The Resilience Machine

Guest authors: Prof. Simin Davoudi1, 2, Prof. Jim Bohland1, Prof. Paul Knox1 and Dr. Jennifer Lawrence1

1Global Forum on Urban and Regional Resilience at Virginia Tech and 2Newcastle University

In 2012, the headline in a New York Times article suggested that we should “Forget sustainability” because “It’s about resilience”, indicating a shift of emphasis to what is perceived to be the dominating discourse of our time. In the last three decades resilience has become a prominent, albeit sometimes problematic, concept across natural, physical, and social sciences. It has engaged scholars from a wide range of disciplines including engineering, economic geography, psychology, urban studies, political ecology, urban planning, public administration, and disaster risk management among others. Moreover, instrumentalist modes of resilience have effectively colonized multiple areas of public policy and decision-making which seek to secure systems of provision. A growing number of think tanks, philanthropic organizations, government institutions, NGOs, and corporate entities have made ‘resilience’ thinking and ‘resilience’ building a top priority.

As a result, there are now multitudes of toolkits and guidelines on how to achieve resilience as well as indicators and evaluation criteria about how to measure and monitor the resilience of cities, communities, individuals and ecosystems. However, the widespread currency of resilience is by no means a sign of common understanding of the concept or the desirability of resilience as a public policy objective. On the contrary, resilience risks being an empty signifier which can be filled with multiple meanings and which can serve conflicting political, economic, and social interests. While some advocates indicate encouraging possibilities for resilience as a new way of thinking about and governing risk and uncertainty, we would argue that resilience risks becoming another carrier of neoliberal ideologies, policies, and practices with negative implications for social justice and democracy. These are issues that are often lost or hidden within the discursive ambiguity of resilience as a concept.

That is why, in a forthcoming book, we argue that there is a ‘resilience machine’ in the making. The book is the outcome of a number of workshops and exchanges among us (the editors) and other authors, facilitated by the Global Forum for Urban and Regional Resilience, based at Virginia Tech. It draws on our previous work on resilience (see examples below).

Inspired by Harvey Molotch’s seminal 1976 paper, The City as a Growth Machine, we argue that in the face of radical uncertainties resilience has been portrayed as a value-neutral goal which enables its machine-like deployment and operation on multiple scales from individuals to cities and regions. Although the metaphor of the machine is apt in capturing the growing consensus about resilience as a taken-for-granted public good, our understanding of the concept of machine differs from Molotch’s thesis in important ways. First, the urban growth machine is based on an agency-centred perspective which puts the emphasis on actors’ observed action rather than the social relations that give rise to their action. We argue that while resilience machines are activated and mobilized by the agency of actors and institutions, their actions are shaped by the dominating neoliberal social relations. Second, growth machine operates in relation to one form of urban politics, i.e. land and its commodification. Resilience machines are pervasive. They are active in multiple forms of urban politics ranging from citizenship, to community relations and to access to welfare services. Third, Molotch’s thesis is uni-scalar and relates primarily to late 20th century American cities. Resilience machines not only operate at multiple scales from international to neighbourhood levels. They are also actively engaged in the strategic and contingent construction of scale; they are at the centre of the politics of scale. Like Molotch, we also see language and discourse being a critical intellectual currency in the co-option of actors and interests into the machine’s operation and understand language not just as a communication device for convincing the public about the benefits of growth for their wellbeing, but also as a form of highly politicized representation. Mechanistic language is used to normalize resilience discourses and socialize resilience practices in everyday life. Through significations, people come to comprehend a particular form of resilience and motivated to aboard the machine. Finally, Molotch considered the feelings and concerns of ‘residents’ for localities as a ‘counter coalition’ force that fights against self-serving, profit seeking developers and growth entrepreneurs. Resisting resilience machines and their subjectification intents is not exclusive to a particular group of people based in a particular locality. It is diffused across time, space and social groups, and is embedded the structural power relations of resilience politics.

While resilience might be understood as a machine in the making, we do not assume that its anatomy, driving forces, constellation of actors, institutions, discourses and practices, and goals and objectives are necessarily the same as those of the urban growth machine. Instead, the book advances the idea by drawing on the contemporary Deleuzian understanding of machine as assemblage. The concept of assemblage is used to make sense of, rationalities, imaginaries, technologies and materialities of resilience.

We argue that the concept of ‘resilience machine’ provides a way of raising critical questions for future urban resilience research; questions such as:

  • How is the concept of resilience appropriated in discourses, policies, and practices? For what purpose?
  • What assumptions are made in the applications of resilience?
  • What features of resilience narratives mimic characteristics of the growth machine or assemblage?
  • What ideologies and rationalities are carried by the concept of resilience?
  • What meanings and values are inscribed and prescribed in the name of resilience?
  • Who are the actors and what are the institutions that deploy the resilience machine?
  • What are the social/political and moral/ethical implications of the different understandings and applications of resilience?
  • What pitfalls and opportunities are embedded in and implied by various interpretations of resilience?
  • Whether and how might resilience be used for the pursuit of democracy and justice?


Biographies: Simin Davoudi is Director of the Global Urban Research Unit (GURU),  Professor of Environmental Policy & Planning and Professor of Environment Policy & Planning at the School of Architecture, Planning & Landscape at Newcastle University, UK.

James Bohland is Principal Research Associate for the Socio-Political Dimensions of Resilience research cluster at the Global Forum on Urban and Regional Resilience at Virginia Tech and is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs.

Paul L. Knox is a University Distinguished Professor and Founding Dean of the Honors College at Virginia Tech. Recent books include Metroburbia: The Anatomy of Greater London (Merrell, 2017); London: Architecture, Building and Social Change (Merrell, London, 2015), and Atlas of Cities (New York: Princeton University Press, 2014).

Jennifer L. Lawrence is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate at The Global Forum on Urban and Regional Resilience at Virginia Tech.

Further references:

Forthcoming book: Jim Bohland, J., Davoudi, S., Knox, P. and Lawrence, J. (eds.) (2017) The Resilience Machine, London: Routledge, with chapters by Julian Reid, Jonathan Pugh, Kevin Grove, Rebecca  Hester, Lauren Rickards, Wendy Steel, Martin Mulligan, Timothy Luke, Peter Rogers, Susan Fainstein, Thilo Lang, Chris Zebrowski, Raven Cretney and Brendan Gleeson.

Davoudi, S. (2016) Resilience and Governmentality of Unknowns, in M. Bevir (ed.) Governmentality after neoliberalism, New York; Routledge.152-171

Davoudi, S. (2012) Resilience, a bridging concept or a dead end? Planning Theory and Practice, 13(2) 299-307

Further resources:

One thought on “The Resilience Machine

  1. James Lewis says:

    “Now a popular bye-word from board rooms, staterooms, ministerial departments, parliaments, and committee rooms, is ‘resilience’ simply a paralogism of ill-informed non-thinkers or worse, is it a conscious sophism of conspired delusion – or of intended or unintended deceit?”

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