Pedagogical Challenge: Moving from Projects to Systems Resilience

Blog post by Micah Fisher, Learning from Disasters

We’re in Indonesia conducting a program evaluation of the past four years working on a program called “building resilience through training.” The University of Hawaii has partnered with various Indonesian universities to develop curriculum, deliver training, and explore opportunities for developing other educational programs. We’ve also worked at a national and regional level, developing trainings with universities and government partners on disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate change adaptation (CCA) targeted at civil servants and multi-stakeholder forums that included NGOs, local community groups, and educators.

Assessing exposure in Kemijen, Semarang

One thing that has struck us as a common theme in recent years is the overwhelming demand for learning the skills for project-oriented work. People really want to know how to deal with these increasingly complex hazards. In the short courses that we’ve partnered with local universities to deliver, in Ternate, Manokwari, Maumere, Ambon, Semarang, Yogyakarta, and Bandung, there has been a great demand to learn about project preparation. As a result much of the training goes through the processes of understanding natural disaster hazards, then we learn how to account for additional threats from climate. Thereafter we learn the skills of applying the vulnerability framework to develop a thorough assessment.


One of the great innovations of the short courses are the inclusion of a field component. In other words, after learning the frameworks and emphasizing systems thinking to conduct assessments, we actually go out and spend a concerted amount of time engaging with a community. The field component has been valuable for us for two reasons. First, it has meant a tremendous opportunity to visit various hazards and recovery sites, including flooded locations in South Bandung, Dam ruptures in Maluku, volcanic slopes in Ternate and Yogyakarta, Tsunami affected areas in Pangandaran and Manokwari, which also cover different features ranging from urban, peri-urban, and rural settings, to upland, island and coastal areas. Second, and more importantly, multistakeholder participants trying to apply their frameworks have selected difficult challenges for risk reduction. Upon revisiting these sites we have noticed a lot more nuanced attention by our partners to addressing the identified vulnerabilities.

Going out to collect data for vulnerability assessments in Kemijen

The field component allowed course participants to apply systems thinking. By systems thinking we mean that there are multiple interrelated factors that define vulnerability, and furthermore, numerous ways to approach addressing a broader set of issues. That said, although we’ve tried to emphasize the importance of developing strategies and systems thinking, the professional mandate and interests among course participants continue to bring us back to the inner-workings of project preparation. For example, as our workshops wind down, discussions invariably  shift back to the ‘practical’ applications and participant day jobs. This includes proposing and spending budgets, carrying out tasks like improving roadways, building flood infrastructure, and seeking additional funding sources from international, regional and local donor institutions. Most of these funding proposals also have a short window to execute a very limited scope of interventions. Thus we are not surprised that participants are often brought back into the project system.

Community consultations in Semarang after initial vulnerability assessments

This presents a bit of a dilemma for us as instructors. On the one hand, our interests are to teach these very important skills — from framing a project, collecting the data, creating a process, convening the groups, finding the right sources, setting baselines to monitoring implementation. The thirst for this knowledge and the ability to impart practical approaches to doing so indicate a very encouraging sign. On the other hand, we also notice the limitations on the overemphasis of project thinking.


We believe that the strength — or shall we say the resiliency of resilience — is in the potential that the term provides to really think in terms of systems. In addition, resilience also allows us to re-engage on the age-old planning challenging to think in timescales beyond the political cycle. How do we begin preparing, as climate adaptation suggests, for futures 10, 20, 50, 100 years on? Let’s think about a rather simplified example as a diagnostic and explanatory potential, which encapsulates the project vs systems resilience dilemma. It is a theme we have across at several locations in Indonesia.


Consider the case of a regularly flooded municipal area, perhaps the most common and disruptive ailment of cities across Indonesia. To respond, the city puts together a project to conducts a vulnerability assessment. They do all the right things. They incorporate climate data and pull together a funded plan, incorporated into the planning and development process. They fulfill their annual budget requirements to clean drainage canals in that area. They even get the community involved, build new and necessary  drainage functions, put together teams to maintain solid waste outputs, install a new waste management system. We are talking best case scenario. However, in the next rainy season the area floods again, and because our case involves a coastal city experiencing land subsidence, salt water intrusion, coastal erosion, and tidal floods, compound the problems that the city do not have the plans to anticipate, or budgets to mitigate agains.

Coastal roadway in Oahu requiring continued maintenance due to coastal exposure

All the work in our hypothetical city, to be sure, has had dramatic impacts to protect and reduce damages to its residents; and yet, the problem doesn’t actually seem to get better. This is because the hazards are also changing with new considerations. We believe that systems resilience requires an approach beyond the project system, and really underpins the strengths of thinking in terms of systems resilience. By applying systems resilience to our example, we can begin to think about the broader issues of deforestation and development in the upper watersheds; we can think about solutions that incorporate storage systems in these upper areas to contain water (and perhaps use it for water supply storage). We can incorporate a longer time climate scales based on new climate date. We can think about mortgage and insurance schemes that incorporate incentives and disincentives based on vulnerability assessments that tell us the risks and the costs of building in this area. We can play the short game of the projects but also make settlement options more attractive in lower risk areas. A slew of possibilities come to mind. Overall however, we can have a process that begins to learn at all levels of the systems, which can more comprehensively take on the problem, and more effectively incorporate solutions across the system.


So how do we move to to thinking in terms of resilient systems? Climate change has certainly raised the impetus to be thinking much further into the future. Yet, the project cycle, the business-as-usual, the difficulty of coordination (or what our Indonesian counterparts aptly term “ego-sectoral” interest and the challenges of mainstreaming), are ingrained ways of implementation that are difficult to break. If anything, the impetus for action encourages even more emphasis on project action.


So what do you think? What would it take to make this shift? How could we incorporate new approaches into our teaching models, training curriculum, field assessments?

Ridwan Lessy of Khairun University delivers a module of the short course in Manokwari

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