Resilience: The Science of Why Things Bounce Back Hardcover
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I hate to give this book only three stars. However, in the end I was just wishing I would finish it. After a promising start, it ended up less than compelling. Further this is not at all about how an individual becomes resilient. If that's what you are looking for you only need to read a small fraction of the book.
It's OK. Just didn't suit me in the end.
The value of this book depends more upon the reader than the writers. If this is your first exposure to any kind of "systems" view of the world, then there's a high probability you will find Resilience to be intriguing and frustrating. This is a book of anecdotes that are supposed to demonstrate resilience and offer lessons; sometimes the conclusions/lessons make sense though they're all offered ipso facto, occasionally though the anecdote may be intriguing, you have to wonder how the story even fits within the resilience topic. The frustrating part is there's nothing actionable. Resilience is certainly a useful notion and there are a lot of "systems" professionals in every field from biology to banking who practice it, some more successfully than others.
Even if you're new to the topic, a better start is Gerald Weinberg's much shorter classic, "An Introduction to General Systems Thinking." And although it may not seem relevant, Peter Senge first pushed his "Fifth Discipline" systems thinking in 1990, revised in 2006; Senge's context is `the learning organization' but he could have called it `the resilient organization' as well.
Resilience is defined as "the capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances." The "system" term appears frequently (504 times) and is a fundamental part of resilience but gets no real attention. ("Resilience" or "resilient" occurs only 461 times)
As one example, the authors argue that the 2008 financial collapse was obviously predictable because "At the core of the network, just sixty-six banks accounted for 75 percent of the daily value of transfers. Even more telling, the network topology revealed that twenty-five of the biggest banks were completely connected - so intertwined that a failure among any strongly suggested a failure for all, the very definition of `too big to fail'." All that's within the quotes may well be true, but "completely connected" is not defined and that's an odd way to think about the 2008 financial collapse. Arguably whether the banks were "connected" was irrelevant with a system built upon the house-of-cards of widely suspect and in the end, faulty risk models. If the risk models had been accurate, then connectedness would have been irrelevant. As another reviewer wrote, the Ceasefire example is interesting, but that's clearly a case of straightforward "problem solving" not "resilience." There's nothing systemic about Ceasefire.
Despite the final chapter's implications to the contrary, one of the problems with Resilience is that it's descriptive and not prescriptive. "...Resilience is often found in having just the `right' amounts of these properties - being connected, but not too connected; being diverse, but not too diverse; being able to couple with other systems when it helps, but also being able to decouple from them when it hurts. The picture that emerges is one of strategic looseness, an intentional stance of both fluidity (of strategies, structures, and actions) and fixedness (of values and purpose)." Seems like that's a little like teaching someone to cook by telling them to be sure to use the right amount of everything.
Given that resilience is not generally discussed, the Introduction goes through a challenging baseline discussion to position the concept. By listing some sample disruptions -- Katrina, Haiti, BP, Fukushima, the Crash, the Great Recession, the London Mob, the Arab Spring -- they help to set the stakes. As they point out near the end of the book, some of these ecological or socioeconomic time bombs may be difficult for Americans to understand because we've been fortunate enough to be largely insulated from fragilities and disruptions that others in the world have had to deal with. "In a world temporarily devoid of consequences, the slow erosion and increasing inelasticity of our political, financial, socioeconomic and ecological systems scarcely seemed to matter." But now our systems are breaking down and we see ourselves as losing our dominance.
As you get into the book, at first it feels reminiscent of a Malcolm Gladwell book in that Zolli and Healy look at 2-4 seemingly isolated stories in each chapter ... then show how they come together to demonstrate resilience. Criticism of Gladwell's very popular books is that he is a journalist more than a scientist and that he doesn't get too deeply into any issue or its consequence. That is not the case here as Zolli has researched in greater depth and Healy has a way of presenting the material in a dramatic way. And so, these chapters and stories are deep and require concentration to connect the learnings. Perhaps a better comparison of this book is to the books of Edward Tufte. Tufte's "Visual Explanations" has my favorite chapter ever where he compares how John Snow uncovered the real cause of cholera in 1854 London by looking at data honestly to NASA's decision to launch the 1986 shuttle Challenger when the data showed it would explode at lower temperatures. Similarly, the authors here juxtapose different stories and synthesize important ideas that must be understood and complied with if we are to recover from the political and environmental crises that now threaten us.
Their treatment also reminds me of the kinds of presentations that can be seen at TED conferences. I was fortunate enough to attend one in 2000 where many of the then unknown experts have gone on to become important leaders and voices. Zolli and Healy share stories and describe a collection of experts in a way that you are intrigued by how they came to their interest and areas of expertise. As other reviewers have noted, these stories go in to some detail and, again, one has to concentrate to see how these all fit together. My favorite such stories were 1) the Haiti response and how responders used their strong ties, their weak ties and adapted technology to save people fast, 2) Red Team U and how our military is encouraging front-line commanders to consider different options that align better with the strategies and tactics of our enemies, and 3) how Opower and Robert Cialdini are using data to persuade electricity users to conserve by comparing their usage to that of their neighbors.
This book and writing technique seems quite different from many of the books written by pundits and personalities we see in the media. Since we "know" those people better, we tend to flock to those books, but the end result is that we see simplistic recommendations and more issues than solutions. And thus, in comments to news stories different camps line up against each other and sling insults back and forth. "Resilience" probably won't sell as many books as those more-recognized authors, but the sense I got from reading it is more hopeful and realistic in what we'll need to consider to address coming issues. The stories describe some pretty dreadful scenarios that we will definitely have to address -- perhaps as a planet -- but Zolli and Healy give us hope that there are experts out there who can help lead the way to solutions but that at the same time we'll all have to participate.
This work is coherently sequenced exploring, for a start, the nature of our tightly coupled world &, while this may be an efficiency maximizer, how this may compromise the construct of resilience. They go on to define what resilience is & then how it may manifest in our systems & closer still, in our lives. Having described then the various aspects of resilience, the final chapter tries to put it all together - a great summary, in my mind.
I'd say the chapters on systemic resilience are rather easier to comprehend - in a comparative sense
- than the chapters on human resilience. But the chapters on aspects of human resilience are much more fascinating. The great quality of this book is bringing together some truly interesting stories that exemplify an aspect of resilient humans or societies. And because of the research, & in spite of the great story-telling, data & information underscore lucidly the achievements of such resilient constructs making the tales more credible.
My sense is that ultimately the idea of resilience, though beautifully described here, cannot be divorced from its context in some sort of a deterministic way. The determinism is limited to the qualities of the resilient system but what the resilient system is depends on the context. I think that such ambiguity isn't necessarily a bad thing, though some of us might expect a more prescriptive dossier.
The authors, I felt, might have lightened up a little along the way. But this remains one of the more interesting & engaging books I've read this year.