Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 18, 2012

Non-resilience through suppression of diversity and self-organization

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 18, 2012

Another definition for resilience:

Resilience is an innate tendency, usually consisting of several inter-related parts, that allows a system to flex under stress and bounce-back to something similar to its preexisting condition once the stress is lessened or removed.

Three inter-related parts that seem to recur in many systems:

Resilience is more likely to emerge if the system is characterized by diversity, decentralization (self-organization), and adaptation (including the improvisational and opportunistic sorts).

The more diverse roles and functions embedded in a system (nation, region, community, company, neighborhood, firm, family or many other examples) the more likely one or more of the roles and functions will effectively adapt to stress.

The more self-organizing a system —  the  more capable participants are to choose and act in accordance with Strange Attractors of Meaning — the more likely some participant will find an effective way of adapting to stress.

Resilience can mitigate the negative consequences of change through adaptation. Resilience expects change and spawns structural and behavioral characteristics that accept considerable change as a way of avoiding catastrophic change. Diversity does not ensure effective adaptation.  A decentralized and/or self-organizing system produces many mal-adaptive features.  But the more diverse and self-organizing the system the more likely the system will generate – nurture and facilitate – effective adaptation.


These notions began to knock about last Wednesday afternoon.  I had lunch with a FEMA colleague and we talked about how efficiency often conflicts with resilience.  After lunch, before driving to Dulles to catch a plane, I walked over to the Hirshhorn Museum to see the new Ai Weiwei exhibit.

Ai Weiwei is a leading Chinese artist.  If you pay any attention to such things you know he has been in trouble with the authorities:  arrested, jailed, beaten, fined, and not allowed to leave China.  But until visiting the exhibit I had forgotten what started his troubles. As recently as the 2008 Olympics Ai Weiwei was officially celebrated.

Entering the exhibit the visitor is confronted by a huge wall covered in Chinese characters, clearly a listing or inventory of something (see below).   A small English-language label explains these are the names and basic details of 5385 school children who died at their desks in the May 12, 2008 Sichuan Earthquake.  Ai Weiwei and other artists began to collect and publish the names when the government failed to do so.  The artists’ investigation also suggested official corruption in school construction had contributed to many of the deaths.

The entire list of dead school children is available here.

An audio recording announces each name.  Several other pieces in the exhibit are related to the destruction and death — and official deceit — related to the earthquake.

Another small English-language label quotes the artist:

A name is the first and final marker of individual rights, one fixed part of the ever-changing human world.  A name is the most basic characteristic of our human rights: no matter how poor or how rich, all living people have a name, and it is endowed with good wishes, the expectant blessings of kindness and virtue.

In acting on this Strange Attractor of Meaning, Ai Weiwei has earned official censure, unofficial violence, and a sustained effort to suppress his inclination to diversity and self-organization.


The world is ever-changing.  We face this flux with a small set of (near) certainties:  my name, your name, the nature of our relationship.  In some relationships — such as this blog — even the names are uncertain.

But in this digital space and its most proximate socio-political space, diversity proliferates and self-organization permeates.  Problems are presented and debated, proposed solutions even more so.  Expectations of kindness and virtue are often disappointed.  You dismiss me as a  Pollyanna (effeminate fictional character).  I decide you are a selfish cynic (dog-like).  But despite ourselves: we listen a tad, we learn a bit, we adapt grudgingly to one another.

I do not seek to deny or diminish our difficulties.  I wish for more kindness and virtue.  But especially in the face of cruelty and cravenness I am glad to be part of a system that does not suppress diversity of opinion and self-organization of solutions.

I predict plenty of troubles ahead — whoever is elected, whatever becomes of the Euro, regardless of why the earth is warming, no matter what Israel does (or does not do) to Iran or vice-versa, however Assad falls — there will be dark days. Want to debate that?

It is clear to me that whatever troubles descend we will be better off if we nurture diversity and facilitate self-organization.   From the relationship of these two characteristics emerges adaptability and in an ever-changing world adaptability is the best friend we’ve got.

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1 Comment »

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 18, 2012 @ 2:17 am


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