Wednesday, 16 April 2008

RESILIENCE 2008: RESILIENCE, ADAPTION AND TRANSFORMATION IN TURBULENT TIMES

By MELISSA LEACH, STEPS Centre director

To watch live coverage of panel discussions, workshops and key presentations from Resilience 2008, log on to Web TV.

Four of us from THE STEPS Centre (myself, Andy Stirling, Adrian Smith and Sally Brooks) are here in Stockholm at 'Resilience 2008: Resilience, Adaptation and Transformation in Turbulent Times'. This is a big (600 plus) flagship conference of the Resilience Alliance network, co-organised with several Swedish organisations.

Key amongst these is the new Stockholm Resilience Centre, which was formally inaugrated at about the same time as the STEPS Centre last year and which occupies a beautiful building in the old University vet school.

On Monday evening we all gathered for its 'housewarming', amidst much Swedish music and song.... (!) In welcoming us, Johan Rockstrom who directs the Resilience Centre said 'we often claim that we are the largest gathering of interdisciplinary researchers in Sweden; tonight we house the largest gathering of interdisciplinary researchers in the world'.

And a lively, dynamic gathering it is too, with a great mix of high-level plenaries, panels, speed-talks, posters, and even an art exhibition and musical concert on resilience themes. Science meets art and the humanities here in reflecting on social-ecological-technological dynamics, uncertainties and surprise, and how societies might deal with them - with debates ranging across issues from climate change and food systems to urbanisation and coastal changes. Given how much is going on it's impossible to follow everything, but we have been spreading ourselves out as best we can and picking up on some of the key lines of debate - and tension.

Despite the avowed interdisciplinarity of resilience studies, one such tension is still beteween those who come primarily from an ecological science or a social science perspective. Brian Walker's introductory talk, and Steve Carpenter's plenary today, both argued that the tendency for ecologists to 'black-box' social processes and social scientists to black-box ecological ones, badly needs to be overcome.

But many talks here expose how far this is not happening - yet. Meanwhile, panels that Adrian has been contributing to indicate that technology-focused perspectives and work on socio-technical transitions provide a further view, and integrating this with studies of socio-ecological systems is not straightforward.

A second area of lively discussion is addressing the relationships between resilience and development, and between work on resilience, adaptation and vulnerability. What are the convergences and dissonances between these different strands of work? How far might a focus on maintaining system resilience undermine the position of particular vulnerable groups? Do we need to define more clearly 'resilience of what, for whom'? There is much talk here of multi-scale analysis and governance, but what about the politics of scale - and the ways that different scales of analysis are aligned with different social and political concerns?

Some of these issues were discussed in the STEPS-Oxford panel organised by Tom Downing which Andy and I presented in, where we suggested ways that the STEPS pathways framework offered ways forward.

Yesterday afternoon, a panel on development and adaptation involving Emily Boyd and Polly Eriksen from Oxford, along with Emma Tompkins, Henny Osbahr and Hallie Eakin, debated vulnerability-resilience 'trade-offs' head-on. The ways in which 'resilience' (like 'development') can be co-opted as a disempowering discourse were raised. But these more politicised discussions are fairly rare in a conference that for the most part sees systems as 'out there' and the problems facing society as shared, even if often difficult to deal with.

In addition to the chance to reflect on these dilemmas and meet up with those sharing them in the coffee breaks around the Aula Magna's gallery (and last night, over drinks in the designer boutique hotel owened by Abba's Benny Anderson) high points of these days for me have included a brilliant talk on urban system challenges and social movements; and an excellent panel on globalisation, tipping points and the new social contracts that may be required for governance in this context.

In a packed plenary, Steve Carpenter has just given us a system's ecologist's perspective on scenarios and imaginations for global futures. And Eric Lambin is about to fill another hall, I suspect, in a session on land use transitions. Rich stuff indeed. And lots of fuel for our thinking in the STEPS centre, both in our projects and in our own 'Reframing Resilience' symposium planned for September this year which will follow up on a number of the debates aired here.

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