A week into my Research Intern post at the RSA and amongst the swarm of buzz words, project titles TLAs, people’s names and lunch recommendations there is already a glimmer of the range and impact of the RSA projects.
I find myself in the privileged position of ‘straddling’ two separate yet, as it appears, deeply connected projects. The projects come underneath the RSA’s Action and Research Centre; one is a new project, with a London Borough Council, that is part of the Connected Communities (ConCom) team and the other is part of the City Growth Commission (CGC).
Initially the obvious difference in scales of the subject areas delineates the projects very clearly, yet in reality they are looking very similar processes.
The ConCom project kick-started me back into the field this week as we visited a housing estate in West London. Previously my own PHD research has worked through long-term engagement with people to gain deeper insight into their everyday lives. This generally means spending so much time with them that they stop thinking they are being watched, or talking to them so much that they forget you are asking questions. Here we have three months to ‘get-in’, uncover a grounded theory of the issues at hand relevant to the people who live and work there, and then write up for reporting to the relevant bodies. The project is focused on the connectivity and wellbeing of individuals, what they need and what they have already got. Much of this data is likely to work inversely – mapping the location of people who are well connected will hopefully highlight those areas that are missing – where people who may need services but are failing to get them. The theory stands that a more connected community distributes services better and makes more resilient communities that are able to withstand difficult times. The project is focused on the everyday interactions of people and as such follows the ethnographic approach which looks at the ‘micro’ end of the sociological scale.
On the other end of the spectrum is the CGC – a project that will produce five research outputs around the topic of city growth in the UK. The general concern, to those already not concerned, is that London represents the ‘Problem that everyone wants’; it is also too large for the nation and we need second and third cities to grow and contribute to the national economy much more. Much work indicates a move towards a multi-polar approach to economic distribution leads to more resilient industries and organisations.
Resilience, the buzz word of the moment. Resilience is commonly understood (although not at the RSA) as the ability or capacity to recover quickly after disturbance. Whilst this definition holds true, you often see people using the term to indicate a form of robustness against the environment so that to be ‘resilient’ is synonymous with being ‘unchanging’ despite external disturbance. Yet the development of this term, which found prominence in the ecological theory of the 70s, carries with it an important difference. For C.S Holling (and later Fikret Berkes et. al) resilience was the capacity to change, to be constantly changing, in response to external pressure. This involved creating novel connections, making use of different strategies and to adapt whilst maintaining function – something that is facilitated through the use of ‘redundant’ (itself a term with competing definitions) parts. This does not mean that the system functions at equilibrium and that the resilience is the capacity to return to this equilibrium. Ultimately, this means that a resilient system is one that constantly changes in response to its environment, rather than remains stoic in defiance of it.
Regardless of possible competing definitions and uses of the term ‘resilience’, both these projects at the RSA use the term to great benefit and as such lend themselves remarkably well to systems theoretical analysis; one that focuses on parts, relations between parts and the emergent wholes. Further, multiple systems interacting within a given environment form ecosystems of information, culture and resources. This form of analysis could be comparable at multiple levels: from individuals interacting within a small housing estate in West London to multiple cities interacting across the geographic, economic and political landscape of the United Kingdom.
Whilst a systems theoretical approach may help at a descriptive level, what does it do to aid us understand the complexity of the issues at hand?
Well in part it helps to ground terms such as resilience and redundancy within a cohesive and well developed theoretical framework. Specifically, it reminds us that resilience is more about the ability to change than it is about maintaining the status quo. For the CGC this might look like facilitating more grassroot development and distributing fiscal authority along established, and soon to be improved, connections between London and the other cities. Alternatively, for the ConCom project, the issue may be a lack of connectivity - not only isolation of individuals and community-based social support, but also outwards, towards other, local, systems.
Dave Yates is a Research Intern on the RSA Connected Communities Project - you can follow him on twitter at @Dred101