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Society needs to learn from resilient ecosystems if it is to better cope with unanticipated shocks in the future, say experts.

The call comes ahead of a conference on resilience begins today at the Australian National University in Canberra, hosted by Australia 21.

"Resilience is about how we [as individuals or as organisations or societies] bounce back from adversity, from shocks", says Dr Steven Cork, who leads Australia 21's Resilience Project.

He says thinking about resilience is important because humans are facing many challenges that are beyond our control to predict and control - from climate change to the global financial crisis.

"We keep being hit by more and more things that we weren't anticipating," says Cork.
Learning from ecology

Cork says resilience is a feature that has been recognised in the field of ecology for many years.

He says one feature of a resilient ecosystem is that it can more easily bounce back from a shock when it has the ability to keep functioning if one part collapses.

But, says Cork, the typical society relies on centralised networks that are vulnerable to threats.

"It's all dependent on one or a few people or agencies. If they collapse then the whole system collapses," says Cork.
Resilient cities

Professor Peter Newman of the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute in Fremantle says most cities are not built for resilience.

"At the moment our resource consumption is all based on infrastructure that is highly centralised," says Newman, who will address the Canberra conference.

"You have big power plants that pump electricity across hundreds of kilometres, and you have big water supply schemes and big pipes in and big pipes out."

Newman says recent events showed how vulnerable this made the Western Australian capital of Perth, which suffered an economic blow after the natural gas pipeline that supplies it was cut by an explosion.

"The city had no gas virtually for six months," says Newman, who has recently co-authored a book detailing seven principles of sustainable cities.

"Industry basically had to close down for that period."

Newman says a more resilient city would consist of smaller interconnected components, which were largely self-sufficient, collecting renewable energy and re-using it locally.

"If you cut the gas supply to the city, as occurred in Perth, the city can go on because it has all these other components."

Newman says "distributed" energy and better public transport would help decrease dependence on fossil fuels, reduce energy waste, and improve the liveability of cities.
Natural resource management

Cork points to how resilience thinking is being applied to natural resource management.

He says the Federal Government is now providing most of the funding for conservation and better land management.

"So whether the Federal Government gets its policy right or wrong will determine the whole outcome. That's not a resilient situation," says Cork.

He says people at the local level need to be given more authority to detect change and make decisions, because they have a better idea of what is going on in the field.

"You don't send an army into the field and wait for generals to make all the decisions. You give people in the field the authority to make decisions," says Cork.

Cork says studies of personal resilience show the ability to recover from a serious illness, for example, is linked to a sense of personal control.

"And yet our health system is all about taking that control away from you."
Resourcing communities

Cork says these examples highlight the importance of resourcing communities to nurture a diversity of skills and ideas.

"The more we try to simplify everything and make it more efficient in terms of cost efficiency, we reduce diversity and reduce spare capacity," he says.

Cork says the Black Saturday fires showed systems that were supposedly under central control failed while the most useful solutions were found by communities themselves, drawing on trust, co-operation and support networks.

"One of the lessons from experiences like this is we need to have central control, but we also have to resource people on the ground - the volunteers and the local fire fighters - so they can find their own solutions."
Sustainable futures

Australia 21 director, and CSIRO research fellow, Dr Brian Walker says this idea is relevant in the development of a resilient global food production system.

We will need to resource small food producers as much as develop high tech solutions, he says.

Walker says designing for resilience also requires us to consider the impacts of human actions on the bigger picture.

He says the failure to consider complex interactions has pushed many systems towards a "tipping point" of no return.

For example, says Walker, a focus on optimising farm production without regard to impacts on the ecosystem that support farms, has led to large areas becoming useless due to salinity.

Similarly, he says, climate change has occurred because people have focused on producing energy without regard for longer term effects.

Walker says if society decided to optimise long-term human wellbeing then very different decisions would be made.

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