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  • Sarah Orleans Reed

What Makes a Resilience Project Different? Enhancing Capacity to Learn and Reorganize

Read our new article “Resilience projects as experiments: Implementing climate change resilience in Asian cities” in the journal Climate and Development.

“There have been activities building resilience in the past, but using other words or program titles,” noted one ACCCRN (Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network) partner from Semarang, Indonesia. As my co-authors and I began meeting with ACCCRN partners to reflect on our experiences of project implementation, observations like this seemed to come up time and time again.

They are right, of course. Most resilience projects encompass types of activities that international development projects have supported for years—such as community resource management, rainwater harvesting, early warning systems, participatory planning, or revolving loan schemes, to name a few.

We find that this observation generally provokes one of two responses in people.

The first is anxiety. Many local implementers tend to worry: with all these new tools and expert advisers, shouldn’t we be able to find something new, something totally innovative, to tackle emerging urban climate vulnerabilities? Are we doing something wrong?

The other typical response is cynicism. In this view, “resilience” is the new banner under which to hang the same old approaches. It is spin, more than substance. (This critique may be justified to some degree, since the term “resilience” is so frequently invoked among international development agencies without attention to the complex systems theory that underpins it.)

Even as ACCCRN partners ourselves, we often struggled to make a compelling counterargument. We did feel there was something about our resilience projects that made them more impactful than the sum of their activities. But we often failed to articulate what.

If we are doing the same things, what makes resilience projects different?

In 2012, we embarked upon a process of facilitated learning with a wide range of ACCCRN project implementers. Focus group sessions, interviews, and facilitated workshops helped us collectively reflect on the most significant changes from ACCCRN projects, why these were important, and how implementers made them possible.

Many of us did identify tangible improvements in lives and livelihoods as a result of ACCCRN projects. Yet projects were seen as most effective when they:

  • Helped to facilitate a shared understanding of urban systems. In a number of ACCCRN cities, partners now understand the multiple and interlinked causes of recent flood disasters, including formal development of low-lying areas.

  • Strengthened collaborations and networks. Stakeholder groups that were previously rivals are sharing information, comparing analysis, and deliberating on key topics on a regular basis.

  • Provided public access to information and/or generated new information. Reliable water quality and flood monitoring systems are allowing stakeholders to act independently and collectively. These may be spurring demand for greater access to public data, plans, and budgets.

  • Provided space for new, experimental approaches. Stakeholders have been able to try, fail, and learn from new approaches to providing local services, restoring ecological services, or managing shared resources.

  • Promoted greater engagement of citizens with the state. Stakeholder coalitions have been mobilized and in some cases prevented ill-conceived development projects from moving forward.

  • Supported the use of climate change information by city institutions. Governments or other actors are applying information about climate change to help to improve decision-making around new investments and spatial plans.

These results echo insights from studies of socio-ecological systems, which recognizes the capacity to learn and reorganize as a basic characteristic of resilience.

What does it mean for us to distinguish resilience projects from any project that enhances the capacity to learn and reorganize? For one thing, it shifts the focus from what you are doing to how you are doing it. Development organizations are always looking for technical “best practices” to replicate across contexts. But the same technical intervention in one place may have completely different results in another place, depending on who is involved and how the project is facilitated.

Our findings suggest that the approach, rather than the activity itself, is what we should be replicating.

In a way then, the cynics are right; good development practitioners have known this for years. Resilience thinking underlines the need to focus not on delivering robust technical results, but on providing a platform for learning, interaction, information sharing, coalition building, and generating accountability.

“Resilience projects as experiments: Implementing climate change resilience in Asian cities“ is available open access on our website.

The article is co-authored by Sarah Orleans Reed, Richard Friend, Jim Jarvie, Pakamas Thinphanga, Phong Tran, Dilip Singh, Ratri Sutarto, and Justin Henceroth. The authors would like to thank the Rockefeller Foundation for their support of ACCCRN and our research, as well as APCO International for supporting the open access release of this article. We are most grateful to all of those who participated in the research or provided feedback throughout the process.

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