Rethinking the Norms of Resilience Policymaking

How can resilience planning be more equitable? Two Knology researchers consider the role of norms in resilience work, and how communities can organize to shape and implement resilience policy.

by John VoiklisRupu Gupta
Sep 11, 2019

John: I've been thinking about some of our past conversations about the focus of resilience research, and that got me thinking about norms. I wonder whether working towards resilience is all about establishing normative values and practices or about disrupting established norms. Or might be both: eschewing established norms to make room for re-conceived values and practices.

Rupu: That does resonate with how most work on resilience is currently done. The most common focus is very prescriptive and imposed by decision makers to fix a community’s problems, without necessarily engaging them. From what you’re saying, I’m interpreting it to mean that a lot of resilience work operates on rules and guidelines that are already predetermined, which seems very counterintuitive to its purpose. And you’re suggesting these norms need to be disrupted? How do we do that?

John: The word “disruption” is so fraught, nowadays. It might be better to say that “stepping outside” norms might allow people to focus on problem-solving: what are the goals, what actions bring us closer to those goals, and how can we distribute those actions across the community...without immediately worrying about all the shoulds and shouldn’ts. I image that policymaking about resilience operates like other policymaking processes: top-down, with leaders making decisions with which community members can only comply...or not. One way of stepping outside of the norms would be to reframe policymaking as community organizing. Where stakeholders who are aware of the stakes and are more involved in vetting and implementing solutions.

Rupu: Who’s initiating the process of resilience planning, I presume, also needs to be factored in. And it’s usually a fairly well resourced entity, as we’ve seen in our work with cultural institutions like New England Aquarium, Aquarium of the Pacific, or even higher ed institutions, through Second Nature. I think we need to be aware that inherently, it is an inequitable system in which these initiatives are operating. Which is the reality, so how do new norms get created in inclusive ways and so that everyone’s at the table as an equal partner?

John: Participation. That's my one-word answer. Normative values and practice aren’t givens and can’t be separated from the behaviors we hope to regulate. Norms continuously emerge as people work together and negotiate how to proceed through the task at hand. Through repeated interactions on repeated tasks, people come to expect (and enforce) certain consistencies in values and practices. When we reframe resilience policymaking as community organizing, then the community is at the table. People may serve different functions--some are political leaders, some are experts, some are property owners, etc.--but all community members have a way to participate and take ownership of the resilience policy, as well as the values and practices that will bring that policy to fruition.

Rupu: I like this framing around norms a lot, since it may be a way to explicitly identify agents of change in the communities where this work is happening. Meaning, that we can clearly identify who’s responsible and who’s shaping the rules of conduct. The other exciting thing is that we can explicitly address issues of inequitable access to resources, opportunities, and who’s not at the table currently.

Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

Join the Conversation
What did you think of this? How did you use it? Is there something else we should be thinking of?
Support research that has a real world impact.