Resilience versus efficiency

Recently I’ve been working with Ella Taylor-Smith and others on two proposals related to collaborative production, which has got me thinking about how systems respond to change. And then today I was listening to a podcast of Johan Rockstrom (Swedish environmentalist) and Ethan Zukerman (American cyber activist) talking on the World Service’s ‘The Forum’ on TED show themed edition of 18 July 2010.

The conversation touched on efficiency, resilience and how systems respond to the need to transform. The details don’t matter too much. What intrigued me was the tension between the three. A simple diagram illustrates the point (sorry aout the quality – Word’s having a bad day):

Highly efficient systems are vulnerable to minor changes: they are configured to exactly meet the current environment. Rockstrom highlighted that resilience about recognising that change is universal, and that we need to prepare for it.

New to me were the three different aspects to resilience:

  • Persistency: Change resistance
  • Adaptability: bending in the face of change
  • Ability to transform in the face of crisis

It’s only once the third level of resilience can be reached that it is realistic to expect an existing stable system to change, rather than bending an adapting. Do we need to induce a crisis to make effective change then? Leninist will love that!

This obviously a popular topic right now: Lee Bryant’s recent blog on Headshift also touches on resilience and the impact it makes when government tries to introduce new practises (better family care techniques for instance) into communities that are often socially excluded or marginalised

“Networks are also resilient, and they evolve rapidly to deal with new circumstances.”

Final thought: I think it’s reasonable to expect that a collaborative production process would have to be more resilient than its simple bureaucratic equivalent, to allow for change as people learn what they can do, for instance. So perhaps the expected savings might not be as dramatic as David Cameron is clearly hoping.

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About Peter Cruickshank

Lecturer in the School of Computing and a member of the Centre for Social Informatics at Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland. Interested in information systems, learning, politics, society, security and where they intersect. My attempts at rounding out my character include food, cinema, running, history and, together with my lovely wife, bringing up a cat and a couple of kids.
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