillas take control. If they’ve found a hole in West Africa, there are no barriers to their expansion.

Although they are drawn to “hollow states” like Guinea-Bissau, however, contrary to dire warnings of instability from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime the South Americans are unlikely to want to shake up the status quo too much. According to John Robb:

They don’t want warfare in West Africa – they want the maximum level of corruption and to be left alone, with bureaucratic apparatus geared towards helping them to do business. Almost across the board you’ll see that non-state groups are not trying to take over the national government. They don’t want that burden – it raises the profile, puts you on the international radar screen and leads to economic blockades. If there’s a nominal government in place they’ll keep the infrastructure up – they’re parasites off the infrastructure.

I asked Robb how Africa might deal with the problem, which got him talking about resilient communities: Continue reading