Realizing Resilience: A Study of Definition, Indicators, and Operationalization

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Jill Raycroft


The scale of disasters is increasing worldwide, as are the associated costs, with governments spending over $300 billion on disasters each year.[1] Resilience is a term universally and frequently used as a rallying cry for communities that bounce back after disasters. As an abstract, ambiguous concept, resilience is challenging to define. This difficulty in understanding resilience is rooted in the disaster lexicon’s focusing on resilience theory and not discussing observable and, therefore, tangible, operationalized resilience.[2] There is much debate about how to define and practice resilience.[3] Having no one definition or cohesive, agreed-upon resilience framework or strategy may create a disconnect in how resilience is studied and practiced.

This thesis examines how the operationalization of resilience can be improved. The following sub-questions structure the study:

  1. How is resilience defined in the literature?
  2. How do practitioners operationalize resilience in cities?
  3. What opportunities exist to operationalize academic research and/or study existing practices?

The research design includes four pieces that build on each other. The first examines how resilience is defined in the literature. The second reveals how practitioners apply resilience through four resilience indicators (social, physical, and economic resilience and resilience governance). The third piece examines how four cities operationalize resilience through case studies that analyze their resilience strategies. Finally, cross-case analysis unearths similar, distinct, and creative ways the cities operationalize resilience.


There is a constellation of thought around resilience in the academic community. Some scholars believe that a unifying definition of resilience is unnecessary and that diverse frameworks help achieve different objectives.[4] Brand and Jax encourage varying definitions of resilience that converge at a center point or boundary line, where various disciplines, academics, and practitioners can join.[5] These resilience disciplines include sociology, ecology, psychology, built-environment studies (e.g., architecture, urban planning, design, and engineering), and others.[6] There is recognition of each discipline’s trepidations and motivations through the boundary object construct, in tandem with the ability to communicate across disciplines.[7]

Resilience is often defined through abstractions and metaphor: communities “spring back” from disaster or “spring forward.” Norris et al. use a linking metaphor for community resilience, whereby, following disasters, community responses are linked to adaptive capacities.[8] Klein, Nicholls, and Thomalla agree with Norris et al., writing that the term resilience is often a metaphor “to describe systems that undergo stress and have the ability to recover and return to their original state.”[9] This nonliteral analysis of the definition of resilience is simple but remarkably similar to the 1973 ecological resilience framework that delineates resilience as a return to homeostasis.[10]

Tierney and Bruneau look at resilience as the capacity to recover with few disturbances and the ability to lessen or completely negate damage.[11] Cutter et al., inspired by the work of Tierney and Bruneau, assert, “Resilience within hazards research is generally focused on engineered and social systems, and includes pre-event measures to prevent hazard-related damage and losses (preparedness) and post-event strategies to help cope with and minimize disaster impacts.”[12] This definition, too, includes prevention and mitigation as well as restoration and recovery.

Resilience definitions started as broad abstractions and metaphors, made more explicit when other terms helped to explain the concept. The associative words and their measures—risk (and its reduction), mitigation, sustainability, vulnerability, capacity, and recovery—add mass to the term resilience. At the center point of resilience is the ability to adapt, take on risk, sustain oneself and community, and recover. Terms that relate to resilience can buoy its meaning and provide a deeper context for its applicability.


Resilience definitions provide a basis for understanding how resilience is operationalized. Resilience indicators can move from the theoretical concepts of resilience to the application thereof in communities and provide shape and structure to the definition. They can also extract resilience value through their measurement. Social, physical, and economic resilience and resilience governance indicators show the application of resilience. Social resilience, which manifests in social cohesion or social capital, is the most common application in the literature.


Following from resilience definitions and the breakdown of resilience types into indicators used to measure resilience levels, case studies qualitatively examine how four cities operationalize resilience through various strategies. These sociocultural cases uncover how Kyoto City, Japan; Los Angeles, California; Vancouver, Canada; and Wellington, New Zealand operationalize resilience through the application of resilience research. The research approach includes both deductive and inductive analysis. The deductive piece examines the operationalization of resilience in each city using the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)’s 2016 Community Disaster Resilience Program framework, whose resilience indicators—resilience governance, economic resilience, physical resilience, and social resilience—are the basis for analysis. The cases all provide examples of operationalized resilience that do not align precisely with the NIST framework but relate to NIST’s resilience indicators. These elements are labeled “framework extensions.” A cross-case analysis shows areas of consensus and dissimilarity around operationalized resilience in the four cities.

Cross-Case Analysis

The most common discovery in the case studies is the perennial challenge of finding the metric for success for resilience across the case studies and in the literature. The literature and a few models suggest a community’s adaptive capacity to changes following a disaster is a measure of its resilience. Still, the cities’ strategies do not measure this capacity explicitly. The case study research also repeatedly shows that strong resilience governance is vital to resilience’s operationalization. The cities’ resilience strategies put forward lofty goals broken down into governance, economic, physical, and social resilience indicators, but accountability and clear paths forward are not always present. However, none of the strategies point to specific benchmarks for resilience.

Resilience topics in the case studies and literature overwhelmingly emphasize the need for community cohesion, called social capital in the literature, in growing a community’s resilience. The cases and the literature show that social capital, which relies on connections, is the key to resilience. Connections form due to shared experiences and geographic locations. Unity through the web of relationships between formal social capital networks in government agencies, private-sector companies, and community groups and informal social capital can precipitate effort in making change. The need to account for social isolation and ensure that community members have a cohesive network that can support them is critical. If academics could clearly articulate a social‑mitigation return‑on‑investment akin to that of hazard mitigation, practitioners might operationalize resilience more easily.

Each resilience strategy focuses on disaster education and volunteers to help build a culture of resilience. The strategies also focus on the need to share data and information transparently with the community and ensure that diverse community members are at the table to make decisions around the built environment and community needs. The cities’ resilience strategies show that a lifelines council can bring together public and private utilities and transportation providers to ensure the coordination of resilience work in the built environment.

As disasters know no geographic boundaries, the strategies also point to the need to embark on resilience work regionally. Resilience projects do not need to be novel; they can co-opt and aggregate existing projects and then augment them with new projects under a resilience moniker. Then, project executioners can easily analyze the independencies and areas for collaboration. The cases and literature illustrate that insurance gaps—the difference between insurable and insured items—can cause undue financial burdens on institutions and individuals after a disaster, as insurance is a costly investment.[13] The resilience strategies also address food security and the need to address the homeless population’s resilience in the cities.


The study of resilience systems and structures needs to be interdisciplinary and possibly transdisciplinary. The research reveals the nexus between design, policy, and social science, and there is a need to visualize what resilience is and how to achieve it within and beyond these disciplines. If the academic study of resilience is more interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary, the solutions to resilience problems, both on the conceptual and operational side, may find more integrated and, possibly, sustainable approaches.[14]

A reimagining of resilience will propel its best concepts forward to be absorbed into the next iteration and leave the rest behind. Suggestions for further areas of resilience study align with a revised conceptualization of resilience. Some ways to clarify resilience’s definition begin with including resilience governance in the composite of resilience definitions. Resilience governance is a prime way to operationalize resilience and provide the venue for resilience ecosystems to reside collectively and interdependently. The term gives issues a place to sit at all government levels, consolidates problems, and may more forcibly push collaboration, budgeting, and policy support.



[1] “UN Resilience ‘Scorecard’ to Help Cities Curb Disaster Losses from Climate Change, Other Risk Drivers,” UN News, May 23, 2017,

[2] Patricia H. Longstaff et al., “Building Resilient Communities: A Preliminary Framework for Assessment,” Homeland Security Affairs 6, no. 3 (2010): 1–2.

[3] Longstaff et al., 1–2.

[4] Longstaff et al., 1–2.

[5] Fridolin Simon Brand and Kurt Jax, “Focusing the Meaning(s) of Resilience: Resilience as a Descriptive Concept and a Boundary Object,” Ecology and Society 12, no. 1 (2007): 23, ProQuest.

[6] Susan L. Cutter et al., “A Place-Based Model for Understanding Community Resilience to Natural Disasters,” Global Environmental Change 18, no. 4 (2008): 600,‌2008.07.013.

[7] Brand and Jax, “Focusing the Meaning(s) of Resilience,” 23.

[8] Fran H. Norris et al., “Community Resilience as a Metaphor, Theory, Set of Capacities, and Strategy for Disaster Readiness,” American Journal of Community Psychology 41, no. 1–2 (2008): 130, https://doi.‌org/10.1007/s10464-007-9156-6.

[9] Richard J. T. Klein, Robert J. Nicholls, and Frank Thomalla, “Resilience to Natural Hazards: How Useful Is This Concept?,” Environmental Hazards 5 (2003): 37,‌2004.‌02.001.

[10] Crawford S. Holling, “Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems,” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 4 (1973): 14,

[11] Kathleen J. Tierney and Michel Bruneau, “Conceptualizing and Measuring Resilience: A Key to Disaster Loss Reduction,” TR News, May/June 2007, 15,

[12] Cutter et al., “A Place-Based Model for Understanding Community Resilience,” 600.

[13] Public Safety Canada, Advancing and Empowering Disaster Risk Reduction in Canada: Canada’s Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction (Vancouver: Public Safety Canada, 2018), https://www.publicsafety.‌

[14] “Definitions,” Harvard Transdisciplinary Research in Energetics and Cancer Center, accessed April 15, 2020,‌20Research%20is%20defined%20as,to%20address%20a%20common%20problem.

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