The Governor General's Canadian Leadership Conference

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Thomas Homer-Dixon
Thomas Homer-Dixon
CIGI Chair of Global Systems
Balsillie School of International Affairs
Thomas Homer-Dixon  

Excerpts from speech delivered to the Conference:

This conference is about sustainable communities, but I have a problem with the word "sustainability." It implies that once we work out our relationship with our natural environment we can then just glide smoothly and indefinitely into a sustainable future. But our future is not going to be smooth. It will be marked by sharp, sudden surprises and often extreme events. So our goal should be adaptation. And effective adaptation is about resilience. It's about avoiding brittleness in our communities and in our complex networks so that they can respond to the kinds of surprises and shocks they're going to encounter increasingly in the future.

Resilient people have the capacity to withstand shock. They are self-reliant, and they are creative in response to novel challenges. They've learned how to think for themselves. We can't know exactly what's going to happen in the future so we need to have the capacity to respond to a whole variety of contingencies, even those we haven't even imagined yet.

This perspective means we need to shift from seeing the world as composed of simple machines to seeing it as composed of complex systems. And complex systems cannot be easily managed because their behaviour is fundamentally unpredictable. Unpredictability and complexity raise some serious challenges for leadership. In general, they mean you want more heads working on problems than fewer. You want to diversify, and you want to bring together as many individuals who are working with or experiencing the problems to contribute to the overall solution. The process of developing solutions must also involve lots of "safe fail experimentation," where if something goes wrong folks don't wipe out the whole system, but instead learn from their mistake. . . . These are fundamental principles that we need to adopt as leaders in our sustainable and resilient communities.

We need to recognize that we're moving from a world of risk to a world of uncertainty. In a world of risk, we have enough information to anticipate where any given system is going and what the costs and benefits might be of going down a particular pathway. In a world of uncertainty, we don't have a clue what pathway the system is going to go down, and we certainly can't calculate the costs and benefits. In a world of uncertainty, itís best to invest in adaptability, innovative capability and, ultimately, in resilience.

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