Resilience isn’t what you think

The opposite of the coping herder, who can only react to external shocks, is the resilient herder, who bounces back from the same. But how true is that? Both occur at the individual level, and the opposite of the individual is the collective (think “team situational awareness”), not a different individual with different behavior.

We observed reliability professionals in critical infrastructures undertaking four types of resilience at their system level, each varying by stage of operations in the system:

Table 1. Different Types of System Resilience

  • Reliability professionals adjusting back to within de jure or defacto bandwidths to continue normal operations (precursor resilience);
  • Restoration from disrupted operations (temporary loss of service) back to normal operations by reliability professionals (restoration resilience);
  • Immediate emergency response (its own kind of resilience) after system failure but often involving others different from system’s reliability professionals; and
  • Recovery of the system to a new normal by reliability professionals along with others (recovery resilience)

Resilience this way is a set of options, processes and strategies deployed by the system’s real-time managers and tied to the state of system operations in which they find themselves. Resilience differs depending on whether or not the large sociotechnical system is in normal operations versus disrupted operations versus failed operations versus recovered operations. (Think of pastoralist systems here as critical infrastructure.)

Resilience, as such, is not a single property of the system to be turned on or off as and when needed. Nor is it, as a system feature, reducible to anything like a “resilient” herder, though such herders exist.

Why does it matter that resilience is a systemwide set of options, processes and strategies? What you take to be the loss of the herd, a failure in pastoralist operations that you say comes inevitably with drought, may actually be perceived and treated by pastoralists themselves as a temporary disruption after which operations are to be restored. While you, the outsider, can say their “temporary” really isn’t temporary in this day and age, it is their definition of “temporary” that matters when it comes to their real-time reliability.

To return to Table 1, herder systems that maintain normal operations are apt to demonstrate what we call precursor resilience. Normal doesn’t mean what happens when there are no shocks to the system. Shocks happen all the time, and normal operations are all about responding to them in such a way as to ensure they don’t lead to temporary system disruption or outright system failure. Formally, the precursors of disruption and failure are managed for, and reliably so. Shifting from one watering point, when an interfering problem arises there, to another just as good or within a range of good-enough is one such strategy. Labelling this, “coping,” seriously misrepresents the active system management going on.

Pastoralist systems, nevertheless, can and do experience temporary stoppages in their service provision—raiders seize livestock, remittances don’t arrive, offtake of livestock products is interrupted, random lightning triggers veldt fires—and here the efforts at restoring conditions back to normal is better termed restoration resilience. Access to other grazing areas (or alternative feed stocks or alternative sources of livelihood) may be required in the absence of fallbacks normally available.

So too resilience as a response to shocks looks very different by way of management strategies when the shocks lead to system failure and onward recovery from that failure. In this case, an array of outside, inter-organizational resources and personnel—public, private, NGO, humanitarian—are required in addition to the resources of the pastoralist herders. These recovery arrangements and resources are unlike anything marshaled by way of precursor or restoration resiliencies within the herder communities themselves.

There is nothing predetermined in the Table 1 sequence. Nothing says it is inevitable that the failed system recovers to a new normal (indeed the probability of system failure in recovery can be higher than in normal operations in large sociotechnical systems). It is crucial, nevertheless, to distinguish recovery from the new normal. To outsiders, it make look like some of today’s pastoralist systems are in unending recovery, constantly trying to catch up with one disaster after another.

The reality may be that the system is already at a new normal, operating to a standard of reliability quite different than you might think. (Imagine that wet season grazing areas were magically restored to pastoralists who already adapted to their disappearance. Real-time herder options would increase, but would the collective response be altogether positive now? That question can only be answered if you are first clear about what is the actual system being managed now and the operating standard of reliability to which it is being managed before the restoration.)

If you think of resilience in a pastoralist system as “the system’s capability in the face of its high reliability mandates to withstand the downsides of uncertainty and complexity as well as exploit the upsides of new possibilities and opportunities that emerge in real time,” then they are able to do so because of being capable to undertake the different types of resiliencies listed here, contingent on the stage of operations herders as a collectivity find themselves.

Or to put the key point from the other direction, a system demonstrating precursor resilience, restoration resilience, emergency response coordination and recovery resilience is the kind of system better able to withstand the downsides of shocks and uncertainty and exploit their upsides. Here too, nothing predetermines that every pastoralist system will exhibit all four resiliencies, if and when their states of operation change.

The above raises a methodological point. If I and my colleagues can come up with four different types of system resilience—forget about the empirically different articulations of resilience at the micro and meso levels—we might pause over how useful any catchall term “resilience” is. More positively, when using the term resilience the burden of proof is on each of us to empirically differentiate the term for the case at hand.

To summarize, any notion that resilience is a single property or has a dominant definition or is there/not there or is best exemplified at the individual level is incorrect and misleading when system reliability is at stake.

Principal sources

E. Roe and P.R. Schulman (2016). Reliability and Risk: The Challenge of Managing Interconnected Infrastructures. Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA.

E. Roe (2020). A New Policy Narrative for Pastoralism? Pastoralists as Reliability Professionals and Pastoralist Systems as Infrastructure, STEPS Working Paper 113, STEPS Centre: Brighton, UK (available online at

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