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Building and measuring Europe's resilience

The concept of resilience is increasingly being applied in Europe to a range of policy areas, from development aid and climate change to economic and financial policy. Different initiatives aim to tackle uncertainties, pressures and fragility in our social, economic and environmental systems. Developing indicator frameworks on resilience attempt to measure resilience in concrete terms across these applications. However, the inherent complexity of a system’s resilience implies that its measurement is not straightforward.

What is resilience?

The concept of ecological resilience was first introduced in the 1970s by Canadian ecologist, C.S. Holling, and since then the term 'resilience' has increased its scope to various other disciplines and across different scales. Resilience is about the capacity to respond to shocks and disturbances such as a financial crisis or an extreme climatic event. It aims to build up the capacity of different systems to develop solutions that can help to cope with the event and reduce future risks and vulnerabilities. Attempts to implement resilience thinking can be seen in all parts of the society and economy, ranging from community energy projects, to agro-ecology, ecosystem based fisheries management and disaster risk reduction strategies.

Assessing and measuring resilience

The diverse and context specific nature of resilience means that its measurement is complex. Nevertheless, measuring a system resilience in qualitative or quantitative terms is highly important, since this can help planners and policy-makers to identify where management interventions are needed and how to prioritise policy actions.

There are different applications and methodologies aiming to assess resilience. Common practices in resilience assessments include, but are not limited to, the description of system dynamics, the identification of threshold and tipping points, the identification of adaptive cycles of change, and distinguishing interactions within and across systems. Some examples of resilience metrics from different fields are shown in Table 1.

The assessment of social-ecological systems focus primarily on systems’ resources, stakeholders, and institutions. Even though they have a more qualitative perspective, some approaches can provide quantitative metrics to assess uncertainty, resilience relative to other systems, and trade-offs among system’s components. Development and Community resilience are typically assessed by more quantitative approaches that use an array of resilience criteria with environmental, economic, social, institutional and infrastructure dimensions. Finally, in socioeconomic resilience assessments, the economic variables expressed in quantitative terms, such as macroeconomic stability, efficiency and good governance, play a dominant role.

Table 1 – Example metrics for quantifying resilience

Resilience field


Example approach

Organisation (year)


Social-ecological resilience

The ability of a system to absorb disturbance, learn and adapt, and self-organize

Resilience Assessment

Workbook for


Resilience Alliance (2010)

No use of specific

indicators, attributes of factors that enhance or erode resilience

Development resilience

The way households, communities, nations etc. can cope with various stressors to avoid poverty

A Common Analytical Model

for Resilience Measurement

FSIN (2014)

Provides different categories of indicators that depend on context

Socio-economic resilience

Shock-absorption or shock-counteraction effects of policies on an economy

Economic Resilience: Definition and Measurement

World Bank (2014)

Provides a list of indicators that can be used to build a resilience indicator

Community Resilience

The process of a community to adapt to a positive trajectory of functioning after a disturbance


resilience analysis



UNDP (2013)

Participatory process, quantitative indicators linked to human, natural, social, financial and physical capital


Resilience in the European Union

The 2017 Rome Declaration, outlining the EU’s future ambitions, commits to making the European Union “stronger and more resilient”. The EU has embedded resilience in a range of policy areas and Europe’s efforts to measure and build resilience include, for example, the areas of civil protection and humanitarian aid, economic and fiscal stability, and climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Civil protection and Humanitarian Aid

The prevention of disasters, both natural and man-made, has taken a centre stage both in Europe and globally.  As a consequence, resilience has become a key objective in the EU’s development aid and humanitarian activities. The Union Civil Protection Mechanism, supported by the Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC), provides a framework for disaster response and includes an assessment of the risks that Europe faces today. To support interventions in third countries, such as humanitarian aid, the “Resilience Marker” is a tool to assess to what extent actions integrate resilience considerations. The “Action Plan for Resilience in Crisis Prone Countries” is designed to promote a resilience agenda in international development and resilience focused interventions. In 2017, the EU presented its "Strategy for more resilient states and societies around the world". The strategy provides a more structural and long-term approach to vulnerabilities, putting a strong emphasis on anticipation, prevention and preparedness.

Economic policy and fiscal stability

The 2008 financial crisis revealed vulnerabilities in Europe’s banking sector, undermining economic development and prosperity more widely. Economic resilience has now become a common theme in Europe’s economic strategy, particularly in the context of Economic and Monetary Union. One measure taken to ensure economic resilience has been to permit Eurostat to examine Member State public accounts. Furthermore, the Stability and Growth Pact sets thresholds for Member State government deficits in order to foster fiscal resilience. With respect to the banking sector, the establishment of Single Supervisory Mechanism (SSM) and the Single Resolution Mechanism (SRM) represent pillars of Europe’s banking union, and provide instruments to assess the resilience of financial institutions.

Climate change adaptation and mitigation

Building resilience to climate change is an urgent and global necessity, as outlined the 2015 Paris Agreement and in SDG Target 13.1 Strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters in all countries. Indeed, the European Union’s Climate Adaptation Strategy aims to move towards a “climate-resilient economy”. Likewise, the goal of a resilient Energy Union with an ambitious climate policy at its core is highlighted in the Energy Union Package. Building resilience in smart, trans-boundary and multifaceted energy networks requires a fundamental transformation which remains a big challenge.

Measuring resilience in the EU

In recent years the European Commission Joint Research Centre has launched an initiative on measuring resilience. In 2015, the Centre developed a common understanding of resilience in the EU, holding a conference and publishing a report, entitled “The Challenge of Resilience in a Globalised World”. In 2017, the JRC published a policy report putting the basis of a conceptual framework for resilience; other initiatives are ongoing.

Beyond policy making at the EU level, resilience is also central to many Member State and intergovernmental initiatives. Examples of national initiatives incorporating resilience thinking include, the Dutch Climate Agenda, the Swedish Action Plan for Resilient Cities, the UK National Framework on Community Resilience, the Bulgarian National Cyber Security Strategy, and the establishment of Italy’s Heritage Resilience Centre.  Increasing resilience is also central to international organizations. Notably, resilience features strongly within the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in particular within the goals, targets and indicators of at least six of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals1.

Limitations and opportunities for resilience in Europe

The described initiatives reveal a diverse and system-specific context on the application of resilience thinking in Europe. In particular, disaster risk management, fiscal stability and climate change adaptation work within complex adaptive systems, with different geographic, historic and socio-economic attributes, which are difficult to quantify.

This can explain why it is difficult to identify a unique definition of resilience which applies to all systems and a simple measurement; furthermore, comparing the resilience of different systems is often unintuitive. Many principles highlighted as essential tenets of building resilience, such as maintaining diversity across the components of a system’s function, encouraging learning and promoting polycentric governance, are closely attune with the policies of the European Union and its Member States.


1 Sustainable Development Goal targets 1.5, 2.4, 9.1, 11.5, 11.b, 13.1, and 14.2 refer to the resilience of different socio-economic