Resilience in structure and agency
I have returned to a favela in Belo Horizonte with my friends from MOM. If I focus my attention downwards to the scale of the streets and dwellings, I can mentally check what I see against the Cultures of Resilience keywords:
Chaos Embracing. Transitional. Auto-organising. Collaboration. Indigenous. Diversity and Democracy.
Check yes to all of these. On the face of it, therefore, it would appear that the favela has all the characteristics of a resilient system.
But then I look up, and overhead a line of electricity pylons marches straight through the favela. The justification is that they are needed to bring power to the new housing scheme at the bottom of the valley, and I would bet that somewhere in that rationale the word resilience is used (‘… the need to deliver a resilient infrastructure to deliver improvements and growth to the area.’) But the pylons leave a trail of destruction in their wake. Safety legislation states there must be 20 metres clear around each pylon, and so to erect them the municipality has compulsorily purchased a number of favela dwellings, displacing families with a recompense that sounds initially attractive, but one which will run out within months, and with it render people homeless. Worse still is that the pylons are placed every 400 metres, and the regular clearances around them disrupt the delicate socio- material ecosystem of the favela, the blight of void spreading like a contagion. It is anticipated that unless action is taken, within a year the favela might collapse, or be laid bare to the offers of developers. To add insult to injury, the housing scheme that the pylons are serving is being built on land expropriated from a former favela. This small example illustrates some of the pitfalls of the notion of resilience but also provides pointers as to how to avoid them.
‘At heart what we see being played out is the classic tension between structure and agency.’
First the identification of resilience with the favela is misplaced, and indeed comes close to the uncritical assimilation of a poverty- induced system from the global south as an acceptable exemplar for the north. Although the immediate evidence might accord with our keywords, the operations that are found in the favela are primarily reactive: they are necessitated as a form of survival but do not transform the structural issues of inequality that have created the conditions that require basic survival. Resilience here is framed negatively, whereas the thrust of Cultures of Resilience is for a productive reading of resilience. The second pitfall is to attach notions of resilience to large-scale operations such as the electricity pylons simply because they are delivering a more robust technical and economic infrastructure. Such techno-economic interventions can only be resilient if they are sensitive to social systems at every scale.
Both cases – that of resilience as survival and of resilience as technocratic fix – are, as Ezio Manzini makes clear in the base document, defensive versions of resilience that we need to move away from, to the extent that some feel we should abandon the term altogether. However, sticking with the word requires us to take a critical stance, and one that uses resilience not as term to describe the amelioration of present systems but rather one to reimagine the potential of future ones. Lessons as to how move from a ‘less bad’ version of resilience bound to the present to one that is radically open to the future might be found in the favela example.
At heart what we see being played out is the classic tension between structure and agency. At the scale of the favela, local agency is in full swing. It is not to romanticise the conditions to understand the extraordinary vernacular intelligence that goes into the shaping of the favela. The matching of our resilience keywords to the systems of the favela is not coincidental, and lessons can be learnt from the tools and techniques of such agency. But this is all for nothing in the face of the overriding structures, which are oblivious to the dynamics of agency and so obliterate them. The mistake revealed here is, as Anthony Giddens notes, to consider structure and agency as an either / or dialectic: ‘The basic shortcoming of most discussions of agency and structure … is to suppose that either the individual has a primacy over society (modes of production /social formation) or the reverse… . We should resist this dualism and instead understand it as a duality – the “duality of structure”’.
"Resilient systems cannot straddle these differences and implied oppositions on two legs and in two ways, but need to dissolve the gaps so that the founding assumptions of structure and agency are challenged."
Following Giddens’ idea of a duality, it is easier to understand the concurrent failure of resilience within both the agency of the favela and the municipal structures. Unless both are considered together, each will fail in the formation of a truly resilient system. Thus, even the notion of duality might be restrictive in that it still holds to a hierarchy of structure and agency: big versus small, collective versus individual, static versus dynamic, and so on. My hunch is that resilient systems cannot straddle these differences and implied oppositions on two legs and in two ways, but need to dissolve the gaps so that the founding assumptions of structure and agency are challenged. To achieve this any analysis or design of a resilient system has to be multi-scalar (ie able to operate at a number of scales) and trans-scalar (ie able to situate itself in relation to operations at other scales).
Only then will can the brilliantly chaotic but super-dangerous wiring (as emblem of the agency of the favela) merge graciously with the order of the pylons (as emblem of controlling structure).
And only then can the favela graffiti artists’ slogan of ‘historia em construçao’ (‘history in the making’) be turned from a threat to an opportunity.