The theme of Design 4 Resilience, an upcoming event co-hosted by Shareable, offers multiple invitations.

One is to ask: What are the design principles – the characteristics of resilient systems that might guide our designs? If we surmise the characteristics, perhaps we can innovate by analogy?

It's worth mentioning that analogies can be tricky. Just because the cat is white and the refrigerator is white doesn’t mean that the two necessarily have anything else in common! Similarly, the characteristics that make one system resilient may not translate over to other systems. That said, here are some stories to consider:

In the spirit of biomimicry – learning from nature as model, measure and mentor – let’s start with the field of ecology. One characteristic of resilient ecosystems, according to the ecologists at the Resilience Alliance (RA), is modularity. Others include feedback, diversity and redundancy.

Picture a forest. Individual habitats exemplify modularity in the close relationships among plants, animals and so on – while connections with neighboring habitats are weaker. A diversity of forest species provides for redundancies (i.e., alternates) in how important ecosystem functions are performed.

Or consider computer design. The keyboard, monitor and microprocessor each have a distinct function that is necessary for the whole and easily replaced without changing other parts. In Design Rules: The Power of Modularity, business theorists Carliss Baldwin and Kim Clark ascribe the computer industry’s rapid growth and innovation to its decentralization of both engineering and economic organization.

The principle of modularity is also notable in the end-to-end architecture of the Internet, what Tim O'Reilly calls an “architecture of participation,” and in the small-pieces-loosely-joined nature of the World Wide Web, which extends participation to a wider group of users.

The Rocky Mountain Institute book Small is Profitable makes an engineering and economic case for modular, distributed electrical systems, in which the risks of large-scale failure are reduced.

And an RA-published paper by Pytrik Reidsma and Frank Ewert supports the significance of small-scale food production, finding that a diversity of farm types and practices reduces vulnerability to changes in climate.

What do these types of stories reveal about Design 4 Resilience? How do the characteristics of modularity (and feedback, diversity and redundancy) inform the design of products, services, markets, social systems and so on?

I hope these questions spark some discussion at the D4R open space conference and wish I could join you there.

[Further reading: on modularity, resilience thinking and resilient organizations.]

Howard Silverman


Howard Silverman

Howard Silverman is senior writer and analyst for Portland, Ore.-based Ecotrust and edits the online journal People and Place.