Strange Bedfellows: A New Era of Resilience and Uncertainty

Australians are still reeling from the aftermath of the recent onslaught of fire, rain and floods, daily lives upended by these unprecedented disasters. Hannah Della Bosca reflects on her latest research with community groups and their processing of such shock events.

Photo by Jonathan Ford on Unsplash

Australia’s summer of fire is only the latest in a revolving door of globally significant shock events, from polar melt, species extinction, mass violence, and political turbulence. None of these phenomena are new, however the scale of these incidents combined with their intersecting and increasingly relentless impacts suggests that our ways of coping with shock events must be examined and fortified. With this in mind, we designed a study to establish and compare the lived experiences of Greater Sydney residents to different shock events, and looked at specific heatwave, bushfire, storm surge, and security events that have impacted local communities over the last decade. Our most recent work focuses on just two of these events: a major bushfire in the Blue Mountains in 2013, and the 2014 Martin Place Siege. Our research team held resident focus groups that allowed participants to reflect on things that helped and things that hindered their capacity to cope with the impacts of these events through time. We were looking for the human experience of shock events, and trying to ascertain what, exactly, is disrupted when an aspect of day-to-day life changes without warning.


We learned two important lessons from our participants. First, shock events have two distinct profiles. They have a physical threat profile that is shaped by direct, tangible impacts. This is the most commonly reported aspect of shock events and includes impacts like houses burnt, lives lost, infrastructure damaged. They also have a disruption profile, shaped by the indirect, and often intangible impact of these events. Such disruption may take the form of fractured community solidarity, the loss of a feeling of safety and belonging, or even the loss of a hoped-for future. This disruption is rarely captured in its entirety because it is dependent on what particular people value about their home and their life, and how these values have been challenged or extinguished as a result of a particular event. Our findings revealed the complexity of evaluating shock event impacts, as the threat profile and the disruption profile of particular events can impact distinct populations, and in different ways.


Our second lesson is that in order to use this information to help communities in the future, the way we as a society think about and plan for shock events must be reoriented. Our current resilience and emergency management policies use traditional “fail-safe” patterns and tools to plan for disasters, meaning that they attempt to predict, control, and contain disaster events through a mixture of past experience and objective probability. An increasing risk to the efficacy of this approach is that our world is becoming increasingly unpredictable, to the degree that past experience may not guarantee future expertise. Our research suggests that we need to develop ways of supporting community wellbeing through the unexpected, particularly with respect to ‘invisible’ disruptions to wellbeing. This requires developing resilience approaches capable of responding to not only the physical, observable impacts of shock events, but also to their broader disruptive threat. It is a fruitless task to treat complex place-based value disruption as a singular phenomenon that can be addressed via a singular policy approach. To suggest that resilience approaches be reoriented is not to discount the value of traditional disaster planning and response mechanisms. Rather, our research emphasises that community wellbeing is the process of creativity in the face of shocks, of reflecting on what is valued and developing new ways to protect, support, and consolidate those aspects of daily life, be they tangible or intangible.


Incorporating local strategies of resilience into policy requires a deep engagement with community experiences and the values they hold about their homes and themselves. Such attachments are fluid and can change for the better or for the worse over time. This can dramatically impact individual wellbeing day-to-day, as well as the capacity to maintain wellbeing in that face of change. We suggest radically shifting from an expectation of resilience approaches as static policy documents, towards the creation of spaces in which individuals and communities can work together to develop local strategies of disruption resilience. These strategies must be based on the knowledge and experience of residents, about the meaning of place and the meaning of various threats to that place, and the collective values and identities that sit within it.


More information can be found in:

Della Bosca, H., Schlosberg, D., & Craven, L. (2020). Shock and place: reorienting resilience thinking. Local Environment, DOI: 10.1080/13549839.2020.1723510



Hannah Della Bosca is a research assistant at the Sydney Environment Institute and contributes to a collaborative project investigating the relationship between shock events in the urban environment, community impacts, and evidence-based policy adaption.