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Sellberg, M. M., S. T. Borgström, A. V. Norström, and G. D. Peterson. 2017. Improving participatory resilience assessment by cross-fertilizing the Resilience Alliance and Transition Movement approaches. Ecology and Society 22(1):28.

Improving participatory resilience assessment by cross-fertilizing the Resilience Alliance and Transition Movement approaches

1Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, 2Department of Sustainable Development, Environmental Science and Engineering, Royal Institute of Technology (KTH)


The concept of resilience is currently being widely promoted and applied by environmental and development organizations. However, their application of resilience often lacks theoretical backing and evaluation. This paper presents a novel cross-fertilization of two commonly used approaches for applying resilience thinking: the grassroots movement of Transition Towns and the Resilience Alliance’s Resilience Assessment. We compared these approaches through a text analysis of their key handbooks and combined them in a series of participatory workshops with a local partner active in the Transition Movement. Our results demonstrate that despite sharing a number of key features, these two approaches have complementary strengths and weaknesses. Strengths of the Transition Movement include its motivating overarching narrative of the need to transform in response to global sustainability challenges, as well as practical tools promoting learning and participation. The Resilience Assessment’s conceptual framework and structured process generated context-specific understanding of resilience, but provided little guidance on navigating transformation processes. Combining the Resilience Assessment’s theory on complex systems with the Transition Movement’s methods for learning also generated synergies in fostering complexity thinking. Based on these findings, we believe that integrating strengths from both approaches could be widely useful for practitioners seeking to apply resilience for sustainable development. Our study also highlights that methods for assessing resilience can be improved by combining insights from science and practice.
Key words: sustainability science; sustainable development; transdisciplinary research; transformation; Transition Towns


Resilience of social-ecological systems is one of the core research interests of sustainability science (Kates et al. 2001). Interest in resilience has grown dramatically over the past decade (Xu and Marinova 2013, Baggio et al. 2015), which has led to an increasing demand for methods to apply resilience thinking. One of the best-documented approaches is described in The Resilience Assessment Workbook (Resilience Alliance 2010). This is based on a strong foundation of theory and empirical research on social-ecological systems, from a complex adaptive systems perspective (Quinlan et al. 2015). On the other hand, different civil society movements are also applying resilience thinking, such as the Transition Movement, which promotes transformative societal change in response to contemporary sustainability challenges (Hopkins 2009). The Resilience Assessment process is the most developed scientifically based approach to applying resilience thinking, whereas the Transition Movement represents one of the largest communities of practice working with resilience thinking. We present a novel comparison of these two approaches that analyzes how they can cross-fertilize to improve the application of resilience thinking in participatory processes.

The Transition Movement and the Resilience Assessment represent two different approaches to using resilience thinking with potentially complementary strengths. Previously, scholars applying Resilience Assessment in practice have found that it fails to provide guidance on how to manage the participatory learning process (Mitchell et al. 2014, Sellberg et al. 2015). Furthermore, although resilience scholars often emphasize transformational change for sustainable development (Gunderson and Holling 2002, Folke et al. 2010, Olsson et al. 2014), the practice of Resilience Assessment as of yet has failed to support transformations of social-ecological systems (Walkerden et al. 2013, Sellberg et al. 2015). Earlier work has addressed these issues by combining Resilience Assessment with ideas from adaptive management and collective learning (Walkerden et al. 2013, Mitchell et al. 2014). However, no one so far has engaged with the Transition Movement, even though it focuses on mobilizing citizens in collective learning processes for transition (Hopkins 2011). Haxeltine and Seyfang (2009:20) provided an initial comparison between literature on social-ecological resilience (e.g., Folke 2006) and the Transition Movement and found that the movement has been successful in using resilience as a framing concept, but that there is a lack of a deeper understanding of what building resilience means for each specific context, as well as “an adequate conceptual and operational framework for resilience.” Within the movement, there is also an interest in analyzing resilience and assessing the impact of initiatives (Hopkins 2011). This suggests that the Resilience Assessment approach also could be useful for the Transition Movement.

In this paper, we compare and combine the Resilience Assessment and the Transition Movement approaches, with an aim to generate insights for the application of resilience thinking in participatory settings. Specifically, we (1) compared the notions of resilience as presented in the handbooks of the two approaches (Hopkins 2008, 2011, Resilience Alliance 2010) through a qualitative text analysis and (2) developed a new participatory workshop protocol influenced by the two approaches, in collaboration with local partners active in the Transition Movement in Southern Sweden, and assessed the benefits and challenges of that cross-fertilization process. To our knowledge, this is the first time the Resilience Assessment and Transition Movement approaches have been compared and combined in a scientific study.


The Resilience Assessment

The Resilience Assessment Workbook was developed by the Resilience Alliance research network (2010) and was originally aimed at the practical management of regional ecosystems. The current process includes describing a social-ecological system, assessing its resilience, and finding options for interventions. The aim is to generate an understanding of the dynamics and aspects of resilience in a system, rather than measuring resilience (Walker and Salt 2012). The approach has a strong theoretical foundation and builds on earlier work by the Resilience Alliance to apply resilience thinking (Walker et al. 2002), as well as recent insights from case studies of social-ecological systems (Quinlan et al. 2015). The latest version of The Resilience Assessment Workbook for Practitioners has been applied across the world (Resilience Alliance 2016) and in different contexts (e.g., Haider et al. 2012, Liu 2014, Sellberg et al. 2015), but most extensively in Australia by regional water catchment management authorities (e.g., Walker et al. 2009, Mitchell et al. 2014). In this way, the approach of the Resilience Alliance (2010) is more flexible compared with other recent approaches that are tailored to specific contexts (Quinlan et al. 2015), such as social-ecological production landscapes and seascapes (UNU-IAS, Bioversity International, IGES, and UNDP 2014).

The Transition Movement

The Transition Movement, also called the Transition Towns movement, emerged in 2005 in the United Kingdom, and its rapid spread has caught the attention of a growing number of researchers, relating it to grassroots innovations (Seyfang and Haxeltine 2012, Feola and Nunes 2014), community development (Connors and McDonald 2011), and social movements (Smith 2011), among others. In 2016, the movement included well over 1000 initiatives across the world (Transition Network 2016). Rob Hopkins is the movement’s front figure and has written two handbooks, with support from the Transition Network:The Transition Handbook (Hopkins 2008) and The Transition Companion (Hopkins 2011). The Transition Handbook has sold more than 25,000 copies in the United Kingdom alone (Transition Culture 2017). The purpose of the handbooks is to inspire citizens around the world to join the movement, and to guide local transition initiatives to be successful. Resilience is a key concept in the Transition Movement, with a specific focus on building resilience of local communities to peak oil, climate change, and economic crisis (Hopkins 2008, 2011). As opposed to other approaches to applying resilience (e.g., Rockefeller Foundation 2013), the movement is strongly influenced by the Resilience Alliance’s definition of resilience (e.g., Walker et al. 2004, Walker and Salt 2006, as cited in Hopkins 2008). Nevertheless, with the exception of Haxeltine and Seyfang (2009) and Brunetta and Baglione (2013), few studies relate the Transition Movement to theory on social-ecological resilience.


Both the Resilience Assessment and the Transition Movement are characterized by a high level of interplay between written guidelines and practical applications in different contexts. Therefore, we applied two different methodological approaches: a qualitative text analysis of their written guidelines and a participatory case study (Fig. 1). The comparison of their written guidelines allowed for a general comparison that highlights differences and commonalities between the Transition Movement and the Resilience Assessment. By complementing this analysis with a practical case study embedded in a specific region, we captured some of the discrepancies between theory and practice. Below, we describe the two methods further.

Comparing written guidelines through qualitative text analysis

The material we selected included The Transition Handbook (Hopkins 2008), The Transition Companion (Hopkins 2011), and The Resilience Assessment Workbook for Practitioners (Resilience Alliance 2010). These are the most widely used written guidelines for the respective approaches. Hopkins (2011) accounts for some of the conceptual and practical changes in the movement since Hopkins (2008).

Following Esaiasson et al. (2007), we developed a framework to structure the comparison (Table 1). The framework included a brief narrative analysis based on the approach of Leach et al. (2010), which helped provide a context for the rest of the findings (1. Narrative); the interpretation of resilience, using, e.g., Biggs et al.’s (2015) resilience principles and Folke et al.’s (2010) resilience thinking framework (2. Definition and use of resilience concept); and conceptualizations of social-ecological and cross-scale interactions, and the types of activities advocated (3. Emphasis on theory vs. practical tools). The last category was based on preliminary case study findings, which indicated that the Transition Movement approach focused more on practical tools, whereas the Resilience Assessment had a stronger theoretical foundation. This notion also aligned with another recent study of a resilience assessment process (Sellberg et al. 2015). In order not to miss interesting findings, we also included interpretations of resilience in practice that emerged from the text analysis (2E in Table 1). A more detailed description of the analysis and framework is provided in Appendix 1.

Combining the approaches in a practical case

In the case study, we cross-fertilized the Transition Movement and Resilience Assessment approaches through developing and testing a new workshop protocol that combined the two approaches, and then evaluated the benefits and challenges of that cross-fertilization process.

The case study was conducted in Southern Sweden in collaboration with a LEADER organization (Fig. 2). LEADER is the EU’s rural development program and aims to strengthen locally driven development within defined rural areas (European Commission 2016). The organization was already influenced by the Transition Movement approach, e.g., through their involvement in a broader project called “LEADER learns for transition to sustainability.” In 2013, two project coordinators at the organization contacted us, because they were interested in learning more about resilience thinking as an important part of the Transition Movement approach and using Resilience Assessment as a tool for participatory strategic planning. Both of them had personal experience of the Transition Movement: one of them in a local transition initiative and the other through starting up and working with education in the national Transition Movement in Sweden.

Inspired by the transdisciplinary research process of Lang et al. (2012), we formed a team of researchers and practitioners who framed the research task, created a one-day workshop that we conducted in three different local communities between January and April 2014 (more details in Appendix 2), and attempted to integrate the outcomes in our respective practices. The goals of the workshop were to perform the first steps of the Resilience Assessment; contribute with a new perspective to the ongoing local planning processes that took place in two of the localities; and to contribute to learning, both for the participants regarding resilience thinking and for us through method development. The workshop agenda included (1) deciding what needs to be resilient and what is threatening those values, (2) identifying strengths and weaknesses related to the threats, and (3) mapping strategies to increase resilience. Apart from the workshop protocol, we also coproduced a list of characteristics of resilient systems, which we used during the last part of the workshop (Appendix 3). Thresholds of potential concern were not assessed, because that would have required a longer learning process. The workshop participants (72 in total) were people engaged in their local community and/or in environmental issues, including representatives from civil society and local authorities, which is similar to the Transition Movement’s activities in different parts of the world.

To document the process, we wrote field notes (Jorgensen 1989) and conducted semistructured interviews (Kvale and Brinkmann 2009). We interviewed the two collaborators from the LEADER organization, hereby referred to as the partners (partner 1 = P1 and partner 2 = P2), both before and after the workshops to capture their expectations and aspirations, as well as their reflections of what they had learned and what the challenges had been (Appendix 4). The interviews, as well as the reflection rounds in the end of each workshop, were recorded and transcribed. Field notes were written after each meeting with the partners and included memos of preliminary interpretations of the data (Glaser 1998, Charmaz 2006). To analyze the case study data, we used an inductive approach influenced by grounded theory (Charmaz 2006, Wagenaar 2011). We analyzed transcripts from the interviews and reflection rounds at the workshops, field notes, and material from the workshops, such as invitations and agendas, using the software Atlas.ti (Friese 2012). The codes were developed iteratively and were framed by our research question to identify benefits and challenges of cross-fertilization (Table 2, Appendix 5).


Here we present the key commonalities and differences derived from the written guidelines of the Transition Movement and the Resilience Assessment (Fig. 3, detailed table in Appendix 1). We also describe the main benefits and challenges of combining the approaches, synthesized from the case study analysis (Appendix 5).

Key commonalities

Both approaches emphasize the need to build resilience in their narratives, and share an overarching goal of sustainability (Fig. 3, Appendix 1:1). For example, the work of Hopkins (2011) is based on values of global environmental sustainability, human well-being, and social justice, and Resilience Alliance (2010:4) is concerned with achieving a “sustainable long-term delivery of environmental benefits linked to human well-being.”

The approaches also share a complex adaptive systems perspective (Fig. 3, Appendix 1:2D4). The concept of complex adaptive systems is a key component of resilience thinking (Walker and Salt 2006): the underlying theoretical framework of the Resilience Assessment approach. Similarly, resilience thinking and the idea of self-organizing systems influence the Transition Movement approach (Hopkins 2011). However, Resilience Assessment includes more concepts related to complex adaptive systems and dynamic systems, such as alternative system regimes with thresholds (Resilience Alliance 2010) and the adaptive cycle and panarchy (Resilience Alliance 2010).

Key differences

The Transition Movement handbooks promote building community resilience (e.g., Hopkins 2008), while the Resilience Alliance (2010) promotes building resilience of social-ecological systems delivering important ecosystem services (Fig. 3). To define system boundaries, the Transition Movement approach is guided by citizens’ perceived sphere of influence (Hopkins 2008, 2011), whereas Resilience Assessment uses key natural resource management issues (Resilience Alliance 2010). Nevertheless, Hopkins (2011:44) is also concerned that a community’s resource base should be “resilient and accessible.” This indicates that both approaches have a social-ecological perspective, but with different starting points: the community versus the landscape and its natural resources.

The Transition Movement guides the choice of focus issues, whereas Resilience Assessment leaves it open initially (Fig. 3). The Resilience Assessment approach is framed around natural resource management and increasing environmental change caused by human activities (Appendix 1:1C), but apart from that, key issues and disturbances (“resilience to what”) are open to be decided at the outset of each assessment (Resilience Alliance 2010). Any indicators of resilience will be context dependent and not predefined. The Transition Movement approach, on the other hand, guides local initiatives to build resilience to peak oil and economic contractions, as well as to mitigate the effects of climate change (Hopkins 2011). A key strategy is then for a community to reduce its dependence on cheap energy and fossil fuels, reflected in the proposed resilience indicators of Hopkins (2008). However, the approach is also about local responses to mitigate climate change, following the slogan “think globally, act locally” (Hopkins 2011:280). The Resilience Alliance (2010) focuses on the resilience of a local-regional focal system and does not ask questions about how that system could affect the global scale on an aggregate level. It could more easily be used for climate adaptation than for climate mitigation, shown by the examples of flooding in New Orleans and forest fires.

The two approaches put different emphasis on transformability as an aspect of resilience (Fig. 3). Transformability is the ability “to create a fundamentally new system when ecological, economic, or social structures make the existing system untenable” (Folke et al. 2010:3). The Resilience Assessment describes transformation as an option if existing structures become untenable (Resilience Alliance 2010). Both examples in The Resilience Assessment Workbook are transformations to more adaptive and ecosystem-based governance and management: Kristianstad and the Great Barrier Reef. The Transition Movement describes transformation as necessary for becoming resilient (Appendix 1:1C). Resilience is seen as “more than ‘sustaining current models and practices’” but rather “a rethink of assumptions about infrastructure and systems that should lead to a more sustainable, resilient and enriching low-carbon economy” (Hopkins 2011:45). When Hopkins (2011) envisions the future of food, energy, and housing, he writes about a revolution or transformation of the current system.

Even if sharing an overarching sustainability goal, the approaches have different purposes and promote different activities (Fig. 3). The Transition Movement intends to mobilize citizens in local transition initiatives; therefore, broadening participation and encouraging learning are key strategies (Appendix 1:2D5-6). It suggests a number of activities for engaging people, building social networks, and raising awareness (Appendix 1:3A), and Hopkins (2011) includes a range of practical tips on how to, e.g., speak in public or run effective meetings. In contrast, the purpose of the Resilience Assessment is foremost to generate system understanding to improve natural resource governance. Resilience Alliance (2010) applies the theoretical framework of resilience thinking to develop conceptual diagrams and a synthesized understanding of the system, which serves as a basis for decision making and adaptive management.

Benefits of cross-fertilization

We synthesized the case study results of cross-fertilizing the Transition Movement and Resilience Assessment approaches into the following four categories of benefits.

Communicating and applying resilience

Through the collaboration project, the partners learned to apply and communicate resilience: “...Now I’ve got both words, tools and examples that allow me to communicate to others...” (P1; Appendix 5:3). The Resilience Assessment approach contributed to this in three main ways. First, we used its overall structure, which begins by deciding what should be resilient and to what type of disturbances (“resilience of what, to what,” sections 1.2 and 1.3 in Resilience Alliance 2010), to design the workshop agenda (Appendix 2). Second, the resilience characteristics (Appendix 3), e.g., modularity and diversity, were useful to communicate resilience to the workshop participants and explore strengths and weaknesses of their communities. Third, we also communicated the idea of complex systems in presentations and exercises during the workshops. One of the partners said afterward that “to understand resilience, you need to understand complex systems” (P1) and saw the workshop as potentially useful to foster an understanding of resilience and complex systems more broadly within the Transition Movement (Appendix 5:1).

Linking across scales and world views

The partners saw the Resilience Assessment approach as a way to overcome difficulties in reaching ordinary people in the countryside with a global sustainability perspective (Appendix 5:4), as well as to bridge the present divide between sustainability and rural development in their own organization (Appendix 5:5). Compared with the Transition Movement approach, which one of them described as being “more about transitioning for the sake of the climate, that is a lot for someone else’s sake, for your children and grandchildren’s sake,” the Resilience Assessment approach enabled them to “target small, local communities” and “invite to a workshop called ‘Is your community ready?’” (P2; Appendix 5:6). The Resilience Assessment’s analytical framework was open enough to host both global and local issues: Strengths and weaknesses of rural communities were also addressed, e.g., services disappearing (Appendix 5:7-8). Then, as one of the partners expressed it, “I can easier tie it (the global perspective) to the point where people already are” (P1). Compared with sustainability, resilience was a new concept that people had fewer preconceptions about (Appendix 5:9). One of the partners described it “as a possibility to use other arguments to advance the sustainability perspective,” by appealing to long-term “security for people, or the rural community with surroundings” (P2; Appendix 5:6).

Learning and participation in practice

The Transition Movement approach complemented the Resilience Assessment with practical tools and exercises to strengthen learning and participation. Both partners stressed the importance of participation, e.g., by letting participants decide “resilience of what, to what,” and emphasized the need for practical, pedagogical exercises in the workshop. Six exercises were used in the workshop (Appendix 2), three of which originated from the Transition Movement approach. For example, we adapted the Web of Resilience exercise from Hopkins (2008) and used it to illustrate diversity as an aspect of community resilience. Another exercise, developed by one of the partners, visualized thresholds and resilience, and was successful in starting a discussion among the participants about, e.g., what the system is and if resilience is always desirable (Appendix 5:11).

Clarified transition focus

The Transition Movement approach directed the Resilience Assessment workshop in a way that opened up for transition to sustainability. The partners actively promoted transition to sustainability (Appendix 5:13), exemplified by our project being a part of the broader “LEADER learns for transition to sustainability” project. Two examples of how this affected the workshop design were (1) that human needs were used as a starting point for resilience of what (Appendix 5:14), which opened up discussion about changing how needs are met, instead of limiting participants to current structures for meeting those needs; and (2) that we introduced climate change, peak oil, economics, global inequality, and the state of ecosystems in an exercise in the beginning of the workshop (context cards, Appendix 2), before the participants defined resilience to what. This exercise presented a negative picture of the current situation, and thereby promoted a need to change.


The three main challenges we encountered in the case study related both to cross-fertilizing the approaches, as well as applying resilience thinking in participatory processes in general.

Pedagogical challenge

The partners recognized the pedagogical challenge of communicating new theoretical concepts, new ways of thinking, and global sustainability issues in a local context (Appendix 5:15-16). They realized that understanding resilience and complex systems is a learning process. Time is required to get familiar with new concepts, both for pedagogical exercises and individual reflection. Even though some participants demonstrated this understanding in the workshops, it became clear that expecting a deeper understanding of resilience from only one workshop was unrealistic.

Expectations on quantitative outputs

In the beginning, the partners had an ambition to substitute the traditional statistics in their organization’s upcoming strategy document with statistics describing the resilience of their geographical area (Appendix 5:3). They wanted to do this in a participatory manner, by inviting local people to define resilience of what and to what, and then collect quantitative data related to the workshop output, which were categorized according to resilience characteristics (Appendix 3). However, many characteristics they were interested in assessing, e.g., economic modularity, were absent in existing statistics. Instead of spending time on a separate analysis, they decided that it was most important to generate an understanding of resilience thinking and focus on the learning process. In hindsight, one of the partners reflected on whether a factual report might have made a bigger impact on the upcoming strategy.

Balancing openness and values

Another challenge in the case study was how to balance the more open Resilience Assessment with the Transition Movement’s values and assumptions about the future. The Transition Movement proposes specific things that need to be resilient, as well as what futures are seen as both likely and desirable (Hopkins 2008). The Resilience Assessment leaves the definition of what should be resilient and what futures are possible or desirable open, even though the process is framed by values of sustainable social-ecological systems. One of the partners pointed out this difference by stating that “you cannot build a movement only on resilience...; we need to complement it with saying what it is that we value,” whereas “this problem does not exist in the Transition Movement, because there it [resilience] is an integrated part, and not the only perspective”, and there is also a strong justice perspective, for example (P1; Appendix 5:2). Our strategy to balance the approaches was to first introduce participants to global sustainability challenges, and then leave it open for them to identify their own potential future threats. However, this was a delicate balance. For example, one participant expressed feeling steered toward certain solutions by the global issues (Appendix 5:17), at the same time as threats were identified during the more open session that did not directly align with the partners’ intention to promote transition to sustainability, such as the risk of war.


Our results demonstrate that the Resilience Assessment and Transition Movement approaches have complementary strengths that could be integrated to improve the application of resilience thinking in participatory processes. Below we discuss how an integrated approach (1) strengthens the participatory learning process and fosters complex systems understanding, (2) generates context-specific understanding of resilience, and (3) better addresses transformations to global sustainability (Fig. 4). We also discuss additional challenges in applying resilience thinking highlighted by this study and suggest how they could be addressed.

Synergies in fostering complex systems understanding

Both in comparing the written guidelines and in the case study, we found that the Transition Movement approach contributed practical knowledge on learning and participation to the Resilience Assessment. Although the Transition Movement aims to be inclusive, it has been criticized for lacking diversity (Smith 2011, Feola and Nunes 2014) and for focusing more on raising awareness than experiential learning (Seyfang and Haxeltine 2012). Nevertheless, in our study we found that the Transition Movement approach complemented the Resilience Assessment’s lack of guidance on process design (Sellberg et al. 2015).

Combining the Transition Movement and Resilience Assessment approaches also created synergies in fostering complex systems understanding. The written guidelines of both approaches share a complex adaptive systems perspective (Fig. 3). However, our case study indicated that this understanding is not widely spread within the Transition Movement (Appendix 5:1). At the same time, complexity thinking has been identified as a key aspect of enhancing resilience thinking in the governance of social-ecological systems (Biggs et al. 2015), and systems thinking as one of the teaching practices that can increase resilience (Spellman 2015). An integrated approach to applying resilience thinking could foster this understanding by combining the Resilience Assessment’s complexity theory, e.g., the adaptive cycle and panarchy (Gunderson and Holling 2002), with the Transition Movement’s pedagogical exercises on resilience and systems thinking. We started exploring this synergy at the workshops by combining a short presentation of complex systems with practical exercises to visualize thresholds and resilience. These exercises helped address the pedagogical challenges of communicating a new way of thinking to a diverse audience (Appendix 5:11) and could be further elaborated by using existing methods for teaching systems thinking, such as The Systems Thinking Playbook of Booth Sweeney and Meadows (2010).

Generating context-specific understanding of resilience

The Resilience Assessment approach provided a “conceptual and operational framework” that generated context-specific understanding of resilience, which Haxeltine and Seyfang (2009:20) argue the Transition Movement is lacking. In the workshops the Resilience Assessment did this in two main ways. First, it contributed a conceptual framework, including complex systems and resilience characteristics (Appendix 3), which was used to facilitate and clarify the meaning of resilience in practice. Second, it provided our partners with a stepwise process to explore the application of resilience for a particular context and location. The framework was open enough to host both local and global concerns, which helped them to address both local-regional rural development issues and global sustainability. Generating an understanding of resilience that is both locally embedded and linked to global sustainability issues is also interesting for the broader audience of communities, cities, and local governments who are working to apply resilience (e.g., UNISDR 2012, Rockefeller Foundation 2013).

Although we generated context-relevant understanding of resilience, we also learned that there is a need to manage expectations of quantitative outputs when applying resilience. There is a lot of interest in measuring resilience indicators (Quinlan et al. 2015), also from the Transition Movement (Hopkins 2008). Although a focus on measurable goals can be useful in well-understood situations when it is clear what to measure and how, it is less useful in situations with unclear goals and system definitions. Approaches to assess resilience can help clarify goals and useful system definitions, because they “focus on understanding the dynamics of social-ecological systems” (Quinlan et al. 2015:2). Quinlan et al. (2015) review approaches to assessing and measuring resilience. We agree with their conclusion that these approaches can be complementary, if the assessment is used to guide the construction of useful indicators. This corresponds to the focus of a recent framework building on the Resilience Assessment approach, which guides users in identifying the most relevant indicators for their context (O’Connell et al. 2015), in line with, e.g., the systems theory–based process for producing sustainability indicators of Meadows (1998) and the structured learning process of Strategic Adaptive Management (Biggs and Rogers 2003). Indicators can be linked to general concepts to enable cross-case comparisons (Quinlan et al. 2015). The disadvantage of such processes is that they require more time and resources, and therefore a careful process design.

Addressing transformations to global sustainability

Our comparison highlighted that the Resilience Assessment approach does not sufficiently address systemic transformations, nor how local places affect global sustainability (Fig. 3). This finding matches previous research stating that Resilience Assessment “has not adequately addressed the need for the deeper, more profound transformational change” in social-ecological systems (Walkerden et al. 2013:169). Despite resilience research emphasizing the need for deliberate transformations toward global sustainability (e.g., Gunderson and Holling 2002, Folke et al. 2010, Moore et al. 2014, Olsson et al. 2014), these ideas are not incorporated into the Resilience Assessment.

One possible explanation for this gap is that the Resilience Assessment has been primarily developed for regional natural resource management, where there is a strong emphasis on maintaining regional ecosystem services rather than on transformation (Appendix 1:1C). Current efforts to integrate transformational change in the Resilience Assessment focus on transformations of local-regional social-ecological systems, in order for the same systems to become sustainable over the long term (Walkerden et al. 2013, O’Connell et al. 2015). However, they do not explicitly address the local-regional transformations that need to happen to enhance planetary resilience (e.g., transforming to a low-carbon economy) and to avoid unwanted erosion of the resilience of other places (e.g., halting illegal ivory imports). On the contrary, the Transition Movement has adopted an interpretation of resilience that focuses on the root causes of environmental problems (Brown 2014, Cretney 2014, Cretney and Bond 2014). For example, it calls for a transformation away from societies’ heavy dependence on cheap fossil fuels to avoid dangerous climate change globally (Appendix 1:1C). Addressing these issues is critical for assessing resilience in the Anthropocene, in which socially mediated interactions across scales and among distant places have increased in strength and variety (Steffen et al. 2011).

Incorporating transformation into resilience assessment

Based on this study, we suggest that existing resilience research on transformation processes (e.g., Walkerden et al. 2013, Westley et al. 2013, Moore et al. 2014) should be better integrated into the Resilience Assessment approach. We also have three suggestions for addressing transformations to global sustainability in particular:

  1. Resilience for what purpose? Define a purpose for assessing resilience that is guided by the need for transformations to global sustainability. Instead of leaving the purpose completely open for participants to define (Fig. 2, element A.1 in O’Connell et al. 2015), we believe that global sustainability should at least be considered. Otherwise, there is a risk of coming to conclusions that enhance resilience of the focal system, at least in the short term, but counteract sustainability globally, e.g., by increasing carbon emissions. In this study, we used the Transition Movement’s narrative to communicate the need to assess resilience, which previously has been recognized to play a role in the success of transition initiatives (Feola and Nunes 2014). Placing resilience in a broader narrative is a way to give it meaning (Allen et al. 2005), but there needs to be an awareness of the fact that different actors have different narratives of pathways to sustainability (Leach et al. 2010).
  2. Resilience of what and to what? Define resilience of what on a basic level, and include global sustainability and longer-term challenges in the discussion of resilience to what. The Resilience Assessment includes defining resilience of what and to what (sections 1.2 and 1.3 in Resilience Alliance 2010), corresponding to other assessment frameworks, e.g., of climate adaptation (Smit et al. 1999). In our case study, we framed what should be resilient as basic human needs, which opened up the possibility of changing current structures for providing for those needs. Guided by the Transition Movement’s narrative, we introduced global sustainability challenges before defining resilience to what, although we also included local citizens’ concerns about the future. Addressing resilience in a longer time perspective highlights the importance and potential of more transformative change (Meadows 1998). To balance values and openness, we suggest being guided by an overarching purpose of sustainable development, but discussing a variety of alternative future scenarios (Peterson et al. 2003, Enfors et al. 2008). This counteracts the risk that the Transition Movement approach runs of being unprepared for unexpected futures that do not correspond to their vision (Haxeltine and Seyfang 2009): a world with radically less energy and where the local level is much more important (Bailey et al. 2010).
  3. Resilience where and on what scale? Assess how actions to build resilience at the focal scale affect resilience and sustainability in other places and on other scales, including the global scale. This could, for example, be included in the cross-scale analysis of the Resilience Assessment (Resilience Alliance 2010:30). A combination of a number of recent integrated frameworks and notions, such as multiscale resilience (Folke et al. 2010), cross-boundary interactions between systems (Fig. 4 in Rist et al. 2014), telecoupling (Liu et al. 2013), and a safe and just operating space for humanity (Raworth 2012, Steffen et al. 2015), provide a useful platform for doing this, because they capture different and complementary aspects.

Policy makers and practitioners in diverse fields are increasingly adopting the term “resilience” (e.g., Davoudi et al. 2012, Baggio et al. 2015), but interpretations range from preserving the status quo to being open for transformative change (Cretney 2014, Davidson et al. 2016). Our suggestions provide a starting point for further transdisciplinary research (Lang et al. 2012, Seidl et al. 2013) to cocreate transformational ways of applying resilience thinking. These types of applications are necessary, both in highly vulnerable and dynamic contexts (Davidson et al. 2016), and in response to the call of sustainability science for sustainability transitions (e.g., Kates et al. 2001).

We believe that further comparisons and cross-fertilizations of different approaches to applying resilience thinking and sustainability that bridge the science-practice divide are likely to yield additional insights that will advance sustainability science and practice. The relative and context-specific nature of such comparisons will reveal different strengths and weaknesses of the approaches (e.g., Feola 2014).


In this study, we have presented a novel cross-fertilization between two major approaches for applying resilience thinking: the Transition Movement (Hopkins 2008, 2011) and the Resilience Alliance’s Resilience Assessment (2010). Our findings highlight the possibility of improving the application of resilience thinking in participatory processes by integrating their complementary strengths: the Transition Movement’s narrative of the need to transform in response to global sustainability challenges, as well as practical tools for learning and participation, with the Resilience Assessment’s scientifically based framework and process for how to generate context-specific understanding of resilience. Combining the approaches also created synergies in fostering complex systems understanding. Our results show that the application of resilience thinking could be further improved by developing useful ways for how relevant indicators can be constructed through participatory learning processes.

Improving and adapting the application of resilience thinking are required in response to the growing demand from policy makers and practitioners for practical approaches to resilience across a variety of problem domains. This study demonstrates how a mutual learning process between two communities of practice created insights useful to the wider community working on applying resilience thinking for sustainable development. Therefore, we urge resilience practitioners and scientists to collaborate with one another to improve the theory and practice of resilience assessment and management for sustainability.


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.


We would like to thank all the participants at the workshops in the LEADER region for their openness and engagement. We are grateful for having had the opportunity to collaborate with our partner organization, Astrid Lindgrens Hembygd, and especially Hillevi Helmfrid and Daniel Hägerby who were the main organizers of this collaboration project and contributed much time, engagement and creativity. We thank Anna Helgeson, Megan Meacham, Lisen Schultz, Stephan Barthel, and Rebecka Milestad for useful comments, and Louise Hård af Segerstad for workshop assistance. This research was conducted under the SEEN (Social-Ecological dynamics of Ecosystem services in the Norrström basin) project, financed by the Swedish Research Council Formas (project no 2012-1058). This research contributes to the Program on Ecosystem Change and Society ( Borgström was also supported by the COMPLEX project, funded by the EU FP7 (no 308601), and the ARTS project, funded by the EU FP7 (no 603654). The Stockholm Resilience Centre is funded by the Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research, Mistra.


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Address of Correspondent:
My M. Sellberg
Kräftriket 2b
SE-114 19
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