Adaptive Renewal: Path to Resilient Prosperity and Climate Restoration

Adaptive Renewal: Path to Resilient Prosperity.

This article is excerpted from a draft of Storm Cunningham’s upcoming 3rd book, RECONOMICS a guide for social, economic, and environmental change agents: public and private.

Places everywhere want resilient prosperity: they want health, wealth, and happiness if they don’t have it. They want to keep or increase it if they do have it. And everyone on the planet needs climate restoration.

Adaptive Renewal is a strategy of revitalization, resilience, and adaptive management. Revitalization and resilience are both advanced by renewing, repurposing, and reconnecting our natural, built, and socioeconomic assets. Adaptive management helps ensure successful implementation over time.

Resilient prosperity is the goal of a secure, inclusive, green economy, which forms a “universal” vision to guide community and regional futures. Projects are how we implement plans. Plans are how we implement strategies. Strategies are how we implement visions. Imbed “secure, inclusive, and green” into your shared local vision, and these qualities will start manifesting everywhere: your revitalization efforts, your resilience efforts, your public leadership, and your private leadership.

This process of restoring lost prosperity—or increasing/securing existing prosperity—has a complex and ephemeral nature that few mayors or planners acknowledge. It can emerge from anywhere, at any time. It can be top-down, bottom-up, or distributed (“impromptu”). It can be triggered internally or externally. It can arrive suddenly or gradually. It can start with a tight focus or holistically. Not understanding this often causes public leaders to ignore, or even fight, the very revitalization they desire.

This regenerative energy won’t stay put. Those leading last year’s great initiative often won’t lead the charge this year. It’s like a game of Whack-A-Mole, only the goal isn’t to whack them, but to grab them, feed them, and breed more moles. In too many places, when revitalizing leadership pops up unexpectedly or unofficially, it does indeed get “whacked”. This is just one reason adaptive management is essential.

All complex living systems—whether the human body, an ecosystem, or a city—are in an ongoing state of regeneration. Components are constantly being replaced, repurposed, reconnected, and renewed. It’s the root source of growth, health, and resilience. But there’s no central control for this process: it’s a self-organized, system-wide behavior, emerging wherever needed at the moment.

At any given time in a city (or nation), the vision, leadership, and resources needed to renew, repurpose, or reconnect a building, neighborhood, downtown, or natural resource can bloom at unexpected times, from unexpected sources: a real estate developer, a mayor, a government agency, a citizens’ group, a foundation, or a local business. Therein lays the challenge. This sort of disorderly, itinerant power is anathema to most institutions. Ordinary mayors stand ready with weed killer when renewal sprouts outside their control.  Mayors practicing Adaptive Renewal stand ready with fertilizer.

It’s not just isolated projects that emerge in this manner. As we’ll see in the discussion of public-private Prosperity Partnerships, communities can “outsource” their Resilient Prosperity program. They can maintain all the usual “siloed” agencies that keep the place running, but tying it all together to foster the emergence of a brighter future can—and often should—take place outside of officialdom.

We humans like to control things, even those we don’t understand and that can’t—by their very nature—be controlled. We assign roles, budgets, and missions that pack vital processes into tight little boxes, and then wonder why good stuff seldom comes out of those boxes. Most places already have everything they need to create Resilient Prosperity, but won’t allow it to happen. They think it must emerge from their economic development or redevelopment agency, or real estate investors, or their planning department, or their political leadership, etc. They value form over function.

So when the right vision, leadership, and resources emerge from a citizen group, or community foundation, or student group, opportunities often die on the vine. But when renewal emerges from an “approved” source, it gets constricted by the narrow focus of that agency. At some level, public leaders are aware of their ignorance regarding complexity. This is why you seldom see an agency charged with revitalizing the entire community. No one wants to be in charge of an activity they can’t define; whose principles, models, and cycles they can’t explain. Better to break it down into controllable specialties, and hope that the overall goal takes care of itself.

Adaptive Renewal emerges at the convergence of three global trends: revitalization (regeneration in Europe), resilience, and adaptive management. It has two major aspects:

  • Leadership: Adaptive Renewal could be called an attitude, philosophy, or leadership style. It’s an approach to community or regional planning and governance that nurtures prosperity-enhancing leadership, resources, and activities wherever they emerge.
  • Implementation: Adaptive Renewal is a flexible mode of action. It fosters Resilient Prosperity by renewing, repurposing, and reconnecting your existing natural, built, and socioeconomic assets; adapting them to current and future needs, and adapting itself to changing circumstances.

Revitalization makes poor places wealthier. It makes wealthy places healthier. It makes healthy, wealthy places healthier, wealthier, and happier.  Combining revitalization with resilience makes the good times last. Managing revitalization and resilience efforts in an adaptive manner keeps them responsive to new challenges and opportunities.  These three elements comprise Adaptive Renewal, the path to Resilient Prosperity. You can recognize Adaptive Renewal at work in places that constantly renovate, reconnect, and repurpose (revitalize) their natural, built, and socioeconomic environments in an integrated (resilient) manner, learning and improving their approach as they go along (adaptive management).

The “inclusive economy” aspect is especially confusing to many leaders. They often confuse “inclusive” with “engaged”. Stakeholder engagement is a Good Thing, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to inclusive economic growth. Nor does the lack of stakeholder engagement necessarily lead to economic injustice. “Inclusive” is a goal. “Engagement” is a practice. Revitalization ignorance results in many myths regarding economic justice, such as “gentrification.” This is a word that’s often mistakenly used in place of “revitalization”. Over the past 20 years, researchers found that the displacement of long-term, lower-income, minority residents from revitalized neighborhoods (gentrification) is actually quite rare.

In fact, they discovered that the opposite is far more common: lower-income residents tend to move from revitalized places less frequently than they move from non-revitalized neighborhoods. The reason is common sense: revitalized places offer a better quality of life for all, regardless of income: nicer parks, better shopping, prettier and safer streetscapes, more job opportunities, better transit, etc.  [See John Buntin’s January 14, 2015 article in Slate for more on this subject:]

Resilient design and adaptive management are now being adopted for the primary purpose of protecting prosperity in an increasingly uncertain and threatening world. Yet resilience practitioners often don’t understand the provenance of the prosperity they are protecting. It’s like protecting the golden eggs, but leaving the goose unguarded. And precious few resilience professionals have any knowledge of adaptive management, which is like a surgeon not knowing how to use a scalpel. Adaptive management is resilient management. Shouldn’t resilience initiatives be managed in a resilient manner?

The major problem with revitalization is that it tends to be mostly tactics, with little or no strategy. Short-term gain, but little long-term thinking. Lots of activity, but not much insight.  We’re all so very busy redeveloping, renewing, regenerating, renovating, reimagining, redesigning, replacing, reusing, reconnecting, and repurposing our assets and places. That’s the stuff of revitalization. But we lack a process or system for actually achieving revitalization, so this good stuff often goes to waste. Truth be told, we often don’t even agree on what revitalization is. We fire CEOs who use such grope-in-the-dark approaches to growing a company, but seem to tolerate it—even expect it—of public leaders.

The major problem with resilience is the opposite of the revitalization problem. Resilience efforts are mostly long-term, with few short-term benefits. That makes them a hard sell to both politicians and citizens, and thus difficult to fund. Revitalization and resilience also share a problem: lack of adaptive management. We set our goals and move inexorably towards them, with little ability to modify either our means or our ends as circumstances change. But both revitalization and resilience programs have to operate within today’s ever-more volatile societies, economies, and climate. Many places find themselves in a state of constant crisis, with each new crisis often exacerbating existing ones.

These days, we don’t “merely” have to increase our health, wealth, and happiness; we must achieve it in the face of increasing social and religious strife, plus ever-more dysfunctional national governments, and make it resilient to more-frequent economic and natural disasters. We thus need an adaptive system that fixes our present, strengthens our future, learns from experience, and evolves as needed. We want prosperity first, of course. Then we think about how to make it last. Thus, the resilience trend is mostly gaining traction in prosperous places, like New York City, Singapore, and Calgary. These are also places that see a clear and present danger to their prosperity: sea level rise and super-storms in New York City and Singapore; floods and over-dependence on an unstable industry (oil and gas) in Calgary.

We’re capable of tapping deep wellsprings of strength and creativity when those we love are in danger. Our economic, ecological, and social future depends on our doing so now. Our survival might depend on it. Humans and wildlife worldwide are suffering as never before, and both are in graver peril than ever before. Do we love our children enough to move from merely slowing the rate of new damage to restoring existing damage and revitalizing our existing places?

Places are like people. It’s said that all anyone needs to be happy is something to look forward to. Having a vision, strategy, and credible leaders does this. The best way for individuals to break out of depressing doldrums is via action. Many places enter recession because they treat revitalization as a remedy, rather than as lifestyle. They forget to continue revitalizing.

In today’s increasingly broken world, we often dive into solutions without understanding the problem, and without perceiving our level of ignorance. To avoid that syndrome, this Guide defines the trends and challenges before diving into strategies and tactics.  One characteristic that defines all living systems, is the capacity to surprise. Adaptive management could be called “surprise management”. It’s the polar opposite of the engineering-based approach that dominates public management today.

The primary purpose of an engineer is to eliminate surprises. This is wonderful when dealing with structures: no one likes driving over a bridge that behaves in an unpredictable manner. But it’s a disaster when dealing with ecosystems or cities. Removing surprises from a living system is synonymous with killing it. That’s why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—in controlling the life out of estuaries and waterways—has done more economic damage to America than all foreign armies combined. It’s why China is likely headed towards (another) national meltdown: they have far more engineers in local and national government than any other country.

Places exist in 3 basic states: degeneration, equilibrium, and regeneration. But what seems to be healthy equilibrium is often a “brittle”, stagnating form of stasis in disguise. A “steady state” should never be your goal. As with all complex systems, cities and nations can shift states seemingly overnight. The triggers for these shifts are often far out of proportion to the magnitude of the change.  In today’s internet-connected world, economies and societies are more tightly coupled than ever, so minor local disturbances to the system more frequently have major national—or even global—effects.

Adaptive Renewal is a regenerative process that taps all resources—public and private—to improve life for the people of today, for the children of tomorrow, and for the natural world that gives life to us all. To achieve it, we must make peace with the uncontrollable complexity we live within, and that lives within us.  As with people, non-lethal challenges tend to make communities stronger. For those charged with managing places, this means Resilient Prosperity should be the goal…NOT avoiding pain.

Complex Adaptive System

Image adapted from Wikipedia by Alan Hakimi

About the Author

Storm Cunningham is the publisher of REVITALIZATION, a new twice-monthly global magazine ( ).

Since 2002, he has been a full-time revitalization process planner, professional speaker, and workshop leader on community revitalization, economic resilience, and natural resource restoration.  His clients include national and local governments, universities, and non-profits in over a dozen countries.

He lives in Arlington, Virginia, and is the author of two highly-acclaimed books:
The Restoration Economy (Berrett-Koehler, 2002), and Rewealth (McGraw-Hill Professional, 2008).
See and for more information about these books.

Storm’s third book, RECONOMICS, will be published in November of 2019.
See for more on his work.

Storm can be reached at 1-202-684-6815, or at

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