More than a Dazzling Term?

Reflections on Current International Debates and the German Experience

Resilience is the new catchword of our times. It is to the 2010s what sustainability was to the decades before. The term is highly attractive as, in general, to be resilient refers to something positive: to be able to withstand hardship and disturbance, to recover from disaster and destruction, to regain one’s original shape after deformation, to be cautious enough to prepare for the unforeseen, and to deal with risks in an ‘appropriate’ way.

However, urban and regional resilience has to be understood in a broader sense. It is not limited to natural hazards, risk reduction, climate change and more effective responses to them. Rather, it includes strategies to prevent and recover from urban and regional distress and decline, and to cope with new social and economic challenges. In contrast to the term ‘sustainability’, which is often used to describe a future state in a normative way, the term ‘urban and regional resilience’ also includes dynamics. It refers to urban and regional stakeholders and their way to cope with new challenges; in other words, to urban and regional governance.

Whereas there is currently a lively international debate about resilience, the German translation of the term is not a common word in colloquial language. Until recently, experts mainly used it in psychology, and resilience research was almost exclusively seen as a subject of psychology and social pedagogy. This has only changed slowly as the word enters other spheres of policy and public debate. Among these are ecology and environmental sciences, as well as in particular risk management and disaster prevention. The intensive debate in Germany about climate change and about related mitigation and adaptation strategies has recently had a strong influence on the popularisation of the term.

Against this background, in this lecture, Professor Bernhard Müller presents a critical analysis of current international debates about resilience, sustainability and governance; discusses practical examples of urban and regional resilience in the German context; and identifies key issues and challenges for future work in the field.

Bernhard Müller is the Director of the Leibniz Institute of Ecological and Regional Development (IOER), Dresden, and Professor for Spatial Development at the Technische Universität Dresden. He has a doctoral degree in Geography from the University of Mainz, and completed his habilitation in urban and regional planning studies at the University of Hanover. He received an honorary doctorate from the Slovak University of Technology. His professional interests are in sustainable development as well as urban and regional resilience.

Until recently, Professor Müller was Vice President of the Leibniz Association, one of the major non-university research organisations in Germany. He is a member of the German Academy of Science and Engineering (ACATECH), the Saxonian Academy of Sciences, and the German Academy for Spatial Research and Planning (ARL). He has acted as an evaluator for several European research programmes. He was a member of the Advisory Council for Regional Policy and Planning of the Federal Republic of Germany, and of the Environmental Research Council of the State of Saxony. Bernhard Müller is also initiator and head of the Managing Board of the internationally oriented Dresden Leibniz Graduate School (DLGS), whose research focuses on issues of resilience in urban and regional development.