Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back

By ANDREW ZOLLI

At the beginning of Andrew Zolli’s Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, he introduces us to Mexico City’s “tortilla riots,” an event that Zolli describes as “an archetypical experience of the 21st century.” In January 2007, the price of corn (the principle ingredient in tortillas), having risen 400 percent in the prior three months, triggered a protest by tens of thousands of people in Mexico City’s main squares. “Tortillas sí, pano no!” the demonstrators chanted, Zolli explains, in an ironic protest against the ruling PAN Party of the then president, Felipe Calderón.

But, as Zolli — who is best known as the director of the global innovation network PopTech — notes, neither Calderón nor PAN were to blame for the skyrocketing price of corn. The cause of what Zolli describes as a “potential humanitarian and political crisis” lay further north, on the Gulf Coast of the United States, where in August 2005 Hurricane Katrina tore through Texas and Louisiana, disrupting 95 percent of oil production in the region and triggering a congressionally mandated fivefold increase in the production of the alternative biofuel ethanol.

Like tortillas, ethanol is made from corn. And, as Zolli explains, the shift from edible corn crops to inedible varieties suited to the production of ethanol created the dramatic spike in the Mexican price of corn. It’s this kind of disruptive economic complexity, he explains, that makes all of us — from corn farmers in the U.S. to the tortilla vendors of Mexico City — victims and captives of our intricately interconnected global system.

To confront and manage this destructive twenty-first-century reality, Zolli introduces us to “resilience,” a word he describes as “the capacity of a system, enterprise, or person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.”

Learning resilience is what Zolli memorably calls “ballroom dancing in the middle of a minefield,” and he regards it as “the great moral question for our age.”

Resilience is, indeed, a manual for ballroom dancing in the midst of the minefield of our highly disruptive economy. From the batfish of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to a Swiss alternative currency called the WIR to the collapse of Lehman Brothers to an Arab-Israeli peacemaking initiative called the Abraham Path Initiative, Zolli catalogues memorable examples in which systems, people, or organizations have either succeeded — or failed — in dramatically changing their purpose in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.

While Resilience generally convinces, I have one major and one minor quibble. My most serious critique concerns cumbersome language. The book is packed with jargon. We are, for example, introduced to such verbal monstrosities as “embracing adhocracy,” “embedded countercyclical structures,” “network weaving,” and “translational leaders.” Resilience‘s jacket suggests an explanation: Andrew Zolli gets the major billing as author, but the writer Ann Marie Healy is also included in significantly smaller type. I suspect there’s too much Zolli and not enough Healy in Resilience‘s language. But after a while, I longed for a translational leader — an Ann Marie Healy, perhaps — to translate all this indigestible jargon into more down-to-earth, everyday language that those of us who aren’t part of the PopTech circuit can understand.

My second concern is political. Zolli is clearly a man of the Left, and all his examples are of minority groups or poor people fighting against the injustice inherent in our economic system. Indeed, he argues — wrongly, in my opinion — that “resilient cultures are rooted in diversity and difference.” I wish Resilience had grappled with a few politically incorrect examples of societies dealing with global change — the cases of Singapore or China, for example — to balance the heartwarming case studies from Africa and inner-city America.

That said, Zolli’s (and Healy’s) Resilience is well worth a read. Indeed, if you want to learn to navigate the perilously interconnected currents of our global economy, this may be as good a place as any to start your ballroom dancing lessons.