Holling, C.S. “Engineering resilience versus ecological resilience.” Engineering within ecological constraints 31, no. 1996 (1996): 32.
‘Engineering resilience’ is not ‘resilience engineering’. One of the most common mistakes made by experts and newcomers is to use these two terms interchangeably as if they were same. Instead, each term refers to conflicting perspectives on what resilience means in engineered systems. With the book chapter Engineering Resilience versus Ecological Resilience, Holling provides a succinct explanation of what ‘engineering resilience’ means and why it does not work in for ecosystem management. The key idea here is that engineering resilience describes a mindset held by the people who design and manage ecosystems that leads reducing the resilience of the environment they wish to preserve. Although this distinction is made in the context of the natural environment, many of the misunderstandings that engineering resilience imposes on ecosystems also apply in critical systems like nuclear power plants, passenger airline travel, and power grids. The issues with the engineering resilience perspective addressed by Holling include:
1. Engineering resilience believes that unexpected events can be accounted for in design. However, unforeseeable events cause disruptions that persist for long periods of time and challenge the notion that a complex system can be maintained in a single, preferred state indefinitely.
2. Engineering resilience focuses on design decisions on a single system (e.g., power grid) without considering interactions with other, interdependent systems (e.g., water distribution). However, systems at local, regional, national, or global scales do not relate to each other in a simple way making it important to situate decisions in their embedded context and to understand potential cross-scale interactions.
3. Engineering resilience establishes an ideal system state that is meant to be maintained at all times. However, there is no stable state in which complex systems exist, rather resilience comes from being able to easily switch between system states and is improved by switching often.
4. Engineering resilience endorses the use of policies based on fixed rules such as minimum design thresholds. However, policies and practices based on fixed rules will inevitably lead to loss of resilience.
In sum, engineering resilience maintains a localized perspective based on deterministic factors using traditional analytical methods to control independent variables without consideration for cross-scale interactions. In contrast, ecological resilience integrates multiple interrelated factors across scales and within multiple ecological domains. A preferred approach would combine the two perspectives by incorporating knowledge across a range of scales and engage the human capacity to imagine alternative futures scenarios, and deploying adaptive designs that allow for and consider what unknown factors may impact outcomes of complex system disruptions.