Contact: Bruce Goldstein (

Planning for the Unthinkable:
Building Resilience Through Collaboration

This international symposium, held on November 16-18, 2008 in Blacksburg, VA, will explore how communities cultivate resilience in response to catastrophe, ranging across time, space, and organizational complexity, from unforeseen violence to disasters like hurricane Katrina to rapid anthropogenic climate change.


This three day symposium responds to the question: How Can Collaboration Enhance Resilience To Catastrophes?

This symposium addresses a compelling social need in a time when there is increased concern over disruptions to well-being and ways of life.

Virginia Tech’s school shootings, Hurricane Katrina’s flooding of the Gulf Coast and Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks were pivotal events for most Americans, well beyond the direct locus of their impact.

Natural disasters such as hurricanes, tsunami, earthquakes, and wildfires have been occurring with dreadful frequency over the past decade. Scholars have even identified disasters — such as extended droughts — as the proximal cause of societal collapse.

The conventional societal response to catastrophic threats has been to maintain stability through enhanced security measures, increased governmental response capacity, and other instrumental approaches to prevention, anticipation, and mitigation.

In contrast, symposium contributors focus on the potential of highly collaborative groups to coordinate social mobilization and realign ways of knowing and ways of life. Papers emphasize adaptability, collective learning, and transformative change, while suggesting that catastrophes may provide opportunities to work around rigid institutions and experiment with alternatives that in ordinary times would be unable to attract attention or overcome powerful opposition.

What Is Resilience?

Resilience is the capacity to withstand loss and recover identity and retain structural and functional complexity. It’s meaning can be traced back to the Latin “resilíre”, meaning “to leap back.” In the past few years, there has been rapid growth in interest in resilience in many fields, including ecology, psychology, economics, geography, and political science. This symposium’s focus is on resilient stability or transformative change when integrity is compromised by an event that could be rapid and discrete and irreversible like a terrorist attack, gradual and insidious like climate change, or incremental and spatially heterogeneous like a drought.

Summary of Papers

Contributors seek to understand how communicative planning can enhance resilience and how resilience thinking can expand the domain of communicative action.

They examine a diversity of collaborative approaches such as learning networks, civic roundtables and community reconciliation processes that can bring to life new frameworks and worldviews that over time can shape institutions.

Contributions are organized in panels delineated by how they define resilience and focus on particular types of catastrophic events, and are integrated by a common commitment to communicative planning principles including diversity, transparency, innovation and adaptation, virtuous cycles, and positive feedbacks.


This symposium will be the first forum that explores the fertile common ground between

In addition to this cross-cutting appeal across academic fields, the symposium will be of great interest to professionals engaged in collaborative work in a variety of fields to sustain the psychological resilience of individuals and communities, the stability and adaptiveness of organizations, and cross-scale social and ecological resilience. Contributions will provide a useful portfolio of collaborative practices for enhancing resilience for the disaster manager, regional planner, community mediator, and other collaborative professionals.


The symposium originated with a call for proposals that was targeted at the different scholarly communities that were engaged in the topic of building resilience to catastrophic events through communicative planning. Sixty-four abstracts were received, of which 23 were selected by conference organizer Bruce Goldstein and an advisory panel which included Virginia Tech Professor’s John Randolph, Max Stephenson, and Paul Knox, all of whom are in the School of Public and International Affairs.

Draft papers were read in a doctoral seminar, to prepare discussant comments for the meeting. All contributors will attend the symposium at Virginia Tech on November 16-18, 2008 to present and discuss their draft papers. Afterwards, each contributor will be provided with comments for revision for clarity and consistency, in consultation with journal and/or book editors. Symposium papers will be prepared for publication in 2009.