Planning for Resilience

author list icon

Effective Resilience Planning can ensure that the work we do continues to function well into the future.


Resilience is the capacity to withstand stress and catastrophe. This article gives an introduction and overview to resilience, and explores some of the potential resilience responses to impacts from change. It stresses that change at the macro level affects all of our projects and clients, and that with effective planning we can ensure the work that we carry out for our clients is resilient in a changing future.

planning resilience illustrationFigure 1 – Systems nest like Russian dolls as part of the national economy

Resilience Planning and Systems Thinking

Resilience planning has its roots in systems thinking1, risk reduction, and sustainability. A technical definition of resilience is “the ability of a system to absorb disturbances and still retain its basic function and structure” (Walker and Salt, 2006). Terms describing the opposite of resilience include fragility, vulnerability, and weakness, so clearly a resilient system is a desirable state.

Almost anything you can think of can be considered as a system. At its simplest, a system is a group of components, within a defined boundary that are interdependent and continually interact with each other to maintain the purpose of the system. Components include structures, processes, people, and policies, which are generally grouped into subsystems, effectively smaller systems with their own function. Systems nest like Russian dolls: a human (a system in its own right) controls a mechanical/electrical system (which relies on the human system functioning correctly), which is part of a building system, which is part of an organizational system, which is in turn part of a national economy – and so on (see Figure 1). A system is frequently disturbed (negatively or positively) by the outputs of another system which it cannot control.

In systems thinking, the boundary of the system is generally defined at a level suitable for the particular purpose under consideration. However problems arise when the system is defined at too low a level and subsystems get looked at in isolation, so-called silo thinking. Systems integration and collaborative working are accepted methods to ensure subsystems are properly integrated and mutually supportive to the overall system.

Using Systems Knowledge to Build Resilience

As a professional services company WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff is focussed on systems involving buildings, infrastructure, and organisations. We are technical experts in many of the components and subsystems that make up these systems. We add value for our clients by helping them to design ‘in’ resilience through planning for the future, and we do this by sharing our understanding of trends in the social, natural, and political macro systems in which their projects and organisations sit. It is the disturbances caused by trends in these systems (which we can influence but not control) that impact the systems on which we work. We can summarise these macro trends as climate change, future resource availability, ecosystem services, social trends, and technological change.

As the case studies elsewhere in this publication show, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff works with clients to analyse the potential disturbances generated by these trends, and the positive and negative impacts these may have on the components and subsystems of the system on which we are working. We then prioritise the risks and opportunities identified, and propose technical, operational, and strategic approaches to manage them. In some of our more strategic projects, we then combine these into a resilience plan that is phased and prioritised as appropriate for their circumstances.

Exploring Resilience

We can explore resilience in more detail, and introduce some resilience planning terminology, using the analogy of two humans, each in their own right a system. A dancer and an author - each broke a leg on a winter skiing holiday. Each earns a living and satisfies creative instincts through their work - the particular purpose of the two human systems we are considering.

The potential for resilience or a catastrophic failure of a system after a disturbance is determined by a combination of four factors:

  • Duration of the disturbance;
  • Breadth of the disturbance – how many components in the system are disrupted;
  • Severity of the disturbance – how much does it stop the system functioning; and
  • Adaptive and /or transformative capacity of the system.

Both the dancer and author have disturbance to the same, single component (the leg), preventing them from walking for about 6 weeks – the duration of the disturbance. But the breadth and severity of the disturbance differs for each. For the author the breadth and severity are less, as they can work sitting down, communicate via IT, and be driven around by others. The impact is much broader for the dancer, who relies on mobility and agility to work, and for whom the overall significance of the disturbance is much more significant.

After the accident, temporary adaptation measures help the author to maintain mobility – plaster casts, crutches, and wheelchairs. This will suffice, the author can fulfil most main functions until the disturbance ends and the leg heals. The author’s story ends here.

However, the dancer, who can also maintain mobility using these adaptations, cannot use them to dance. The dancer is now a component with impaired performance in a larger system, the dance company. The company can accept this disturbance for a short period, as it has planned for resilience and has redundant components - the understudy in this case - that can fulfil the same role as a failed component, so the show goes on. The dancer undertakes another temporary adaptation, changing duties to teach students, so they still have some value in the wider system whilst recovering.

Sadly, after 3 months the dancer realises the leg has not regained sufficient strength for a professional career - a critical threshold / tipping point has been reached. The system cannot go on as before. The dance company’s employment contract sets out a service level threshold - of three months as the acceptable limit for sick leave. So it cancels the dancer’s contract, promotes the understudy, and its system purpose is maintained.

The dancer could make a permanent adaptation, accepting a lower wage but remaining in the same system by becoming a dance teacher. Alternatively, the dancer may take a transformative approach, spotting a niche opportunity to retrain as an artistic blacksmith, which makes use of strength and artistic skills and, after a considerable salary dip, it eventually delivers a higher income. Through flexibility, the former dancer has completely changed the way their system works and, after the disruption, has better achieved their purpose. And of course, had the dancer undertaken resilience planning for their career, a backup plan and savings may have been in place to avoid a catastrophic system failure in the ability to earn a living.

Could the disruption have been prevented in the first place? The author chose to accept the risk of disturbance as the potential impact of a broken leg was low. The dancer didn’t think about it, and suboptimal decision-making resulted in the permanent change to the way they functioned. Undertaking a risk evaluation might have led them to avoid the risk by going on a different holiday. The dancer used risk protection - sophisticated bindings and a crash helmet. But this gave a false confidence, and the dancer did not understand the level of risk, instead deciding to have a quick attempt at some moguls on the first trip down a slope. The dancer also failed to consider the effects of multiple disturbance interactions - having a lot of schnapps the previous evening did not improve skill level or co-ordination!

Resilience Responses to Risk

We can identify a number of typologies of possible responses to risk that will build resilience.

  • Acceptance – usually where the severity of the disturbance grows slowly and where it is possible to monitor and review the vulnerability that ensues. This should not be confused with complacency – some trends such as climate change are nonlinear, and severe events can outstrip impact curve predictions. The tidal surge which disrupted the main London–West Country railway by washing out the line at Dawlish is an example of a nonlinear event (see “U.K. Infrastructure: Can We Cope with Flooding?” in this issue.)
  • Protection – building defences like levees and polders. These have critical thresholds, and failures such as overtopping can be catastrophic (see “Lake Mälaren, Sweden: The Consequences of Flooding” in this issue.)
  • Avoidance – where it is not possible to protect against the risk, or where the economic cost of protection is too high. Examples of this include managed retreat from coastal erosion zones which are too expensive to defend.
  • Accommodation – designing a system so it can be recovered within an acceptable timescale after a disturbance – duplication of safety critical systems, or sacrificial ground floors which the system can cope without temporarily, but can be restored to use after a flood.
  • Adaptation – temporary or permanent, doing things differently for the same result. Examples include introducing thermal mass into an existing building for cooling, or converting offices to dormitories when hospital staff cannot pass flooded roads.
  • Multi-purposing and flexibility - having components that can do more than one thing, and can stand in for another damaged component. An example would be a rail bridge that can also be used as a vehicle evacuation route (see “Adapting the Lower Deck of an Existing Bridge for Light Rail Operation and Typhoon Conditions” in this issue.)
  • Transformation – repurposing the system as needs change. For example, using electric vehicles as mass batteries to balance grid demand, charging or discharging according to need.

Seven Key Points for Resilience Planning

There are seven key points to consider when it comes to resilience planning:

  1. ‘Systems thinking’ forms the basis for resilience planning.
  2. It is necessary to define a system boundary at the right level and to make sure teams working on subsystems collaborate to get optimal functioning in any system.
  3. Resilience planning requires a detailed technical, governance, and operational understanding of how a system works, together with an understanding of how macro systems are likely to disturb it.
  4. Disturbances can interact, multiplying their impacts.
  5. It is important to learn from previous disruptions and by looking at how others successfully managed risk. Innovation can be part of resilience, but is not always essential. However, the impact of the same disturbance in the same location varies depending on the system it affects. Therefore there is no “set” response to any disturbance, although a typology of responses is helpful.
  6. Risk can be non-linear – gradual rises in disturbance have gradual effects until a tipping point occurs and the system cannot function as it did. The effects after tipping points reached are hard to predict.
  7. The absolutely fundamental point – change in macro systems is a given, and resilience depends on being able to anticipate and cater for the impacts it causes. Trusting to luck is not the same as planning for resilience!

In Conclusion

As Walker and Salt note: “At the heart of resilience thinking is a very simple notion – things change – and to ignore or resist this change is to increase our vulnerability and forego emerging opportunities. In so doing, we limit our options. Sometimes changes are slow (…); sometimes they are fast (…). Humans are usually good at noticing and responding to rapid change. Unfortunately, we are not so good at responding to things that change slowly. In part this is because we don’t notice them and in part it’s because often there seems little we can do about them”. (Walker and Salt, 2006, pp.9-10)

As later case studies in Network Issue 79 show, we can set out to understand and predict change, and we can help to plan for resilience. Our examples show that with the right combination of collaboration, systems understanding, trend and impact knowledge, and technical, operational and strategic expertise, we can plan effective responses to change and make current systems more resilient.


1Systems thinking is a discipline that helps build an understanding of how a system functions by determining what components make up the system, and then examining the links and interactions between the components. It helps to avoid unintended consequences when one part of the system is altered.

back to top