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Linked concepts: Resilience, Adaptation, Transformation and Sustainability

Using the linked concepts

Resilience, adaptation and transformation are a set of related concepts which can operate within a continuum – from maintaining a healthy, resilient system in its present state, through to incremental adaptive changes or indeed radical transformational change to a completely different system. The RAPTA Guidelines are about how to use resilience, adaptation or transformation to manage a system, and will help people to make intentional changes (or system interventions) with a stronger chance of reaching their sustainability goals.

The terms resilience, adaptation and transformation mean different things to different groups of experts. In some cases, the terms are framed in a way which implies that high levels of resilience, adaptation or transformation are desirable for their own sake, in others they are framed as aspirational goals (e.g. “increase resilience of agro-ecosystems” or “create resilient cities”). In RAPTA, we define all three terms as value-neutral, that is, neither positive nor negative attributes. We assume that the concepts will be applied to help reach value-driven goals (for example sustainability goals, which are seen as positive).

We have put forward a practical approach, consistent with the literature on resilience and adaptation, to inform sound project design. The concepts are critical, but the actual labelling of interventions and implementation pathways as “building resilience”, “adaptation” or “transformation” is not important to project design. One good reason to use RAPTA is because its inherent flexibility makes it usable in many different project contexts, and under different interpretations of resilience, adaptation and transformation.

Usage of key terms in RAPTA

The RAPTA Guidelines have more detailed descriptions of terms and key concepts.

  • Resilience is the ability of a social–ecological system to absorb shocks and trends (e. g. like drought) but to reorganise so as to retain the same functions, structure, and feedbacks (i.e. the same identity). Resilience is neither good nor bad – a system can be in an undesirable state yet still be resilient to shocks, e.g. a grassland that has been invaded by unpalatable shrubs.
  • Adaptation refers to the process of change that enables a system to maintain its identity, so that it is better able to cope with trends and shocks, or to reduce vulnerability to disturbance.
  • Transformation is a shift in a current system to a substantively new and different one. For example, the transformation of a pastoral system to a cropping system.
  • Adaptation and transformation may be planned (intentional) or unplanned (autonomous), wanted or unwanted, imposed by a government, community-led, or the result of a government-community partnership. It may happen at community-wide scale, or one household at a time. RAPTA helps to design interventions which are intentional adaptations and transformations.
  • Changes that adapt or transform a system can be fast (shocks) or slow (trends), or a combination of both. A controlling variable may change in a slow, predictable way (e.g. such as a rising groundwater table), but the impacts of that change may not be smooth and can exhibit threshold effects. For example, once saline groundwater rises to within a certain distance of the surface, capillary action draws it to the surface creating saline topsoil where trees and plants struggle to survive even if the water table falls again. In this case the controlling variable (groundwater level) changes smoothly, but the rapid change in soil condition causes a sudden, often irreversible, shock to land use.
  • It’s all a matter of scale, in time and space. Big changes such as a decline in soil fertility, or a rise in greenhouse gases, may be called “trends” when viewed against the time frame of the decisions of a person, or a government. However, over longer timescales they can be viewed as “shocks”. Likewise, a sequence of actions which are labelled “incremental adaptation” over the shorter term, may be seen as transformational over the longer term. Sometimes, in order to maintain the same system at one scale, transformations may have to occur at a finer scale. For example, if an river basin is to continue to supply irrigation water and the overall amount of rainfall is reducing due to climate change, some irrigation areas within that river basin may have to be closed down (ie transformed to dryland agriculture), in order to maintain an irrigation industry at the river basin scale.