Survive and thrive - RSA Journal - RSA

Survive and thrive


  • Community and place-based action
  • Design
  • Environment

Resilience is a new frontier for design, helping communities to respond and adapt to an uncertain future.

Whenever I am looking for some inspiration, I think of the tardigrade, a curious, eight-legged creature that is the epitome of resilience. At little more than half a millimetre long, it has been on earth for around 600 million years, survived five extinctions, can endure temperatures of up to 150ºC and as low as -270ºC, and lie dormant for up to 30 years. It’s a survivor and thriver.

It has taken a long evolution for the tardigrade to achieve its impressive state. Our species has considerably less time to adapt to a changing climate and depleting resources, but as designers we can imagine and create a future where resilience is a quality embodied in every project.

What is resilience?

Not too long ago, sustainability was seen as key to human survival and accepted as a fundamental principle of good design. We now know that sustainability is not enough – it needs to be paired with resilience.

Resilience is the process of ensuring that we can adapt, respond to, and overcome shocks and stresses and, ideally, build back better. The growing complexity and interconnectedness of modern life has increased the immediate need for resilience. Whether caused by climate change, biodiversity loss, the Covid pandemic or conflict in Ukraine, when things go wrong, instability follows, including disrupted global supply chains, interrupted services, disabled transport systems, and rising energy and food costs.

The theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking said the 21st century would be defined by complexity. He was right but didn’t go far enough... it is also being defined by volatility, uncertainty and ambiguity.

How to define resilient design?

A clearer definition and understanding of resilient design are works in progress. Too often, resilience is misinterpreted as being about managing risk rather than our ability to respond to, and recover from, sudden or severe events by strengthening the natural, social and physical systems on which we depend.

The challenge is to find design approaches that work in different scenarios and at all scales. Every system responds differently to disruptions and needs multilayered tailored solutions to become resilient by design. Imagine a neighbourhood hit by a severe storm: its resilience will be determined by the ability of the structures to withstand strong winds, the community’s willingness to pull together, their perception of safety, and availability of funding and skills to repair any damage.

What design strategies lead to resilience?

Sustainability has challenged designers to think about energy efficiency, circularity and supply chains. Resilient design is complementary and focuses on strengthening systems, so they continue to perform under stress, rather than fail suddenly or catastrophically. It is generally accepted that systems are resilient when they possess a certain set of qualities that help achieve the following outcomes:

Failure prevention

  • Being strong and robust, yet also flexible.
  • Includes built-in redundancy, even if at odds with efficiency.

Expedited recovery

  • Prepared for failure, so it is localised and limited, avoiding cascading impacts.
  • Skills and material resources are available to respond, to repair damage and to reinstate systems quickly.

Transformative resilience

  • Includes the ability to learn and adapt progressively by unlocking social capital, or utilising data and technology.

The road to resilience and a truly sustainable, regenerative future is going to be bumpy.

Dame Jo da Silva

How do we ensure our work becomes resilient by design?

This step change requires designers to adopt new ways of thinking, embrace uncertainty and contemplate the possibility of failure. When embarking on any project we need to first ask whether we are designing just for today. What about tomorrow’s world? Can we imagine the changes ahead and their impact? Rather than designing just for known conditions, are we prepared to contemplate the unknown?

Systems that aren’t resilient fail because they collapse – suddenly, catastrophically or irreversibly. To make resilience an integral part of design, we must first ask the right questions. Should we focus more design effort on ensuring things fail safely, or do we achieve durability through repairable design that lasts and is cherished? Can we draw on nature for more help in managing the consequences of climate change? And how do we create environments that enhance the resilience of nature and the ability of our children to thrive and flourish in a rapidly changing and unstable world?

Like the tardigrade, we are going to need to adapt in order to survive and thrive. The road to resilience and a truly sustainable, regenerative future is going to be bumpy. Resilience is about how we navigate that journey and design a future where humanity can flourish.

Dame Jo da Silva is Global Director of Sustainable Development at Arup and a Royal Designers for Industry (RDI) Fellow. This article is based on her December 2022 RDI Address.

Artwork by Renaud Vigourt for the RSA.

Renaud Vigourt is a French illustrator living in Besançon, France. His work appears in children’s books, international press outlets and on screen-printed posters.

This article first appeared in RSA Journal Issue 3 2023.

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