A new Nobel Prize laureate has some wisdom to share regarding resilience. She was another surprise choice for this year’s award.
The Swedish Central Bank has awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics to Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist and a bit of a polymath, long associated with Indiana University at Bloomington.
In it’s news release, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences explains, “Elinor Ostrom has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized. Based on numerous studies of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes, and groundwater basins, Ostrom concludes that the outcomes are, more often than not, better than predicted by standard theories. She observes that resource users frequently develop sophisticated mechanisms for decision-making and rule enforcement to handle conflicts of interest, and she characterizes the rules that promote successful outcomes.”
Dr. Ostrom has empirically demonstrated that Common Property Resources, such as those identified by the Swedish Academy, are usually best managed when those appropriating the resources can work together in a context characterized by trust, social capital, common preferences, shared knowledge, collaborative experiences, focusing events and expectations of future interactions.
Is community resilience a Common Property Resource? They seem to share several characteristics. While Dr. Ostrom never refers to “resilience,” in a 2003 interview, she seems to describe it.
When you have a system that is vulnerable to disruption by external shocks — for example, a hurricane or a military invasion — the probability of error increases substantially. Polycentric governance systems are frequently criticized for being too complex, redundant, and lacking a central direction when viewed from a static, simple-systems perspective. They have considerable strengths when viewed from a dynamic, complex-systems perspective, particularly one that is concerned with the vulnerability of governance systems to external shocks.
The strength of polycentric governance systems is each of the subunits has considerable autonomy to experiment with diverse rules for a particular type of resource system and with different response capabilities to external shock. In experimenting with rule combinations within the smaller-scale unit of a polycentric system, citizens and officials have access to local knowledge, obtain rapid feedback from their own policy changes, and can learn from the experience of other parallel units. Instead of being a major detriment to system performance, redundancy builds in considerable capabilities.
If only one government exists for a large geographic area, failure of that unit to respond adequately to external threats may mean a major disaster for the entire system. If there are multiple governance units, organized at different levels for the same geographic region, a failure of one or more of these units to respond to external threats may lead to small-scale disasters. But these may be offset by the successful reaction of other units in the system.
Within the parlance of Common Property Resources, governance units include non-official arrangements between private firms and individuals. Dr. Ostrom is describing a federal system with strong intermediate partners, such as states and localities, and a diverse civil sector with a wealth of overlapping interests and influences.
In homeland security we are concerned with various forms of resilience. These include physical, social, psychological, and economic resilience. I am particularly concerned with constitutional resilience, for which the extended quote is especially relevant. But I would argue polycentrism is an essential characteristic of any category of resilience.
The more nodes in a network and the more linkages between nodes, the stronger the network. This is true of individuals, communities, economies, and every sort of system I can imagine.
(Editorial note: The last two paragraphs were added many hours after the original post.)
Important texts by Elinor Ostrom include:
Further information on Common Property Resources and related work is available from the International Association for the Study of the Commons.
OCTOBER 14 UPDATE:
Ostrom challenges Obama (The Times, London)
Nobel Prize for work on governance (Financial Times)
Why Elinor Ostrom matters (Forbes)
Finding inspiration in her roots (Globe and Mail)