Beware the Lurking Dragons

David Woods DARWIN resilience workshop 1

My name is Christina, and I work in the DARWIN project. I started working with DARWIN 2 years ago, when we were applying for funding from the Horizon 2020 programme, and at that time I thought I knew the meaning of the word resilience. How wrong was I!

The original meaning of resilience comes from the 1620s Latin word resili (ēns), present participle of resilīre, which means to spring back, or rebound. And this is close to what the DARWIN project addresses: the ability of critical infrastructures in Europe to “resist, absorb, accommodate, and recover from the effects of a hazard […] including through the preservation and restoration of [their] essential basic structures and functions”. Or in other words: their ability to “bounce back” from a crisis. Moreover, in DARWIN we build on Resilience Engineering which emphasizes “the ability to adjust functioning” prior to, during, or following events (changes, disturbances, and opportunities), and thereby sustain required operations under both expected and unexpected conditions”.

The goal of the workshop, titled “Anything can happen. Resilience in crisis management”, was to enable participants to imagine a future where systems/organisations operate in a resilient manner, and to explore and discover ways to enhance resilience. The participants at the workshop created the perfect basis to achieve this goal. Many of the workshop participants had extensive experience from the operational field working with incident and crisis management. Together we represented a variety of disciplines, such as resilience engineering, crisis management, cognitive systems engineering, psychology, sociology, economics, and me, a political scientist. In other words: the perfect arena for sharing knowledge and experiences and to use our collective genius to explore resilience.

Before using interactive innovation games to utilize this collective genius to answer questions such as “How should European Resilience Management Guidelines be generated?”, Professor Woods presented his latest research within the field of resilience engineering. Because of the dilution of the word resilience, Woods chose to replace the word resilience with “graceful extensibility”. According to him, graceful extensibility is “a positive capability to stretch near and beyond boundaries when surprise occurs”, and it is the “ability to continue to perform” even during a crisis. The boundaries he explained as “the limits of what the system/unit in question is capable of under normal circumstances”. And all units (i.e. systems, organisations, critical infrastructures etc.) have finite resources and boundaries.

So, what does this really mean? To illustrate this, Woods used an ancient map of the world, where everything outside the boundaries of Earth was a mysterious, black space. This space illustrates what lies outside a unit’s competence zone – such as cascading effects, frictions, and changing tempos of an event. Woods described these factors as “dragons” and argued that to be resilient you had to beware the dragons lurking in the boundaries. Or in other words, you have to know your limitations and respond to surprising situations (or dragons showing up) by extending your capabilities and adding adaptive capacity to continue to perform effectively. In other words, you have to be flexible (extend) in order to bounce back.

To me, perhaps the most interesting thing Professor Woods said in this presentation, and something that will stick with me is that because everyone has finite resources and boundaries “no unit by itself can have enough graceful extensibility”. I choose to interpret this to mean that we have to work together, across domains, across borders, across oceans and rivers and mountains, to be resilient in face of crises. Much like how we work in the DARWIN project, with different actors, with different backgrounds, from different countries. We have to utilize the collective genius to solve complicated problems and become innovative.

This is just a very, very short summary of some of the intriguing topics Woods touched upon in his presentation. And if it were up to me, we could have spent the entire day listening to and learning from him. I could also continue for pages writing about it! However, I know that you (the readers) are all busy people, so I leave you with two links to well-written articles on Woods and his theory of graceful extensibility so you can read more if you’d like to, at:


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