Societal resilience – unpacking the black box


Dr Anne Bardsley

Deputy Director, Koi Tū: the Centre for Informed Futures


Resilience relates to the ability of an organization/country to adapt or transform positively in response to significant transitions or threats to its wellbeing, arising either internally or externally, and which may or may not be anticipated.


We are living in a world of constant change.

Change has always been a feature of the evolution of human societies, yet never before has change been so rapid and pervasive in almost every aspect of our lives. Starting long before the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 took a leap from animal to human host and began its insidious race through the global population, upending ‘normality’ on a grand scale, we have been confronted with an array of interconnected rapid changes. And in the background of the COVID-19 pandemic, major ongoing technological, demographic, economic, social, geopolitical and environmental changes continue to challenge individual and societal resilience in profound ways.

Our human experience to date has done little to prepare us for the long-term uncertainty brought on by these major transitions. Take, for example, the speed at which we have recently been thrust into new ways of working, socialising, shopping and consuming, accessing healthcare and other services, and indeed living our lives as a result of the pandemic. What is required is resilience on multiple levels, yet we know that this is being challenged by the very factors driving the changes, and these factors interact in multiple, complex ways.

Recent trends have raised questions about the level of resilience and social cohesion present in liberal democracies facing rapid change. There are growing concerns about citizen discontent, civic disengagement and community fragmentation,[1] and intergenerational issues are emerging. Significant institutional and societal transformation will be needed to enhance resilience in the face of such environmental, demographic, geopolitical and technological challenges.

There is a broadly-held sense that new policies and institutions will be needed to ensure that societal resilience will be sustained or strengthened. Governments, private and public sector organisations, and civil society need to better understand the factors driving or influencing these changes, and their implications for societal futures, policy making, and strategic decisions.

Koi Tū: the Centre for Informed Futures is leading a global project for the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA) to identify the factors involved in undermining or enhancing societal resilience and social cohesion. The project takes a transdisciplinary, systems-based approach to factor identification and interaction analysis, by engaging with an international group of experts across a wide range of disciplines in the early phases, and tapping the 5,000+ member INGSA network of actors at the science-policy interface for gathering survey responses.

The overall goal of the project is to integrate and reconcile knowledge across disciplines to address long-term issues relating to societal resilience. Ultimately this aims to inform policy discussion and debate in local contexts, acknowledging that dialogue must extend beyond traditional policy elites so as to find potential pragmatic solutions.  Through a transdisciplinary and systems thinking approach, we expect different and more innovative questions, and solutions, to emerge.

The project defines societal resilience as the ability of a society or an organization to adapt or transform positively in response to significant transitions or threats to its wellbeing. Social cohesion is a critical precursor of the broader concept of societal resilience, which we define in practical societal and policy terms as a willingness of members of a society, accepting their diversity, to cooperate in order to prevail and prosper.[2]  The five key considerations are belonging, inclusion, participation, recognition and legitimacy.[3] Applying this with attentiveness cultural diversity and to bicultural foundations in the NZ context, we can begin to identify key elements of social cohesion and resilience across communities and society as a whole.

The project initially uses expert academic and policy-aware elicitation across a very broad range of expertise from the humanities, social, digital and natural sciences through face-to-face workshops and through an advanced online survey tool. The methodology creates an intentional transdisciplinary approach which makes it suitable for broader consultations. The toolkit informs an advanced systems mapping approach to analyse factors and their interactions. This will be followed by broader global data gathering using the online tool via the INGSA network, and generation of systems maps with advanced data visualisation. The tools will then be used for country-and sector specific analyses and for input and comparative understandings from diverse segments of society, for example, of young Māori and Pasifika.

This systems-based and policy-focused approach aims to assist decision makers to frame their thinking in a locally relevant but informed way, and provide insights to sustain resilience and cohesion. By harnessing the power of analytics, the power of transdisciplinary conversation, and the power of evidence we expect novel and creative solutions to emerge.


[1] Schiefer, D. and J. van der Noll, The Essentials of Social Cohesion: A Literature Review. Soc Indic Res, 2017. 132: p. 579–603.

[2] Chan, J., H.-P. To, and E. Chan, Reconsidering social cohesion: Developing a definition and analytical framework for empirical research. Social Indicators Research, 2006. 75: p. 273-302.

[3] Spoonley, P., et al., Social cohesion: A policy and indicator framework for assessing immigrant and host outcomes. Social Policy Journal of NZ, 2005. 24: p. 85-110.