How do we ensure values are at the heart of resilience science?

slide with notes about resilience

We live and work now perhaps more than ever before in the time of science for transformation. This was the central theme of discussions in Stockholm during the Resilience 2017 and Sustainability Science conferences held back to back from 21-26 August. The transformative intention of these events is particularly relevant at this time of increasing global inequalities, experienced both in the Global North and the Global South.

Carl Folke and Katrina Brown opened the Resilience 2017 conference, which was attended by 1,000 people seeking to exchange innovative and useful theories, methods and practices in this maturing field. They outlined the new frontiers of resilience science that can help build people’s capacity to live sustainably in and through these ‘turbulent times’.

Resilience science emerged from the work of C. S. Holling and others on social ecological systems as complex adaptive systems – which are linked biophysical and sociocultural systems that have many interacting parts moving in unpredictable ways, while the system as a whole adapts and evolves over time. Understanding their dynamics has been and continues to be the focus of resilience science.

But social science now also plays a more prominent role, and new agendas are pursued around a number of Ps: people, poverty, power, politics and participation are all growing research themes. This framing is a testament to how far into the interdisciplinary mode resilience science has moved, and its intent to reach in to transdisciplinarity – moving beyond linking disciplines, towards problem-driven research working together with other stakeholders and their knowledge systems.

At the Resilience 2011 conference, while there had been a space for exploring resilience through the lens of alternative ways of knowing and doing (and specifically indigenous biocultural approaches which I was then engaged in), it had been marginal and somewhat uncomfortable. Six years later, I was excited that the stream on approaches and methods for understanding social ecological systems dynamics would open up fruitful conversations about our experiences at the frontier of transdisicplinarity.

How do researchers engage with power and politics?

I shared some of my own reflections on work I was part of with others in the context of reaching out to and creating space for the marginalized in trandsiciplinary processes – from experiences in the CGIAR Research Program on Aquatic Agricultural Systems working with poor farmers and fisherfolk, and more recent work in Kenya through a GCRF funded project on building resilience through social learning with pastoralist communities. Both of these were cases where research was seeking to move beyond its comfort zone to address complex challenges with stakeholders.

Engaging in such messy processes requires individual competencies and team capacities to ethically engage with the power and politics at play in social ecological systems. But the capacity challenge does not end with our responsibility to be more willing, reflexive and power-aware researchers. The structures and politics within which we work are also spheres of influence and so also need to be examined. While we spend our careers trying to understand non-linear dynamics of complex systems ‘out there’, we seem to be unable to fully understand and embrace the fact that our own research and engagement processes are also non-linear and evolving.

The research funding systems and institutional structures within which we practice transdisciplinarity often seem to be at odds with this reality. They depend on results-based management and competitive bidding. They remain, on the whole, fixated with linear measurement of success along a predetermined path that tends to be decided a priori by us, the researchers, who are also in positions of relative power. The resulting linear and hierarchical structures are not conducive to building horizontal processes to develop research agendas with others, bottom up, which might lead to unpredictable pathways to impact.

How impact is measured, and how, therefore, our success is measured, kills the reflexivity required to be aware of power and walk the non-linear path of transdisciplinarity.

What is required to connect different knowledge systems equitably?

Together with Simone Lovera from the Global Forest Coalition, I was part of a session on connecting knowledge systems, which was led by Ro Hill (of CSIRO) and Maria Tengo of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. It was run as a World Café, an interactive format which was a welcome break from the standard conference panels. Case studies of connecting knowledge systems were used to reflect on the seven resilience principles: (1) maintain diversity and redundancy; (2) manage connectivity; (3) manage slow variables and feedbacks; (4) foster complex adaptive systems thinking; (5) encourage learning; (6) broaden participation, and (7) promote polycentric governance (see Biggs et al 2015).

Our starting point was based on a joint publication exploring co-construction from the perspective of indigenous and marginalised communities. We argued that in cases where there are marked power imbalances between researchers and other knowledge holders an instrumental, problem solving approach to co-construction must be embedded within a rights-based approach that supports self-determination.

From the case studies shared during the World Café, participants identified the importance of memory and place-based understanding of resilience and change; a need to emphasize quality and not just quantity of participation through a power lens; and the foundational recognition of rights over territory as ways to strengthen the resilience principles. These all push us away from value-neutral science to using resilience science in seeking social justice and embracing transdisciplinarity.

Connecting resilience and values

And throughout the three days, there were pockets of discussion about innovative methodologies that can help move us further towards building empathy and truly understanding different ways of knowing and being. This is the inspiration I took away from Stockholm, delivered often by early career researchers not caught within a paradigm.

Examples of this were talks about simulation games to handle cognitive and social complexity and support ‘the great mindshift’ towards sustainability; or public art underpinned by performance theory to tap in to ephemeral performances of climate change in Colombia, and artistic research through socio-sculpture methods (a way of experientially exploring new ways of living) in the Baltic Sea region. This is the exciting methodological frontier – bringing arts and humanities in to our practice to imagine new ways of knowing and being together.

My reflection on the final plenary of the approaches and methods stream of the conference, is that in a gathering of mainly researchers, inevitably, transdisciplinarity becomes conflated with interdisciplinarity – and that is to say that the real forces of marginalisation of non-research knowledge continue to be obscured. As an action researcher, the idea that we can engage in value-free transdisciplinary processes that stop at analysis and do not actually attempt to change the world, seems at best a contradiction in terms, and at worst potentially an exercise that co-opts other forms of knowledge and is ethically problematic.

The resilience field as a whole has certainly moved further in building methodologies to help bridge across knowledge systems. If indeed transformation of current systems to a more sustainable future is the real intent of this field, then I feel it is high time we bring our own and others’ values explicitly in to the process. In doing so, we need to be able to question what remains the predominant neoliberal approach to research, and ask ourselves whether changing that system may in fact be a necessary first step for us to contribute to a more sustainable world.