Defining 'resilience' as an innovation strategy

At the PopTech conference in Camden, Maine, a wide spectrum of speakers--and attendees--discussed resilience in humanitarian, technological, and even philosophical contexts.
Written by Reena Jana, Contributor
Sandro Galea, a doctor and epidemiologist, and Moran Cerf, a bank robber turned neuroscientist, onstage at PopTech

CAMDEN, ME -- On a chilly October day, a stone's throw from a postcard-perfect New England harbor and across from an adorable town square, a group that included chief executives, grad students, physicians, public-school educators, activists, scientists, and artists gathered. Some members of this diverse crowd, assembled for the annual PopTech conference from October 17-20 at the Camden Opera House, were from large companies such as Nike, Google, and Procter & Gamble. Others were the twentysomething founders of start-ups that no one has ever heard of--yet. Or they were academics, investors, designers, engineers.

They came to listen to, and mingle with, the head of a public school for pregnant girls in Detroit; a Paralympic World Cup snowboarding gold medalist; an Icelandic childcare specialist; and a bank robber/hacker turned neuroscientist, among many others. While this roster is only a tiny sample of the PopTech speaker list, it offers a taste of the broad spectrum of voices and stories presented on the Opera House stage. As varied as they are, they all share the common theme of "resilience." It is a topic that is gaining momentum not only as a coping strategy in an age of economic uncertainty and dramatic natural disasters, but also as an innovation strategy, too. And the first day of PopTech offered a number of lenses from which to understand the concept, which is also the conference's theme.

"Resilience is the ability to recover, persist, or even thrive under disruption," Andrew Zolli, curator and executive director of PopTech, said in his opening remarks.

"It's not the same thing as robustness. It's not the same thing as redundancy. It's not about reserves. And it's not about real-time information," Zolli continued.


What the speakers shared in common on the first day of the conference was the view that individuals, organizations, and communities may be able to come up with inventive solutions to difficult challenges by simply first acknowledging that they will face adversity at some point, in some form.

"We've ingrained in our minds that bad things happen to others," Sandro Galea, a doctor and chair of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, said on the PopTech stage. He went on to say that resilience may be a path that people can choose to take, instead of resistance to trauma or, sadly, dysfunction after being traumatized. The big question for innovative thinkers: how to come up with ways to maximize the number of people in our communities or organizations who can "bounce back" from difficulty, as Galea defined resilience.

This can likely be achieved by improving our environments, he said. (This could mean designing cities or neighborhoods where people could walk more to reduce obesity and improve their health, for instance.)

The day was also filled with heartfelt stories of bouncing back; these narratives were shared by speakers who embodied resilience. Seventeen-year-old Olympic boxing champ Claressa Shields discussed how she overcame a past of poor anger management while she was a taunted child in blighted Flint, Michigan. Double amputee Amy Purdy, an "adaptive" snowboarding champion with prosthetic legs, discussed not only her own accomplishment of overcoming her physical challenges, but also how she has co-founded an organization, Adaptive Action Sports, that encourages amputees to engage in competitive play.

Amy Purdy, an "adaptive" snowboarding champion and advocate for amputee empowerment via sports

Others told of observing and helping others experiencing severe trauma and how they worked to regain a sense of normalcy and functionality in their lives, from people forced to migrate for political and other reasons, to children in resource-challenged areas who seek education. In each of these presentations, more definitions of resilience emerged. Jennifer Leaning, a physician and professor at Harvard's School of Public Health and who has worked in Afghanistan and on the Chad-Darfur border, described resilience as "the capacity to return to a prior state of balance...with a positive sense of self...and a sense of the future."


Despite the focus on resilience as a tool for inventive new services, products, and design, PopTech's first day also offered helpful warnings to anyone interested in pursuing the path to resiliency. Galea, for instance, said that "we should not lose sight of resistance in the discussion of resilience." In other words, although it's great to plan for things to go wrong, from tsunamis to stock market crashes, and then learn how to cope, it is still very valuable to prevent future difficulty as well. How? By learning from what to avoid, too, along with reacting to it.

John Doyle, a well-known systems scientist and CalTech professor, offered a specific warning. "Watch out for biomimicry," he said in an onstage question-and-answer period after his talk, referring to a popular innovation tactic of copying nature for design and engineering inspiration, often discussed in the context of resilience. His statement could be interpreted as cautioning the audience to realize that even the recipes for resilience may not always be easy solutions.

And Bill Shore, chief executive of Share Our Strength, a non-profit organization that aims to end childhood hunger, offered perhaps less of a warning and more a bit of advice. "Don't be afraid of breaking rules," Shore said. "It's a strategic necessity...in social innovation." He said that not playing by the book allows people to move more quickly; when dealing with hunger, poverty, disaster relief, disease, violence, and other humanitarian problems, efficiency and speed can be more important than following any sort of bureaucratic standard procedure.


Many of the other highlights of the day were short presentations by PopTech's current crew of Science and Social Innovation Fellows, whose work reflected the theme of resilience--and new ways to achieve it. These presenters ranged from Sriram Kosuri, a biological engineer at Harvard's Wyss Institute working on using DNA as a digital storage vehicle (its super small size could cut down the need for massive data centers), to Andreas Raptopolous, CEO and founder of Matternet, a company that uses small unmanned flying vehicles to quickly deliver medicine to disaster areas and other communities in need.

While it was only the first of three days of exploring the potential of resilience-focused innovation, day one of PopTech succeeded in setting the stage for not only the rest of the conference, but also the hard work that comes afterward. For one of the goals of PopTech's Camden event is to create and maintain an active network of cross-disciplinary collaboration that lasts far beyond the event. And not only among its speakers, fellows, or even conference attendees, but anyone interested in joining the conversation--and action. The wide range of presentations on October 17 illustrated that resilience, like innovation, can be achieved in numerous, and perhaps even countless, ways.

Images: Thatcher Cook for PopTech/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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