Dr Sandra Engstrom, Lecturer in Social Work, Faculty of Social Sciences
About a month ago I had the privilege of being asked to speak at the British German Forum at Wilton Park due to my research in community resilience. Wilton Park has been a not-for-profit executive agency of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) since 1991; they support British foreign policy priorities and are core to the UK’s public diplomacy work. The British German Forum (BGF) has become a prestigious annual Wilton Park event that for the last 36 years has sought to strengthen bilateral relations between Britain and Germany by inviting future leaders from both countries to engage in new dialogues and build partnerships. The aim of the British German Forum 2021 was to look to the future, addressing common challenges and goals driving British-German relations. It brought 30 participants (25-30yrs old) together from both countries to explore critical issues such as climate ambitions, how to build resilience and inclusivity in both nations’ societies and the compromises of dealing with Russia and China. Participants were chosen from government, business, finance, media, academia and non-government organisations.
The session that I spoke at included additional presenters from the British Red Cross and the Connected Places Catapult centre. We all brought different perspectives and experiences about working within the field of inclusive resilience to the room in order to spark conversation and dialogue with the participants about how we build inclusive resilience. There were some incredibly thought provoking questions that highlighted just how elusive defining inclusive resilience is and the diverse ways it can be developed depending on which stakeholders are involved. One participant mentioned how hearing that resilience can also be thought of in the world of cyber-attacks, web security and weapons was new to them as they come from the definition of resilience being the ability of communities to adapt and recover from hazards and shocks. The importance of starting small (bi-laterally in the context of Britain and Germany) and then moving to larger scale projects and collaborations was discussed as was the role of industry being integral to developing resilience.
The session lasted one hour followed by an hour for breakout groups. The groups were asked to reflect on questions such as: What does inclusive resilience look like and how do you build it? What benefits might there be to building inclusive resilience bi-laterally between the two countries? and what opportunities might there be to building inclusive resilience? The guest speakers were able to sit in on each of the breakout groups and observe the dialogue and facilitation of these discussions. It was a very inspiring few hours and the willingness of the participants to dive deep into some of the topics and issues that emerged is to be commended.
One of the participants fed back to me that the two things that stood out for her during the discussions were the prevalence of language and class:
“How we talk about resilience is so important for the focus to be on individuals, communities, and cities capacities, and as the experts, how others can support them to lead interventions that build on their resilience. Language can sometimes be too focused on ‘lack of’ xyz and how policy makers and academics can find the solution on their own. This can come across as patronising at times.”
“During our group discussion we kept coming back to the impact of class (maybe because of the number of Brits in the group and our obsession with class). From how it impacts health inequalities, job opportunities, and especially, education (‘postcode lottery’). Also, what we should/can do about these? Unfortunately, we couldn’t come up with the silver bullet in the allocated time.”
A number of overall reflections were made by myself and the participants. Similar to my research about community resilience, it came up that the process of building inclusive resilience needs to be led by the community involved and the challenges they identify. It is vital to understand who the community is, what the local appropriate responses are and use the community’s expertise to build their own resilient solution to whatever the challenge is.
There is an often unspoken and yet vital need to engage in reflection and identify your own narrative about yourself and to help others identify their own narrative and the impact these have on our ability to respond to today’s challenges. Integral to this of course, is identifying the narrative and stories of the community that you are working with, how does their identity impact on their ability to respond to concerns such as climate change? We are more connected than ever these days, and an outcome of that is that it is becoming increasingly evident that the hazards and challenges we face are often connected. We are witness to the diverse ways that we are affected by events through social media and the news and as such leaving no-one behind is not only a moral imperative, but also a practical requirement, a whole society approach to moving forward is necessary. Like the need for biodiversity to strengthen the natural world, human based societies also need to continue to celebrate and strengthen their diversity in order to recover from future challenges. From my own perspective, as someone that is deeply interested in how people’s experiences and emotional lives help them recover from whatever comes their way, we do not necessarily need more apps or technologies to be created. We need to listen to each other’s stories and nurture connections that will support our shared interests and innate need for community. We all have important strengths and expertise that can be realised and utilised, but our systems are not always built in ways that support this. There is a need for us to look critically at a number of our systems, processes, and communities that we have grown accustomed to, and are a part of, and ask ourselves the hard questions about whether they are truly inclusive. The very real inequalities experienced as a result of the pandemic highlights that our systems were not as resilient or inclusive as we had likely hoped.
I came away from this event inspired by the willingness and passion of the participants to make change. They are dedicated professionals in governmental, private and third sector organisations who will be returning to their employers with new ideas and new connections and I look forward to hearing how they take their time at Wilton Park into other aspects of their lives and future planning.