Decoding Design

Resilience: the latest innovation buzzword

Posting in Architecture

Trendy business terms come and go, especially in the fields of innovation and design. "Resilience" is quickly becoming the latest, and perhaps the most practical, concept to gain popularity.

Business buzzword watchers: pay attention to the term "resilience." Obviously, since the worldwide economic meltdown began in 2008, the need to remain strong, flexible, and optimistic--in other words, resilient-- during turbulent times has been important for individuals and communities alike. Increasingly, though, experts and institutions are using the specific term "resilience" in both descriptive and prescriptive ways as an innovation (and design) strategy.

For instance, at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development earlier this week, also known as Rio +20, "resilient cities" was a topic of discussion (as Mary Catherine O'Connor reported on SmartPlanet). Also at the event, the Global Initiative on Urban Resilience (GIUR) was announced. It's an effort to focus new infrastructure and investment projects that will reduce cities' vulnerability to a number of natural disasters and other emergencies and crises. Partners include the World Bank, the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies Program on Energy, Resources, and the Environment.

Next week, the innovation community and conference organizer PopTech will host a event called "Toward Resilience" in Reykjavik, Iceland from June 27-29. The two-day gathering will feature big-thinkers such as design guru John Thackara, who has been writing about "design for resilience," as well as lesser-known speakers such as Mohammed Rezwan, an architect who uses boats to bring education, healthcare, and other services to flooded areas of Bangladesh.

It's worth noting that PopTech's curator, Andrew Zolli, also has a new book coming out (co-written with Anne Marie Healy) in July called Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back (Free Press). In the book, Zolli and Healy encourage people and systems to design ways to remain hardy in challenging times by offering a variety of examples from around the globe.

The idea of design resiliency isn't totally new, of course. From architectural firms such as HOK establishing a specialty in "renewing" existing building projects, to FastCompany publishing a brief primer on the idea a few years ago, the concept has been brewing. As Jamais Cascio wrote in that FastCompany post in 2009, "there's no universal 
'resilience theory' just yet," and while that remains true in 2012, there's clearly continued momentum.

Is resilience an "field," as PopTech describes it on its Web site? Is resilience an innovation theory? A design strategy? Merely a catchy term of the moment? No matter how one describes the word, it could prove to be an approach that will resonate both philosophically and practically for businesses, communities, and individuals alike.

Image: Bosc d'Anjou/Flickr

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure