The New Resilience


In the wake of COVID-19 and global economic convulsions, the dialogue on business resilience has transformed. This is because the external business context has undergone a series of profound global disruptions, of which the pandemic is just the latest.

In technology, think the Web, the Internet of Things, Big Data and AI. In security, it’s the emergence of disinformation, bot wars and non-state cyber actors. In financial systems, crises have come ever faster, from the dot-com bust to the Great Recession. And then there are our multiple looming environmental crises and the challenges of globalization and anti-globalization.

Where organizational resilience in the 20th century largely focused on internal qualities such as financial prudence, increasingly it is clear the biggest threats to the survival of both governments and businesses will come from this broader external context. There is no more business as usual because there is no more economics as usual, or governance as usual – or even nature as usual. We live in a world where the boundaries among these domains have largely vanished.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that we are seeing a rebirth of geography, the science of our world. Since the dawn of civilization, geography and maps are what human beings have used to understand our broader context. A map is, literally, the proverbial “bigger picture.” To execute resilient strategies, we must be good at pattern recognition, and as physicist Frijof Capra puts it, “Patterns cannot be weighed or measured; they must be mapped.”

Today, entirely new kinds of maps are made possible by the instrumentation of natural and human-made systems and the integration of many types of data. This enables radically enhanced contextual awareness, which lets us optimize both the near-term performance and long-term resilience of any system. It also shows us what kinds of interventions to make, and when and where to make them.

I’m speaking of the tools of location intelligence, most importantly geographic information systems, or GIS, the technology of contextual analysis. GIS not only integrates and analyzes diverse data sets, as do many digital platforms, but it brings the physical world into the core of that analysis, enabling us to see the interconnectedness of its many systems – from natural to built, from demographic to infrastructural, from cultural to epidemiological.

Underscore “see.” Maps are the most accessible analytic platform because visual learning is the way we learn best; it’s how our brains are wired. The sheer volume, variety, and velocity of data we are capturing today and the complexity of its integration and analysis are beyond the capacity of the human brain. That’s why we have supercomputers, algorithms, and deep learning neural nets. But GIS and the maps and the visual stories it creates ground that AI in ways in which humans are naturally skilled. As the author of one psychology textbook puts it, “our brain is mainly an image processor (much of our sensory cortex is devoted to vision), not a word processor.” Visual storytelling is the most ancient and contemporary way in which we process narrative – from cave paintings to movies, immersive videogames, and 3D “digital twins.” Here at Esri we work with tens of thousands of businesses and organizations that have shown that a modern GIS is the gold standard of visual data integration and storytelling for complex systems.

These capabilities have emerged none too soon. Businesses now have more liability exposure to “externalities” than ever before, and the scale of these risks is increasing by leaps and bounds. Look at 10-K filings from the Fortune 500, which represent risks and costs of doing business, and you see a dramatic increase in citations of natural disasters and climate change as costs to doing business. Not to mention political risk and economic uncertainty.

It is not surprising, then, that the study of business resilience is looking to nature to understand how complex adaptive systems work.

As we look to strengthen resilience, it makes sense to look to nature, because as natural systems evolve to become more complex, their resilience increases. For example, more biodiversity in an ecosystem means less vulnerability to pandemics. By contrast, as manufactured systems become more complicated (e.g., through centralization and globalization) their resilience is reduced. They become more fragile; a breakdown in a single component can cause the entire complicated system to seize up.

This insight into nature and resilience has been spreading in the form of the nature-based solutions movement. The European Commission, for example, argues that solutions inspired and supported by nature simultaneously provide environmental, social, and economic benefits, and help build resilience.

Through GIS, scientists are mapping the future of the world’s natural ecosystems. The world’s first 3-D digital ocean map sorts global water masses into distinct regions known as Ecological Marine Units (EMUs), defined by the properties most likely to drive ecosystem health and, yes, resilience: temperature, salinity, oxygen and nutrient levels. By enabling us to analyze, map, predict and intervene into the emergent life of oceans and the planet as a whole, this 3-D map marks a new stage in the science and sustainability of ecosystems. 

Or consider geography and healthcare. Even in normal times, your zip code can be as important to your health outcomes as either your genetic code or your tax code. Eighty percent of our health outcomes are context-driven: physical environment (10%); health behaviors (30%); and social and economic factors (40%). Importantly, geography not only helps us understand our full health context, but also shows us where and how to intervene to make a near-term, material impact. The sophistication of today’s digital maps to track disease has proven invaluable during the pandemic. The now-iconic WHO and Johns Hopkins COVID-19 dashboards have helped countries, regions, cities, and businesses around the world accelerate decision-making based on a shared picture of the real-time data – from travel bans and alerts, to contact tracing, supplying PPE, identifying the most vulnerable, helping with local agency coordination, feeding the hungry, establishing quarantines and allocating resources.

The same GIS tools and geographic approach helping us get our arms around the pandemic are being applied to enhance resilience across many dimensions of business and society:

·     We are building resilience into disaster response. By analyzing the complex interconnections among the natural and human-made systems within a given location, we can respond with both the speed and precision required to know exactly where to start the back-fires to head off a wildfire, exactly which blocks to evacuate before a hurricane, exactly which areas to quarantine in a pandemic.

·     We are building resilience into agriculture and food. Pervasive instrumentation and networking are generating unprecedented volumes and varieties of data – data about soil, weather, topography, plant biology, fertilizer, and pests. We’re also hoovering up data on farm machinery, market demand, legislation, regulation, and environmental impact. It’s integrated and turned into insight through artificial intelligence. This is the “precision” in precision agriculture – and it’s redefining the science and the systems of feeding the planet.

·     We are building resilience into transportation and shipping. When every hub – whether a port, a train station or an entire city – can be mapped with a 3-D digital twin, we make motion itself smart. Anticipating the Commonwealth Games in 2022 in Birmingham, UK, Transport for West Midlands put together a Network Resilience Regional Transport Coordination Centre to map and monitor the intermodal networks – not just the roadways, but rail and trams and all the different mobility networks. London did the same for the London Olympics, using GIS with great success – so much so that they kept the systems to run the city’s transit permanently.

·     We are building resilient supply chains. Location-based redundancy, once anathema, has made a comeback. The digital era was optimized for speed, assuming that location no longer mattered. After all, the world was “flat.”…


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