View of Aswan


I’ve spent most of the last week at a workshop on ‘Rebuilding Communities for Resilient and Sustainable Development’ in Aswan (Egypt).  A marvellous event – many thanks to all involved in organising it.

So then: resilient and sustainable… Does it matter that these two terms seem to have become inseparable? That sustainability even seems to be increasingly playing second fiddle to resilience?

Policy-makers at least seem happy enough to speak of resilience and sustainability in the same breath. One of our first workshop exercises, however, was to think more closely about how they differ and relate to each other. Our group contrasted the two concepts in terms of time (sustainability as linear; resilience as iterative) and space (sustainability as extensive and global; resilience as inward-looking and local). We agreed that their relationship is not so much hierarchical (with one perhaps being a necessary condition for the other), as fundamentally characterised by mutual tension.

This tension is reflected in their different registers of societal organisation: while sustainability has always been oriented towards state-centric solutions, resilience looks more to ‘bottom-up’ agency. Depending on your perspective, then, resilience usefully fills a gap in the discourse of sustainability; or its rise can be read as problematic evidence of the ongoing ‘roll-back’ of the state. In any case, abandoning the ideal of sustainability in favour of resilience seems uncomfortably close to relinquishing the hope that our formal institutions of representative democracy can ever be revived.

While I tend towards hoping that our institutional democratic life can be revived, I also wonder if this type of ‘anti-neoliberal’ perspective is rather parochial. What does it really mean in places where there is no general assumption, or expectation – or illusion – that the state somehow ‘stands above’ the messy informality of everyday life? Where the state is clearly demarcated from the public only in terms of its elitism or authoritarian capacities? If Egypt falls into this category of place, it is certainly not unique; informal processes seem to dominate the conduct of everyday urban life around the world, including – to an extent not always recognised – in western countries. In fact, I would argue that the question of how sustainability policy-making might better encompass informality is a key one.

By ‘encompassing informality’, I don’t mean just improving living conditions for the marginalised or reducing ‘corruption’. Rather, I argue that there is a need for more direct acknowledgement in sustainability planning that real cities are held together by informal relations, and characterised by unpredictable, emergent and often transgressive public behaviour, as much as by compliance with formal regulations and dominant norms.

However, I’m not certain that this need is satisfied by the ways in which informality has been embraced in recent years as a source of inspiration for policy-makers and built environment professionals (ranging from the romanticisation of the self-organising principles of the slum through to the rise of ‘crowdsourcing’ in the west, and the adulation of ‘swarm’ or ‘hive’ intelligence). In practice, such thinking typically seems normatively underpinned by a goal of efficiency which necessarily excludes predetermined definitions of right and wrong. There would seem to be only a fine line between taking inspiration from informality on the one hand, and purposefully slumifying our collective future on the other.


Aswan, 16 December 2015