The first decade of the 21st century saw an untold number of crises and disasters. From the terrorist attacks of September 11, to Hurricane Katrina, to the great recession. Catastrophes seem to be coming harder and faster than ever before. But what can we learn from these crises? When disaster strikes, why do some systems break down, while others pull through?
Author Andrew Zolli traveled the world to answer these questions. He searched for patterns of resilience through various fields and communities, hoping to learn how to build communities and corporations that can maintain their integrity under harsh circumstances. Zolli is the author of Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back.
"We see systems that are able to persist and even thrive amid disruption," Zolli says. "Those kinds of communities, organizations, individuals, that are able to maintain their core purpose with integrity amid the widest variety of circumstances and disruptions."
"In our contemporary era of globalization, things are connected in weird ways," Zolli says. "It's all sort of woven together [into] a giant hairball where you pick one string and six weird things happen downstream that become impossible to predict." What the author has found is that the powers that be are focusing less on trying to predict the unpredictable, and more on becoming better able to react to a crisis when it hits.
Whether or not a system is resilient depends on the system itself and the people who are a part of it. "One of the things that we discovered, over and over again, is that communities that are able to bounce back from disruption [have] strong social networks, [and] they have often paradoxically been places that experience failure routinely, because they have a kind of cultural memory of failure," Zolli says. "We lose a connection to history because we're constantly focused on the present."
One village in Japan has maintained that connection with its past. Zolli found that the village had suffered a massive flood around one thousand years ago, and that the survivors had built a religious shrine on a strategic hilltop to warn future generations of where the water flow had come. That shrine's presence helped save lives during the 2011 crisis when Japan suffered an earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear reactor meltdown.
"Having systems that enable us to remember when catastrophes have happened, and enable people to collaborate and cooperate when they do happen, are really critical to resilience," Zolli says.