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On resilience: Our current context and definition of resilience

My name is Rita and I own a food shop and wine bar in Lisbon. Comida Independente is sourced primarily by local small producers. Since the pandemic started, we’ve been adjusting in almost every operational aspect of our business. We don’t think we have all the answers or that we know better. We don’t even know if we are going to survive this at all. But so far, we haven’t lost a single day of sales. 

In September 2019 I was invited to talk in the cook’s congress of Lisbon and my topic of choice was resilience. Now I am revisiting that talk with additional insight from the past 2 months and I’m sharing what I learned. Take what is useful and leave the rest.

Before we go in the resilience topic, let me give you some context of how Lisbon food scene was in the last couple of years, before the pandemic. Exciting, vibrant, creative. Every week there would be openings, talented young chefs, independent projects, franchise projects. A bursting community of wines would gather, reaching new generations of wine producers and drinkers. Our place: a shop with 1/3 wine, 1/3 specialty food and 1/3 counter and tables. We opened 2 years ago, with the signature ‘great products from small producers'. Sommeliers and cooks came first, curious with what we were doing, finding new wines and having a drink with us. It became a gathering destination, where you would chatter news in town, what are the places to go, who’s planning a pop-up dinner, who is the invited chef in the next residence.

 

Word of mouth, social networks – digital and informal – hospitality industry, made us going, the wine bar was running, wine tastings, simple and unpretentious, a new kind of luxury based on relationship and honest work.

With COVID-19 we closed the bar before mandatory shutdown and adapted the shop to focus on organic fruits and vegetables. We went from taking phone orders to a website, from car deliveries to a van, bank transfer to automatic payment. We restructured our business model, our customer base changed, our products sales split changed, the systems, equipment, processes, all that changed in the course of the last 2 months. But we always operated from our core: we sell great products from small farmers. That didn’t change. We managed to keep the revenue inflow so far. With new margins, we need to increase it 3X more just to pay costs, so we are, like many other businesses, at risk.

Now that the operation is somehow a little more stable and people are preparing for the ‘new normal’, I took the time to revisit my notes from the Cooks Congress of Lisbon last September.

The event had no specific theme, so I tried to bring something that could be useful to an audience of cooks and restaurateurs. I chose resilience.

First, I started by defining resilience. Resilience is the ability of a system to retain its essence in face of change. This definition is really important because people tend to think of resilience as a synonym of resistance. They are in fact very different, and the kind of energy you use for both is also very different. A steel bar is resistant, because it can get a lot of pressure. But at some point, the steel bar will break. On the other hand, a rubber ball is highly resilient, because in face of different pressures, it will come back to the same shape.

 

I’m not a physicist, but the closer I find about this in mathematical terms is the Young's modulus formula, measuring linear elasticity. Resilience can be compared to the elasticity of the body. I’m sure this is an oversimplification from a scientific perspective, so forgive me for that and take it just for illustration purpose.

  

Source: quora

In order to be more resilient, we need to be fully aware of what is at the core of our essence. The core essence of a person, a restaurant or a city is its identity. The identity of a system is the equivalent of the shape of the ball. Then, we need to be vulnerable to absorb all the impact. Vulnerability is exposure to the outside world. If we push back when the pressure comes, we are working from a resistance perspective. If we embrace the impacts, we are working on resilience.

We don’t need to choose to be resilient all the time. Sometimes, we choose to be resistant. On some things we can choose to be resistant, on other things we can choose to be resilient. Resilience is usually smarter when the environment is constantly changing and the goal is preservation. Nature is resilient.

Resilience is not always good either, many undesirable systems are highly resilient. We need to add a plan to resilience in order to make it a good thing.

What strikes me in face of COVID 19? First, let me be blunt. Not all of us will survive this. From a human perspective and from an economic perspective. I know this may be hard to process, but even a rubber ball can’t stand a fire. This is not regular ‘change’. This is dramatic, profound change in all sorts of structures. This is the end of the world as we knew it.

We can take a broader perspective of systems dynamics to understand how a system can get established in a different state. The idea behind this is that the same system can adjust to different environment. But in major disruption two things can happen: collapse of the system or adjustment of the system to the new state. There is no bouncing back.

 

Source: the conservation of change

 

In the speech at the Cooks Congress, I structured the talk around resilience on personal, project and community level. If there is interest, these will be my next chapters.


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