In December 2022, at the National Press Club, Minister for Home Affairs Clare O’Neil set out an extensive agenda for her portfolio.

The speech touched on many areas of government—health, climate change, the environment, natural disasters, technology, data, geopolitics, social policy, cybersecurity, and democracy itself.  If such is indeed its remit, even viewed through a lens of emergency management, then Home Affairs is in danger of being everything, everywhere, all at once.

The larger question raised by O’Neil—how to make Australia more resilient against the multiplicity of the threats and challenges being thrown against it, often referred to as ‘all hazards’—is a long-standing concern of government.   

And it’s a tough ask, one not helped by the bagginess of the language being used. At times it seems the only thing excluded from ‘all hazards’ is choice.

That’s problematic, given that choice is at the heart of government, which must allocate scarce resources and prioritise activities. The vagueness, opacity, and over-extension in an ‘all hazards’ approach inherently carries considerable risk. 

Bagginess also bedevils the realisation of resilience. There is no single, clearly defined, precise definition of resilience.

The Australia government alone has numerous descriptions and applications of resilience, from natural disasters; to an individual’s health (including coping with tough times by applying an inner strength); infrastructure investment (focusing on social communities), critical infrastructure; international disaster risk reduction; cyber; supply chains; agriculture and the environment more generally; defence (activities, organisation and the strategic environment); and how businesses should organise themselves.

Each case has some variation of the theme of resistance and recovery. Some focus on systems, some on the external threats, others on individuals or on communities. Perhaps the most dubious application was the co-option of the term for the late-arriving COVID quarantine facilities, labelled ‘centres for national resilience’.

But differences of definition of resilience are hardly uncommon. In ecology, for example, two of the most cited papers on resilience define the term differently: one, ‘ecological resilience’, the ability to tolerate a disturbance; and the other, ‘engineering resilience’, referencing the time taken to return to stability. An earlier paper counted 10 different definitions.

The level of analysis matters. For example, cities, as entities, demonstrate considerable resilience. But resilience at a city level does not directly confer resilience on individuals or industries. Vice versa, resilience is an emergent property of the components of the system and their interactions, including with the external environment, not a direct summation. Different stresses will have differing effects.

In his 2021 review of urban resilience, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser argues that cities are typically resilient to physical destruction. People will rebuild after bombings or earthquakes, for example—and indeed, fires in London (1666), Chicago (1871) and Boston (1872) offered opportunities for innovation, improvement, and renewal. Recovery from disease can take time—around 200 years for demographic recovery from the Black Death—but cities revive. 

The destruction of physical capital poses greater threats to the survivability of cities if compounded by political and economic shocks.  Political power mattered for most of human history because political capitals controlled the distribution of wealth: a loss of political power, for example through conquest or riots, may drive a city’s decline. Canberra would likely fade to a hamlet by the Molonglo should it lose the seat of Australian government.

London, October 2022

The loss of economic power—withering trade routes, for example—could similarly weaken a city, though with the industrial revolution came rapid urbanisation that offset economic disruption. The industrial revolution also led to improvements in transportation that enabled easier flight of workers with transferable skills and capital, so that the loss of manufacturing or shipbuilding, for example, resulted in de-urbanisation.    

That suggests that consideration, for example, of the resilience of physical capital, such as ‘critical infrastructure’, may lead policymakers astray through a focus on tangible, physical assets rather than intangible, social systems, or behaviours.  

The study of cities also points to another issue in the understanding of resilience. Much attention in government policy is given to sharp shocks—natural events such as earthquakes, fires, floods and cyclones, and the prospect of ‘Pearl Harbor’-type event in cyber or an invasion. That’s understandable. But it overlooks the slow grind of unrelenting pressure, as in chronic poverty, and the stresses associated with unpredictability, as is often the case in domestic violence, hybrid warfare and, increasingly, climate change.

The upshot is, to paraphrase from a paper on resilience in childhood poverty, that since resilience has no generally accepted definition or a credible theory of how it functions, it does not lend improved analytical precision. It may be better to relinquish the metaphor of resilience and focus on factors that affect outcomes.

For example, the well-being and viability of cities is affected by numerous, interacting factors: human capital, nurtured and supported by large, long-standing political investment; a commitment to education and intellectual endeavour; public amenities; a constrained regulatory environment; and a certain degree of ongoing industrial reinvention.

Because resilience is typically understood against a specific threat in a specific context, and in hindsight after the event, it’s tempting to interpret all change as threats and focus on prevention. 

But not all change is bad or undesirable. Healthy systems are changeable, neither static nor chaotic. Policies need to allow for innovation, renewal, and experimentation, much of which will be unexpected and outside the ken of government. Depriving the system of volatility generates fragility, increases the prospect of catastrophe, and inherently generates harm. Moreover, high variability in the environment necessitates more, not fewer, ways to respond and cope.

So what are policymakers to do?  A 2009 paper, Resilient Nation, suggests focusing on individual and community resilience—not state institutions—as the building blocks for a concept of national resilience. Local knowledge forms the basis of resilient society, but locals need agency, knowledge, and support. 

Policymakers could also draw on the experience of high reliability organisations. Such organisations anticipate, not predict, problems and when discrepancies are found or a failure has occurred, work to contain them. Anticipation can fail due to predetermination, the preclusion of improvisation, or inattention-inducing routine.

At the national level, policymakers would do well to adopt a systems approach, but not for the simple pursuit of efficiency. Lessons from the pandemic, and from Ukraine’s hardening of its systems after 2014, include the importance of redundancy, buffering, modernisation, skills, and practice. All have costs, which will need to be met—in a disrupted environment, the alternative may be worse.

Policymakers cannot know everything about the system—or even enough to act with certainty. Calls for resilience can reflect discomfort with an uncertain environment and the difficulty of prediction. But government will want to avoid an approach to resilience that risks implying state abandonment—simply expecting people to cope—or over-reach through an ever-expansive definition of emergency.