Resilience, Now! But How?

Responsibility and Security for All

In the past ten years, resilience has established itself as a core idea of crisis and disaster management in many different policy areas. Geographically, too, the impact of the concept is continually expanding. A growing number of states (the UK, USA, Australia, for instance) and international organisations (United Nations, OECD), but also private sector actors (Swiss Re, Zurich Reinsurance) have been looking closely at the question of how to make technical and social systems more crisis-resistant and thus more resilient. However, who is or should be resilient, how resilience can be built, and who should do the building, still remains unclear in most cases. Additionally, resilience presents a plethora of socially and politically sensitive issues.

The greatest benefit of resilience lies in its ability to provide a new basis for engaging uncertainty

Resilience is a coveted resource. It represents the ability or capacity of people, structures or systems to withstand stresses, shocks and even chronic emergencies, and to return to normal or improved function afterwards. The greatest benefit of resilience in the context of contemporary risk management lies in its ability to provide a new basis for engaging uncertainty. In view of the diversity, complexity and unpredictability of contemporary risks, total security is impossible to guarantee. Crises and disasters cannot be prevented, despite the best possible risk management measures. Therefore, the focus is shifting to mitigating and adapting to disrupting events, rather than preventing them.

The social contract and security

Governments typically assume ultimate responsibility for maintaining the safety and security of society. This assumption of responsibility reflects a tacit and long-held ‘social contract’ between the citizens and the government, where the former yield some liberties and the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory to the latter in exchange for an ­assurance of protection and security. The social contract remains valid only if the structures that govern maintain the capacity and willingness to continue delivering their half of the contract – otherwise the implicit responsibilities must be re-negotiated. The risk environment of the 21st century is changing. Under these circumstances responsibility sharing between citizens and governments has flourished. The UK’s Security Strategy from 2010 suggests that “...we have to promote resilience... Of course, the Government has a crucial role to play... But we all have a part to play in keeping the country safe...” In US critical infrastructure protection, President Barack Obama acknowledged that “Emerging and evolving threats require the engagement of our entire Nation... let each of us do our part to build a more resilient Nation.”

Are citizens willing and able to take more responsibility?

This shift poses important political questions and problems. Are citizens willing and able to take more responsibility? Can governments expect citizens to assume responsibility for their own security and safety, yet continue to permit themselves to be governed?

The responsibility to provide security revisited

Under the resilience paradigm, governments are more likely to highlight their inability to guarantee the safety and security of all of society all of the time. They point to a risk environment that is more complex, more uncertain, more costly and often unpredictable. They suggest that disasters have become too large-scale to manage properly without whole-of-society approaches.

The consequence for government risk management agencies is a desire to transfer risk preparedness responsibilities from themselves to the private citizen. The need to share responsibility is framed not only as a way to meet future security challenges, but also as a chance for citizen participation in public affairs. Understanding how (and how much) responsibility can be re-distributed is of fundamental importance for the delivery of resilience-based security policies.

Some observers regard these responsibility shifts as a form of empowerment, especially if linked to participation and citizen-led initiatives. These kinds of initiatives are seen as positive forms of resilience linked to democratic processes, as opposed to state-centric attempts to one-sidedly govern communities. Other observers warn against overly romantic notions of community as inevitably good or point to the negative side-effect of thinking in terms of resilience as an overarching security paradigm. Since resilience can only thrive if you expect and accept insurmountable insecurities, forcing resilience on people, or ‘responsibilising’ them, comes with the message that society needs to be constantly alert with regard to dangers beyond our control.

The social contract revisited

Political assertions that security for all cannot be guaranteed under conditions of heightened uncertainty and unpredictability go hand in hand with calls for citizens to contribute to securing their own safety under a resilience approach. These assertions challenge the social contract, and the political implications of responsibility sharing must therefore be closely examined.

The landscape of risks has changed so much, that many states need more participation of their citizens

A shift in responsibility towards the citizen, enacted through stated requirements for local involvement, self-organisation and public mitigation behaviour influences the way security can be (and will be) generated in the 21st century and beyond. While a new conception of resilience and responsibility sharing seems already relatively well established among the scientific community and international organisations, among the population-at-risk more traditional assumptions about protection still seem to predominate – the state is for the most part still seen as responsible for providing safety and security. The traditional ‘command and control’ approaches to risk management have created an ‘authority trap’ for these agencies, placing them and the resilience approach in a precarious and complicated position. Is the population willing and able to take responsibility? Are authorities willing and able to effectively share responsibility in order to support a distributed approach to risk management? Natural disasters in Italy (alpine flood risk) and Australia (wildfire threat), for instance, were worsened because the public’s blind faith in the ability and mandate of emergency managers to guarantee public safety actually discouraged household risk mitigation activities.

Responsibility shifts may well characterise a new, or evolved, social contract in a transformed civil security context, where neither ‘command-and-control’, nor distributed and devolved governance arrangements predominate, but are balanced against one another. But accepting this change – from the perspectives of both states and citizens – will present challenges for the future of successful risk management.

The social contract established clear roles and responsibilities between those who govern and those who are governed in the context of security and safety. But with the application of resilience, this relationship is changing, clouding the historically clear relationship between state and citizen. Monitoring shifts in responsibility expectations and practices will become absolutely critical because of the challenges that shared responsibility will present operationally (for risk managers) and politically into the future. Short of re-negotiating the social contract, risk managers must tread carefully in order to properly balance how responsibility sharing can deliver security in ways that are socially and politically equitable and effective.

About the author

Tim Prior, born 1975, leads the Risk and Resilience research group at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich. His work focuses on the practical application of resilience in disaster management and decision making under risk.


The website of the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich contains a brief biography of Timothy Prior and a list of his publications.

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Timothy Prior's presentation entitled From risk communication to risk engagement can be found at

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About the author

Myriam Dunn Cavelty, born 1976, is senior lecturer and Deputy for Teaching and Research at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich. She specialises in the political sociology of risk and security, cybersecurity and resilience.


The website of the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich contains a brief biography of Myriam Dunn Cavelty and a list of her publications.

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Myriam Dunn Cavelty's personal website contains a blog consisting of comments and thoughts on topical issues as well as a profile and a list of her publications.

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