Demos Daily: Resilient Nation


Our national resilience is being tested on arguably the largest scale since the Second World War. There’s much to celebrate, with communities across the country coming together to support their most vulnerable members. Yet when this is over, what lessons will be learnt to tackle possible future crises? Back in 2009, we proposed how we can build and sustain community resilience with support from central and local government, relevant agencies, the emergency services and voluntary organisations.

Read Resilient Nation here, and the introduction below.


We live in a brittle society. Our just-in-time lifestyles provide most of us with a seemingly infinite number of goods and services. This is made possible by greater social and economic interdependencies and mass communication. Over 80 per cent of Britons live in urban areas relying on dense networks of public and private sector organisations to provide them with food, water, electricity, communications and transport. For much of the time this lifestyle poses us few challenges, but it relies on an infrastructure that is outmoded and archaic, and which increasingly lacks the capacity to support our complicated lives.

Food supply chains, sewerage systems, electricity grids and transport networks are part of the UK’s critical national infrastructure and have become progressively more interconnected and reliant on information and communication technology. In the past two decades these ‘essential services’ have been privatised. Today some 85 per cent of the critical national infrastructure is owned by the private sector, adding another layer of complexity to the brittle system. Our everyday lives and the national infrastructure which they rely on operate in a fragile union, vulnerable to even the smallest disturbances in the network.

Both are part of a global ecosystem, which is increasingly impoverished and can withstand very little force of change. This has created an environment of extremes, notably the heat wave across Europe in 2003, the widespread flooding of the UK in 2007 and the snow storms over much of the country in 2009. Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and intense, disrupting our everyday lives and causing system failure across the national infrastructure. Together, these three dimensions (our lifestyles, the national infrastructure and extreme weather) make up our brittle society.

As a result we need to rethink the concept of resilience in a way that resists the temptation to think only in terms of the ability of an individual or society to ‘bounce back’ but suggests a greater focus on learning and adaptation. In a new definition of this concept, responsibility for resilience must rest on individuals not only on institutions. Resilient Nation raises some profound challenges and issues around the role of individuals and communities in the UK, and the relationship between the state and citizens.

This pamphlet is about how we can build and sustain community resilience with support from central and local government, relevant agencies, the emergency services and voluntary organisations. Chapter 1 explores the role of education in building resilience and describes how Tilly, a schoolgirl holidaying in Thailand, saved her family and hundreds of tourists because of a geography lesson she remembered.

Chapter 2 describes in more detail how our society has become brittle. According to Richard Mottram, the former Permanent Secretary, Intelligence, Security and Resilience in the UK government, recent emergencies have ‘exposed the Government’s inadequate understanding of societal interdependencies… resting on just in time principles, or the way in which response actions in one area could have greater, unintended consequences in another’. (1)

Chapter 3 explores how risk communication gets lost in translation and challenges the dual notions that human beings are rational and they panic in an emergency. Both notions appear to be false. Thousands of Americans decided to drive instead of fly after 9/11. The collapse of the two towers was still a vivid memory and driving in contrast must have felt much safer. In the years that followed 9/11, Gerd Gigerenzer, a psychologist at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, patiently gathered data on travel and fatalities. In 2006 he published a paper comparing the statististics of the number of people flying and the number driving in the US five years before the 9/11 attacks and five years after. It turned out that the shift from planes to cars in America lasted one year. Then traffic patterns went back to normal. Gigerenzer also found out that, as he had expected, fatalities on American roads soared after 9/11 and settled back to normal levels in September 2002. Gigerenzer was able to calculate the number of Americans killed in car crashes in one year as a result: 1,595. (2)

Not only are humans predictably irrational, as Dan Ariely suggests, (3) but according to Amanda Ripley, ‘people rarely do hysterical things that violate basic social mores. The vast majority of the time… people don’t panic… the fear of panic may be more dangerous than panic itself.’ (4) More importantly, as Ripley observes, the enduring expectation by officials in government, the emergency services and the mainstream media that people will panic leads to all kinds of distrust on the part of neighbours, politicians and police officers. (5)

Chapter 4 describes the evolution of emergency planning and the role of the voluntary sector since the end of the Cold War. The idea of the UK as being a well-organised, well-defended and resilient country during the Cold War is, on closer inspection, largely a myth but one still propagated by politicians and the mainstream media. Chapter 5 describes the role of volunteers in a village in north Norfolk, which was struck by a storm surge that hit the East Anglian coast in November 2007.

Chapter 6 reveals the powerful networks that criss-cross the UK supporting hundreds of thousands of people. The chapter focuses on the Farm Crisis Network, the role of faith communities and the myriad of governance networks that exist in the UK. Chapter 7 explores the potential of social media in emergency planning and disaster management and explains why the Los Angeles Fire Department uses Blogger and Twitter, and how thousands of people got together virtually to track Hurricane Gustav.

The final chapter suggests an approach to building a resilient nation. Instead of comprising a list of recommendations, the chapter describes how government departments, relevant agencies and local authorities can shape and influence existing models of best practice around the country by adopting the four Es of community resilience: engagement, education, empowerment and encouragement.


(1)  Quoted in Hennessy, The New Protective State.

(2)  Gardener, Risk.

(3)  Ariely, Predictably Irrational.

(4) Ripley, The Unthinkable.

(5) Ibid.