Adaptive Resistance?


Earlier this month I spoke at the Centro Gabriela Mistral (GAM) in Santiago, Chile, to contribute to their 3rd International Seminar in Cultural Management, which had as its theme Future Scenarios. Unfortunately for my dream of visiting Neruda’s house, but happily for my carbon footprint, this took place on line so I was ‘at’ my desk, though I did move all my Neruda books into the background… 

You can read my keynote, Adaptive resistance: why resilience matters if you want to change the changing world here (pdf) and here (html). The graphic summary above by @keepideascl summarises the talk, and the questions afterwards. (What a generous portrait, too.) You can also, should you be so inclined, practice your Spanish by watching the video with translation here, whilst amusing yourself at my ‘Not worried’ adaptively resilient face as we gradually worked out the best way to do that translation given the technologies/platforms at play.  (One very beneficial side effect of writing a talk in advance – to help interpreters be they BSL or Spanish – is it’s there should you need to shift to improvise, and there to share afterwards.)

The talk covers some ground which will be familiar to regular readers of this blog. (Hello! Hope you’re both well!) It builds on the talk I gave for Arts & Business Northern Ireland in May. But I also feel a need to for some different emphases right now. For those who don’t want to read the full thing, here’s some ‘highlights’…

I wanted to emphasise at this uncertain, contradictory, perhaps calamitous historical moment – in which Chile has been experiencing its own situations and protests – not the aspects which help with survival, nor those that might help people thrive in normal times, but how resilience can be connected with resistance rather than accommodation, with changing the changing world not simply coping with it. Although the term gets connected to accommodating ‘the neoliberal hegemony’ – what Mark Stewart long ago was maybe thinking of when he described ‘learning to cope with cowardice’ perhaps – my own take is that for all the elements of truth in that critique, it is remains useful when taken out of an individualist framing. (The bigger the person’s HR dept the more the R word seems to irritate, by the way, which is probably understandable.) I had used the idea before hearing her, but I was challenged to draw this out by a talk I heard Jess Thom give a few years ago. She said ‘Building resilience is an act of resistance’, and I agree with her. 

We should not see resilience as a skill to cope with a cracked world, but one that helps us fulfill our purpose even in better times. (To put it differently: maybe we need to be resilient to comfort as well as set-backs.)  Certainly in the UK, Covid, Black Lives Matters, and to a less degree unfortunately so far, the climate emergency has thrown much of the sector into the release phase at the moment. For all its pain, the adaptive cycle may be useful in making the most of this moment. As I suggested in Multiplying Leadership, we should aim to create healthy systems, not individuals that can ‘cope’. But sticking around in an adaptive and resilient manners, as it gives you the opportunity to be useful, to be valuable to others as well as yourself within actually existing systems.

I tried out a slightly rejigged working definition of adaptive resilience which reflects learning from the last ten years, including that resilient organisation do not just adapt to the world, passively or pro-actively, they can positively influence it. This is the first time I’ve shared this in this way:

Adaptive resilience is the capacity to be productive, loved/valued and true to core purpose and identity whilst absorbing disturbance, adapting with integrity in response to changing circumstances and positively influencing the environment.

[I’m still a bit uncertain about parts of this, fiddling between loved and valued, wanting to simplify/cut some parts, so any feedback welcome. I will write about it separately soon.]

That ongoing productivity, core purpose and identity matter even more now not just because of the pandemic. Covid 19 is not a metaphor but the loss and trauma it is causing can be seen in the rear view mirror as well as in front of us. The vulnerabilities culture must be aware of are growing. It was the case even before Covid 19 if you were paying attention to the climate emergency, to racial violence and injustice, to the ecological and political crises forcing people to migrate and seek refuge, and to local issues. In the UK we have had seismic political shifts, leading to our leaving the European Union, growing racism and –incidentally or perhaps not – a downgrading of arts education in schools and universities. If we as a sector are not aware of and responding to these things, using our situation awareness, we are not just vulnerable, we risk being redundant. 

Fundamentally we need to root our cultural work in positive, collaborative social values and purpose, and centre resilience thinking around using assets for people-centred care, creativity and connection more than income streams. To do this we need to build trust and shift power by ‘Connecting, Collaborating and Multiplying’, as I’ve written about previously. We are seeing people do this where they see others not primarily as income streams but as fellow humans. At the same time, we have to build up new, collective, un-common sense as we have seen glimpses of in the pandemic, in social struggles across the world and in young people’s declaration of a climate emergency. Resilience matters, in the end, because we need new and longstanding creative thinkers and doers – and I see lots of them – to stick around to change the changing world.

I ended my talk quoting the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, who wrote that ‘these are calamitous times we’re living through/you can’t speak without committing a contradiction’. I know this to be true. I can live with that. 

As another poet, the Syrian writer known as Adonis, said ‘Am I full of contradictions? That is correct.’