Societal resilience as a strategic dimension: The quest for better metrics

As a result of the current pandemic and the concurrent economic, social, and climate crises, there is an increasing preoccupation for societal resilience in Europe and the US.

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated national and regional efforts in forecasting and preparing emergency reactions. Crisis management tools often gained priority over the idea of broader societal resilience.

The latter, a relatively new term for the broader public and for some decision-makers, reflects the capacity of a community to resist and recover after a crisis. The shift from the narrow focus on institutional capacity to the broader consideration for societal resilience marks a relevant acceptance of contemporary interdependencies and the importance of multi-stakeholder collaborations.

As a result of the current pandemic and the concurrent economic, social, and climate crises, there is an increasing preoccupation for societal resilience in Europe and the US.

The European Commission has launched a comprehensive effort to enhance resilience in Europe through its new Strategic Foresight process. Its prototype resilience dashboards focus on the socio-economic, geopolitical, green and digital dimensions in member states and aims to inform the EU policy-making process.

Moreover, NATO’s resilience baseline requirements reveal an agenda of strengthening national resilience as a combination of civil preparedness and military capacity under the provisions of Article 3. Since 2017, the US National Security Strategy has included the goal to improve security and resilience across six key areas: national security, energy and power, banking and finance, health and safety, communications, and transportation.

At the moment, the existing methodologies of resilience measurement are based on national-level inputs. We argue that for such measurements to be operational they require in-depth data on vulnerabilities and capabilities at a more granular level (e.g., local level).

An increasing number of studies point to the contribution of subnational capabilities in creating a more resilient economy or ensuring the green transition. A recent OECD study shows how much more vulnerable subnational governments are in the face of Covid-19. Consequently, methodologies of foresight should be designed to account for such sources of strength (or weakness) at subnational level too. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemics, the local social, economic and administrative capacity has proven paramount for societal resilience and potential for post-crisis recovery.

The weakest link

We are only as powerful as our weakest links, and the Covid-19 crisis confirmed the extent of large subnational disparities in some of the EU member states. Especially in the case of the European Eastern and Southern periphery, there were large differences between local communities’ capacity to manage the crisis and recover from it.

Good governance played a notable role in mediating the impact of the crisis, which implied both a high level of preparedness, as well as the agility to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances. Resilience was often driven by a collaborative approach between various local actors—public administrations, private companies, volunteers and civil society organisations.

The World Bank has long looked at the cities capacity to react and recover to a disaster. Almost a decade ago, their urban resilience framework highlighted the key dimensions of infrastructure, institutions, social and economic. Within such a multi-dimensional framework we can properly assess the collaborative elements that consolidate local resilience. However, there is a scarcity of comprehensive granular data even within the EU.

Solid foundations

Resilience can and should be built upon a solid foundation of sustainable development at local level. We have a very poor understanding at the moment of the extent to which European cities and towns are actually prepared to engage in a long-term sustainable development process.

The current overlapping crises (i.e. health, climate, economic) mean that local communities need to address at the same time measures targeting healthcare and disaster management capabilities, but also engage proactively in taking full advantage of the new economic model and the green transition. Decisive local action today can only be based on solid baseline assessments and a clear strategic integrated planning. For all this, better diagnostic tools are needed.

The current resilience metrics have a limited coverage of the inherent tensions between resilience dimensions (e.g., security vs. economic resilience) and poor mapping of the existent tensions between different stakeholders engaged in resilience-building (e.g., public vs. private sector, Western vs. EU Member States). Finally, there is a need for a shared understanding of resilience in the Transatlantic space, and for different International Organisations (IOs) (e.g., NATO, WHO, OECD). Common metrics mean common objectives and common objectives can lead to more effective common actions.

The Aspen Institute Romania, in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund (GMF), currently develops and pilots in the Republic of Moldova and Romania a comprehensive resilience measurement.

This is complementary to the newly launched Strategic Foresight initiative of the European Commission (EC). Such a measurement could contribute to a better understanding of how communities react when facing crises and could inform decision-makers about available avenues for action.

It has two main goals: 1) to address in a unitary manner the different resilience metrics used by international stakeholders (e.g., EU, NATO, OECD) and 2) to identify an appropriate measurement strategy at community-level that is not context sensitive and can be applied to other countries. Its preliminary findings will be presented at the Atlantic Black Sea Security Forum 2021, and the full datasets will be publicly available by the end of the year.

This article was co-authored by Sergiu Gherghina, a senior lecturer at the University of Glasgow and director of the Centre for Government Studies and Security Policies (UBB).

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About the author

Clara Volintiru

Clara Volintiru

Clara Volintiru is Professor of International Relations at the Bucharest University of Economic Studies (ASE) and Director of the New Economy and Society Programme at the Aspen Institute Romania.

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