Page 7 - Final Report-8 NO TRANSPARENCY

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Resilient urban systems:
a socio-technical study of community scale climate change adaptation initiatives
System brittleness can also be introduced by system users, as an unforeseen consequence of the aim to
perfect the performance and maintenance of a system to such a degree that users rarely experience any
kind of change. In this situation, when change does happen, it is so outside the range of users’ experience
that the social consequences can lead to even greater disruption and tip a disturbance into system
collapse (Chappells and Shove, 2004, Trentmann, 2009). For example, during a breakdown of the Hong
Kong Mass Transit Railway in 1996, what started as a track-circuit defect escalated to a serious incident
involving hospitalisations simply due to the reaction of large numbers of passengers pressing alarms
(Trentmann, 2009). These passengers had become normalised to a system where 99.9 percent of journeys
took place with no incident (ibid.). The reverse has also been found, where households or communities
are so accustomed to coping with a repeated event within a tolerable level that they are unable to foresee
an event of a magnitude that they may not cope with. This has occurred in Canada where communities
normalised to routine flooding of a river were unwilling to respond to repeated warnings of a serious flood
that they were unprepared and unable to cope with (Ibid.). Resilience, therefore, does not result from the
technical perfection of a system, or from better communication, but rather from facilitating, encouraging and
maintaining the capacity of all elements of the system to adapt. In the types of (socio-technical) systems
analysed in this report, resilience arises from the nature of, and interactions between, technical, social
and institutional elements within the energy and water systems. Each of these three domains can work
individually or together to increase or decrease a system’s resilience.
Why use this approach?
Consider a system that delivers water from an inland reservoir to wash clothes in
someone’s home. In this case, a specific disturbance (a fire in the catchment) might contaminate the water
causing the system to fail in its core function (to deliver water for washing clothes). Conventionally, resilience
might be built into this system through various technical means such as improved fire response equipment,
links to another supply reservoir, or use of a treatment facility. However effective these responses may
be, a purely technical approach to understanding system resilience is unnecessarily narrow and can miss
opportunities for achieving more effective or more efficient outcomes.
System resilience can be demonstrated and enhanced in alternative ways. In the example just given,
changes in technical arrangements might also involve the addition of a local water source (such as a
rainwater tank). But doing so will also require a change in the institutional and social characteristics of that
system: institutional—because a new, more localised governance arrangement will be needed to ensure
the tank is maintained; and social—because the laundering practices of householders may need to adapt
to the new water source. Alternatively, resilience might be increased by a change in the social acceptance
of how frequently clothes need to be washed, with a subsequent reduction in water demand for washing.
A more significant shift in the system might also occur, with householders adopting a waterless form of
clothes washing. In this example, the technical, social and institutional nature of the system is completely
transformed, while the desired outcome is maintained.
The key notion in our conception of resilience is the capacity for adaptation (technical, institutional or
social) to maintain a desired outcome
to change the nature of the desired outcome in response to a
In some circumstances, adaptation can occur that ameliorates certain conditions while exacerbating
others. Such ‘maladaptation’ is typically associated with decisions that address a short-term problem while
undermining efforts to address the bigger issue (Barnett and O’Neill, 2010). For example, a householder
may decide to install an air-conditioner in response to heatwaves, which inadvertently increases the burden
on the electricity grid during periods of peak demand, increases the use of energy resources and reduces
the householder’s tolerance to variable indoor temperatures (De Dear and Brager, 2002, Wilkenfeld, 2004).
In this case, the air conditioner is a maladaptive response to the problem of heat discomfort.