Resilience is the capacity to reorganize after a disruption without losing what is essential. The capacity for a social system (e.g., individuals, organizations, neighbourhoods, communities, whole societies) to absorb disturbance and adapt where necessary, while undergoing significant change, is the defining characteristic of someone or something that is resilient. It is now often referred to as our society’s most valuable asset.

If we return to the model of the the Adaptive Cycle (see Dip into Social Innovation), you’ll notice that the cycle does not ever reach an ‘end point’; it is not linear but infinite. This tells us that once an idea, organization or community reaches maturity, it needs to remain open to change and exploration to retain its resilience. We know that systems that effectively introduce novelty (e.g., new products, services, ideas) and that intentionally re-engage vulnerable populations, are more resilient, ie:  able to adapt positively to change.

As you learn more about the process and dynamics of social innovation, you realize that the big goal is not necessarily to get to the ultimate solution to a problem. While we do definitely want to see positive change occur on our most pressing problems, a long-term goal is to work to enhance the overall state of any system so that it has capacity to continually learn, adapt and transform present and future challenges.

As we think about social innovation particularly, resilience theory also encourages us at times to pay attention to how the resilience of a system can be inhibiting the conditions for the kind of large scale change that we believe is needed. It is the kind of resilience that sees a system maintain itself despite having a cumulatively negative impact on the environment or society. We might see these systems trapped in the conservation stage – unwilling or perhaps unable to release the resources necessary for positive transformation. When an innovator looks at a system in this state, he or she is looking for specific points of weakness or windows of opportunity to try and push that system into a new set of circumstances.

Look through this powerpoint to get an introductory understanding of resilience as a theory and lens for social innovation.


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In the Dive section you can watch a comprehensive webinar by Frances Westley that goes into these concepts further.

The next report looks at the motivation, development and outcomes associated with a unique collaboration between a group of regional funders. Together, they launched the Waterloo Region Resiliency Initiative (RI) in late 2009 to enhance the resiliency of the nonprofit sector through new forms of collaboration, capacity building, and innovation. This ground breaking initiative aimed to support transformational change within and across organizations as a means of strengthening the sector’s capacity to weather economic changes and increase effectiveness.

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From a regional initiative to a national funding organization who decided to reframe their funding processes using a resilience lens. Tim Brodhead’s paper below reveals why the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation decided to focus on building Canadian resilience and the impact that had on the programs they support

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SiG has produced an entire webinar series on topics related to social innovation, which you can find in our video collection. In our webinar with Frances Westley, she explored the related concepts of social innovation and resilience. She offers some theoretical frameworks which can be useful to those who want to assess the resilience of their idea, organization, or part of a system. In addition, these same thinking tools can help in developing strategies that focus on either building up or breaking down resilience in systems.

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If you’re interested in more resilience theory, especially as it relates to innovative public policy, read this paper by Moore, Tjornbo, Holroyd and Westley. They examine new ways to approach policy development in order to support resilience across scales, from individuals to whole societies.

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Note: A complete list of all SiG educational resources can be found in our publicly-available document library. We hope you’ve found this pathway to learning about resilience helpful