Resilience is the capacity to adapt to changing conditions and to maintain or regain functionality and vitality in the face of stress or disturbance. It is the capacity to bounce back after a disturbance or interruption. 
Or, in the words of Alex Wilson of the Resilient Design Institute, it can be about “bouncing forward.”
The design community is beginning to rely on principles of resiliency to prepare buildings and occupants for extended power outages, flooding, rising sea levels in coastal communities, and other intense storms and natural disasters. But what does resilient design mean for projects that are not in areas prone to natural disasters? How about in communities that have experienced chronic disinvestment?
Already gaining significant tailwinds in many communities and successfully leveraged for seashores and flooding, the concept of resiliency in design presents an opportunity to apply new ways of thinking to corporate interiors, community and municipal buildings, retail, and other building types.
2020 has long been referred to as the year of “perfect vision,” invoking the term 20/20 vision, which is used by optometrists to express a high level of visual acuity. In this context, perfect vision is about achieving a greater appreciation for our place in the world today and realizing our vision of the future. Yet, societies the world over have been caught off-guard by the impact of COVID-19 on their businesses, employees, and communities. At the same time, the United States is struggling to understand the deeper implications of police brutality and the structural inequity found throughout our institutions and systems, resulting in protests and unrest across the country. Could we have been better prepared for a global pandemic? How will we move forward in healing the social, economic, and emotional trauma wrought by centuries of racism? And at the same time, how might we fulfill our moral obligation and responsibility to care for our planet as we continue to suffer from changes to our global climate. Now is the time to embrace resilient planning and design to leverage our efforts to actually “bounce forward” rather than simply react to these crises.
Not all response strategies are created equally
Whether a municipality or school district with a portfolio of buildings, or a corporate tenant of a high rise building in an urban core, entities of all types have been working tirelessly to adapt their spaces and processes to safely return their employees to work and welcome guests in the time of COVID-19. Every place of business must devise a plan that best fits their culture, pertinent local regulations and guidance, allocated financial resources, and their tolerance for risk. And, all of this must be done in a way that engenders trust and understanding of employees and other stakeholders.
COVID-19 response planning strategies may embrace resilience by looking to solutions that support the current climate, but also provide lasting value as pandemic concerns subside. For example:
- Upgrading office ventilation and air filtration systems will provide on-going improved indoor air quality that is better for occupants
- Operable windows improve occupant control and comfort and allow additional fresh air into buildings
- Work-from-home policies may endure to attract and retain the best and brightest talent seeking a work-life balance and flexibility
- Touch-free sink faucets and doors may help reduce the occurrence of seasonal flu spread
- Smart space technology may help manage social distancing now, and help reduce energy use over time
- The uptick in the use of video conferencing may reduce future business travel – a boon for both reducing associated burdens and stress on employees, but also the associated carbon impact
- Flexible furniture systems can be continually reconfigured to accommodate social distancing and may also help organizations accommodate growth and explore new ways of collaboration
- Emergency preparedness planning and other policy-based interventions, many of which are embodied by the new WELL Health & Safety Rating, can help organizations convey their intention to employees and prepare them for business interruptions of all types in the future.
Opportunities that create healthier and sustainable workspaces and address current COVID-19 concerns will also carry multiple benefits beyond the current pandemic. These types of strategies can be directly contrasted with the uptake of unproven and unsafe anti-microbial surface treatments, or excessive desk shielding strategies that are expensive, and while may contribute to preventing the spread of the novel Coronavirus today, may have little use in the post-pandemic office space. Thinking about resilience when spending money to retrofit the spaces we occupy helps us future proof our organization and assets. While we may not own these buildings in 20 years, the way we think about resilience now may support increased valuation when disposed of.
Wight & Company has created a suite of tools and guides to support organizations of all types develop return to work strategies.
The opportunity for a cultural reset is ripe
Resilience thinking is about being prepared for the unexpected, in our built environment, as individuals, organizations, and communities. The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged us across these fronts, and when considered in the context of our society’s current cultural reckoning spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement, the opportunity to adjust our policies and culture to best accommodate those traditionally disadvantaged is more important than ever.
Equity, diversity, and inclusion are key elements of resilient communities and organizations. While many students and employees have enjoyed a safe retreat with mandatory work at home policies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the pandemic has disproportionately affected people of color. The reasons are varied and systemic, ranging from disproportionate burden of underlying diseases, lack of access to healthcare and other resources, and other inequities, but have revealed the need to be more proactive about addressing the underlying issues.
Across the board, depression and anxiety resulting from enforced isolation are straining the ability for our organizations and communities to respond. Even as many schools begin virtual teaching and learning, millions of students do not have access to internet at home to effectively engage. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can design and invest in our cities, communities, schools, and offices in a way that fosters equity, and subsequently, organizational and community resilience. How will our buildings and organizations evolve towards a resilient response?
It is an interesting question, and one that we cannot answer alone – resilient solutions are borne of stakeholder engagement and input. To arrive at a solution set, we must first listen. Listen to all voices – and particularly those that remain unheard. Work to understand place, people and circumstance. Solutions may be diverse and take many shapes and forms, from infrastructure through policy, and from planning through execution. Importantly, we must remain humble and genuinely collaborative.
These are uniquely challenging times and resilience thinking has grown more important than ever. We must break through our conventional way of doing business to evaluate unforeseen challenges and opportunities (future-proofing), from addressing COVID-19 through social equity, and other crises spanning the emerging economic crisis and climate change. More importantly, we must evaluate opportunities through a lens of resilience that offers multiple benefits to help us bounce forward into the future.
 "What is Resilience," Resilient Design Institute, n.d., https://www.resilientdesign.org/what-is-resilience/
 “Health Equity Considerations and Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups,” Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 24, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/race-ethnicity
 Loades, Maria Elizabeth, Eleanor Chatburn, Nina Higson-Sweeney, Shirley Reynolds, Roz Shafran, Amberly Brigden, Catherine Linney, Megan Niamh McManus, Catherine Borwick, and Esther Crawley. “Rapid Systematic Review: The Impact of Social Isolation and Loneliness on the Mental Health of Children and Adolescents in the Context of COVID-19.” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (June 2020). doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2020.05.009
 "Students of Color Caught in the Homework Gap," Future Ready Schools, n.d., https://futureready.org/homework-gap/