February 21, 2012


How to Increase Resilience in the Economy, Society, and Everyday Life?

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.113 (January 2012)
A Lesson from the March 11 Quake and Tsunami: An Awareness of the Importance of 'Resilience' (Part 2)

In the previous issue, I introduced the concept of "resilience" as "the strength to bounce back after something unforeseen happens" or "flexible strength." In that article, I also pointed out that the Great East Japan Earthquake that occurred on March 11, 2011 revealed that Japan's society and economy has lost its mid- to long-term resilience due to its pursuit of short-term economic efficiency as if this were the sole aim of society. Some of the keys to creating resilience are diversity and redundancy. In this issue, I'd like to raise three points that are important but often overlooked with respect to increasing the resilience of our society, economy and daily life.

A Lesson from the March 11 Quake and Tsunami: An Awareness of the Importance of 'Resilience'

The first point is "time scale." For example, if a corporation focuses on only quarterly profits, it is better to stop research and development (R&D) and cut staff, so that it can gain short-term profit by cutting costs. But in the long run, what will happen if the corporation does not conduct any R&D for the future? An office with fewer employees may create stress, reducing productivity.

In business or in the economy and society, there are many things that seem to offer benefits in the short run but actually bring losses in the long run. It is no exaggeration to say that today's economy and society appreciate only short-term profit. Stock prices and compensation for executives are geared mainly to immediate financial conditions, no matter how resilient the company may or may not be for the future. Therefore, companies must conduct business to maximize short-term profits.

Unfortunately, the time scale visible to our society seems to be shorter than ever before. We tend not to take a calm and considered long-term viewpoint but instead take a short-term viewpoint and make decisions based on the immediate situation at hand.

This social pace could be further accelerated and our time scale shortened in the future. If this happens, someone who wants to think over what is really important might be rejected by others with the excuse that, "We don't have time for this now." Given these consideration, one of the keys to developing resilience is how to slow down the social pace and extend our time scale, so that we can live slowly and calmly enough to take time and think over what is really important.

I started the "Candle Night" movement with my colleagues nearly 10 years ago. JFS is a partner organization with this movement, helping disseminate information about it to the world. It is a simple movement that invites people to turn off their electric lights for two hours and enjoy spending some more slowly-paced time by candlelight on the nights of summer solstice and winter solstice. I hope our movement will help slow down our accelerating social pace even for a moment, and give people a little space in time to rethink their lives based on what they feel and realize when they spend some slower time.

The Systems Thinking approach of "Worse Before Better" is an important concept when considering time scale. There are two types of problems in the world. One type is the "easy problems." When we tackle these easy problems, efforts towards an ultimate solution will show positive results soon after the efforts are made. Politicians and corporate managers tackle these problems immediately, because they can gain a good reputation in time for the next election or the next quarterly assessment as long as they perform correctly the things they are supposed to do.

The other type is the "difficult problems." Many problems plaguing our current society, such as global warming and the energy crisis, are difficult ones. When we tackle difficult problems, the correct actions that must be taken are unpopular and make the situation worse in the short-term. Short-term solutions, however, make the situation worse in the long run, just like a corporation that reduces investment in R&D.

Corporations that start to experience a downturn in business tend to take remedial measures that seem to be good for the time being but do not actually solve the problems, or in fact could even make things worse (e.g. reduction in R&D cost to improve the immediate financial situation). Time-consuming fundamental solutions in the foreseeable future (e.g. promotion of R&D for the future that won't provide immediate results) tend to be avoided.

Another example is a department that is experiencing workload increase. The right thing to do might be to increase the workforce. However, takes time to recruit and train new workers and it also takes up the time of current workers in the department and therefore may result in a temporary drop in productivity.

Many organizations do not take fundamental measures, saying they can't afford to use their workforce for recruitment and training when the workload is increasing. Instead, they have their current employees work overtime or on holidays to do the new tasks. In the short-term, the most efficient way is to employ the current workforce to do the new tasks. But this can't go on for long. The workers may start to quit one after another due to mental and physical problems caused by overwork and stress. The situation gets worse because short-term remedial measures are chosen over long-term fundamental measures.

It would be easy if the long-term measures were also good in the short term, but many problems are of the difficult type that have a characteristic of "Worse Before Better" (A long-term solution comes with a worsening situation in the short-term). With that in mind, we need to have a long-term time-line. Otherwise, we undermine "resilience," defined as "strength to bounce back after something unforeseen happens" or "flexible strength," because we pursue only maximal short-term efficiency, sales or Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The second important point for improving resilience involves "accurate indicators." What do we and our societies use as yardsticks? In most cases, the current social indicator is GDP. Without knowing clearly what GDP measures, we rejoice when GDP increases and feel we must take measures when we see GDP dropping, saying "we are in trouble."

Just after the Great East Japan Earthquake, I heard one overseas analyst said, "Thanks to the earthquake, Japan's weak GDP will grow for several years." This remark made me very angry. Of course a lot of goods and the work of a lot of people will be invested in disaster recovery and regrowth, due to the devastating extent of the destruction. Considering the economic value of these investments, the GDP may indeed increase. But what is the meaning of an increase in GDP because of the great earthquake? Can we be happy about increased GDP owing to the earthquake and tsunamis which created so much grief and suffering for such a large number of victims?

Indicators attract attention because of their ups and downs, and have the power to affect people's behavior. Therefore it is of great significance which indicators are adopted by a society. In other words, if we change our indicators, we can change not only people's behavior but also social structures.

Recently, a movement has arisen to consider making citizens' happiness part of Japan's set of indicators, in the same way Gross National Happiness (GNH) has been emerging in Bhutan. It is much more important to note, however, what kind of indicator can reflect mid- and long-term resilience and not just measure short-term happiness at a particular moment.

To secure mid- and long-term happiness, we have a variety of significant things to do. For instance, we need to determine whether neighborhood and community cohesion and support systems and social safety nets are in place to deal with disasters and accidents, including injuries and illness; what norms, conventional wisdom and sense of values a society has for people with physical or other challenges, the unemployed, and failures; and whether educational, medical and other social opportunities are open to all citizens in order to make the best use of individual ability.

The issues we need to address now are how to measure our comprehension and ability to improve our performance on such points in order to achieve resilience, and how we can incorporate the appropriate measures into our national policy. Please let us know if you have information on case studies and conceptual approaches in these areas.

The third point for boosting the resilience of the society is to make the best use of diversity rather than eliminate things, opinions and ideas that are different. This is another challenge for Japan, which has often been said to historically have a highly homogeneous society. I think "dialogue" is one of the keys for this process.

The Japanese equivalent of "resilience" has not yet been defined; the country is just a beginning to recognize the importance of resilience. It is an indispensable and essential point for creating a sustainable society in a very real sense. From now on, I would like to research, learn, think about and disseminate information about this concept.

Written by Junko Edahiro