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What is resilience?

Resilience = ability to cope with and thrive in the face of change

Resilience doesn’t mean dogged survival, or a return to the past. When change happens, both positive and unwanted, resilient people, communities, industries and regions do a range of things to manage that change. At different times, they will:

PERSIST: Make small changes until things return to normal. For example, industry groups conducting online extension during a pandemic.

ADAPT: Make permanent change to adapt to ongoing change. For example, growing crops suitable for warmer, dryer climates.

TRANSFORM: Deliberate, significant change to something different. For example, shifting land use from agriculture to energy production.

All of these approaches are right at different times. This Strategy is about helping our region to persist with what is valuable, and make the adaptations and transformations that allow us to thrive.

graphic showing the steps of resilience from transforming through adapting to persistingThose that are resilient tend to have the following characteristics. The Goulburn Murray Resilience Strategy is focussed on supporting these in communities, industries and governance across our region. Click on the titles for more information on each:

Principle button Principle 1. Develop a complexing perspective

The tendency to focus on enterprises or industries in isolation from the whole system has reduced resilience by missing critical linkages, feedbacks and unintended consequences. While agricultural production and food processing are critical to economic and employment growth, the long-term resilience and wellbeing of the region is dependent on other factors such as ageing and declining populations, lifestyle land ownership, biodiversity, and ecosystem health. Developing an understanding and capacity to plan and work with this complexity is one of the most powerful steps we can take towards building a resilient region.

Principle button Principle 2. Develop governance that embraces change

Governance approaches that embrace change help a region to prepare for, respond to and learn from change. The Goulburn Broken Irrigation Futures project in the early 2000s clearly identified a suite of issues that were the precursors to most of the serious challenges the region now faces. A recent review of that work showed that despite its high quality, extensive process, the governance system was unable to move away from business as usual. We want to learn from that failure by developing an approach that can embrace change.

Principle button Principle 3. Foster cohesion, self-organisation and local responsibility

Because no one group has control of a complex system, no one can build resilience on their own. Resilience building must be a system wide, collective process. Self-organisation, local decision making, and cohesion are important for addressing local scale problems. There is very clear evidence that communities with strong social capital and capacity to self-organise suffer less during shocks and disasters and recover faster.

Principle button Principle 4. Design for flexibility

Flexibility offers long term regional resilience in the face of uncertainty by allowing for future adaptation at lower cost.

It is crucial to avoid “lock-in traps”, which occur when system feedbacks become self-reinforcing, preventing change. For example, it is possible that the relatively ‘fixed’ footprint of current infrastructure (roads, channels) may reduce land use and production system diversity. A key lesson from the Connections project is that while there may be a higher up-front cost for investing in flexibility, in the longer term it is likely to be worth it.

Principle button Principle 5. Manage networks and connectivity

Shifting demographics and land uses create new system dynamics for the region. For example:

  • The shift from largely rural communities to increasingly urban or lifestyle communities may have implications for how agriculture is practiced.
  • Management of wastes and emissions from intensive animal systems requires system wide focus.
  • Habitat connectivity is crucial for biodiversity, allowing species to move.

Principle button Principle 6. Value, retain and build response and recovery capacity

Buffers, reserves, diversity and redundancy provide long term shock absorption and rapid recovery capacity to systems. A number of recent studies suggest the economic benefits of building response and recovery capacity are significant, but that those benefits are realised over longer time frames. The prevailing paradigm is focused on shorter term efficiency and economic return at the expense of these capacities.

A Goulburn Murray example is maintenance of surface and subsurface drainage capacity, which will support future response and recovery capacity to wetter periods if and when required. Another example is Victoria’s water allocation policy. By using a rolling 2-year process it creates reserves and buffers against dry conditions.

Principle button Principle 7. Orientate towards slow variables, leverage & tipping points

There are a number of slow variables that continue to play a critical role in shaping the Goulburn Murray Region, including terms of trade on traditional commodities, labour costs and regulations, and climate change. Slow changes make the system more vulnerable to short term shocks by eroding capacity to prepare, respond and recover.

For example, lower commodities prices over time reduce buffers and reserves of capital. As a result, short term spikes in input costs or interest rates, limit the capacity to pay debt. These immediate challenges can become acute when the system has ground slowly towards a major tipping point. Teasing out the short and long-term dynamics and the presence of tipping points can generate important insights for dealing with the underlying cause of change.

Principle button Principle 8. Learn for change

Learning is critical in complex systems. Learning needs to be fostered and structured to allow local scale innovations to develop, be tested and then scaled up.

The decline in government funded Research, Development and Extension (RD&E) means a new approach to learning and innovation needs to evolve that best suits the complexity of the Goulburn Murray region. This model requires novel partnerships across private and public institutional boundaries. It requires mechanisms to collect, synthesise and share learning and a governance system that can support and enable innovations to scale up and out.

Resilience in complex systems

In the face of major drivers of change, some parts of industries within our region will be focused on persisting. However, it is more likely that we will need to continually adapt, and sometimes we will need to transform. This is because our region is a complex dynamic system. Dynamic, because it never stops moving and changing. Complex because there are many, many factors that impact what happens here. And a system because of the interconnections and feedback loops between people, infrastructure, environment, industries and all the other parts of the system, inside and out.

The iceberg model demonstrates that it is most effective to intervene more deeply within our system.

Working above the water line will not address the underlying patterns, processes and systemic structures that enable us to adapt and transform. It may take time and be harder to implement, but deep adaptation and transformation provides stronger potential to respond positively in the face of change.

graphic showing the steps of resilience from transforming through adapting to persisting

Many things we do in complex systems respond to assets and shocks, which are towards the weaker end of the spectrum. For example, changing price or harvesting quotas is a relatively easy intervention, provides short term relief or recovery supporting persistence, but ultimately fails to change the dynamics of the system so the system will experience the same crunch point in the future. In contrast, changing system structures or the underlying paradigms can produce deep system change and so offers the potential for major adaption to new conditions or fundamental transformation. We need to work below the water line to prevent negative assets and shocks from recurring.