Critical engagements with resilience are increasingly converging around a standard narrative. In fields such as geography and international relations, this narrative broadly asserts that resilience is a novel mechanism for extending and consolidating the ongoing neoliberalisation of social and ecological relations. Resilience, these critics assert, is neoliberal precisely because it provides a positive justification for continued decentralisation and individualisation of responsibilities for managing vulnerabilities.

But this narrative is challenged by a variety of resilience initiatives that cannot be easily characterised as a neoliberal rollback of state protections and decomposition of the social. One such example is the ambitious Rebuild by Design (RBD) initiative, a design-driven disaster reconstruction competition launched by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Rockefeller Foundation in the aftermath of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy. RBD’s novel configuration of urban resilience, urban planning and design theory provides an opportunity to develop a different genealogy of resilience that complicates standard critical narratives. Analysing design as as a specific art of engaging with complex socio-ecological relations and governing uncertain futures points towards a very different understanding of the relation between resilience and neoliberalism.

Kevin Grove will argue that resilience needs to be understood as a socio-ecological expression of a more fundamental will to design that reshapes the possibilities for critical thought on nature-society relations.

Design and resilience share a common genealogy that leads back to mid-twentieth century work in fields such as public administration, public choice theory, behavioural sciences, and computer sciences. Scholars in these fields all grappled with, in one way or another, the problem of human artifice: how to understand and govern inherently creative and adaptive individuals in complex settings. The concepts and techniques they developed laid the foundation for formative work in both design studies and resilience theory during the 1970s and 1980s.

Recognising this wider genealogy demonstrates how resilience is, at one and the same time, both more neo-liberal and more politically and ethically pliable than critics and proponents acknowledge. The genealogy of resilience lies in efforts to reimagine and reinvent liberal state-society relations in a complex world. Resilience thus carries with it the potential for an affirmative biopolitics that reconfigures rather than decomposes the possibilities for social protection in an interconnected and emergent world. In the case of RBD, design-driven resilience does not simply roll back the state, but rather poses the pragmatic problem of how to re-constitute social and political order in response to problems of complexity.


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Kevin Grove is an Assistant Professor of Human Geography in the Department of Global and Sociocultural Studies at Florida International University. His research works across political geography, critical security studies and nature-society theory to study the biopolitics of disaster governance and emergency management in the Caribbean and North America. Kevin’s work has been published in a variety of geographic and interdisciplinary journals, including Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Antipode, Geoforum, Geopolitics and Security Dialogue. Currently, Kevin’s focus is on the history of resilience thinking and its implications for critical thought and practice in geography and cognate disciplines, which will culminate in a major book project.


Image by Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen/U.S. Air Force/New Jersey National Guard via Wikimedia/CC BY 4.0


RMIT University City campus, Building 11, Level 2, Room 7 Boardroom.


Thursday 7 July, 12.30pm to 1.30pm