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  • Faramarz Maghsoodlou (faramarz@ieee.org)

Resilience in Social Systems - The Adaptive Cycle

Updated: Jun 28, 2020



The frequently cited paper by Brian D. Fath, et. al., "Navigating the adaptive cycle: an approach to managing the resilience of social systems," proposes a four-stage adaptive cycle and explores the traps and pathologies within each of the four stages of the adaptive cycle, namely growth, development, collapse, and reorientation. In this blog we review the concepts that are presented in their paper.


In their definition, resilient systems are ones that successfully navigate all stages of the adaptive cycle, growth, development, collapse, and reorientation. This concept was first introduced in ecology in mid-70's and has since been applied in a variety of fields.


The adaptive cycle model and the transition between the four stages are shown here. Resilience is defined as the capacity to successfully navigate all stages of the complex adaptive cycle (r, K, Ω, α) through time.


The key features, competencies, structure, and failure traps in each stage are summarized in the following mindmaps.


Four Stages

Growth Stage


Equilibrium Stage

Collapse Stage

Reorientation Stage


To summarize, the key characteristics of a resilient social systems are:


Cyclic Evolution - Over time, the system goes through a cyclic pattern consisting of four stages: growth, equilibrium, collapse, and reorientation


Simplicity & Scalability - The system maintains a simplicity in its core structure that allows it to scale in size and complexity.


Systemic Memory - The system maintains the memory of its past states that allows it to regain its critical and vital functions after a collapse wbhile adding new capabilities as it evolves.


Small Disturbances & Large Disturbances - Through its encounter and overcoming of small disturbances the system acquires capabilities that allow it to bounce back after an encounter with a large disturbance that causes it to loose some of its functions and capabilities.


As we have seen in other examples, these characteristics are common and present in resilient systems across different domains. They can guide the design of resilience capabilities in engineered systems.

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