Conceptualizing resilience in engineering systems: An analysis of the literature

Morten Wied*, Josef Oehmen, Torgeir Welo

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

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It is now widely recognized that many important events in the life cycle of complex engineering systems cannot be foreseen in advance. From its origin in ecological systems, operating without the use of foresight, resilience theory prescribes presuming ignorance about the future, and designing systems to manage unexpected events in whatever form they may take. However, much confusion remains as to what constitutes a resilient system and the implications for engineering systems. Taking steps toward a synthesis across a fragmented body of research, this paper analyses 251 definitions in the resilience literature, aiming to clarify key distinctions in the resilience concept. Asking resilience of what, to what, and how, we first distinguish systems serving higher ends and systems that are ends in themselves, and, within these, performance variables to be minimized, preserved, or maximized. Second, we distinguish systems subject to adverse events, adverse change, turbulence, favorable events, favorable change, and variation. Finally, we distinguish systems capable of recovery, absorption, improvement, graceful degradation, minimal deterioration, and survival. Together, these distinctions outline a morphology of resilient systems and suggest answers to the principal design questions, which must be asked of any resilient engineering system.
Original languageEnglish
JournalSystems Engineering
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)3-13
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • SEE01 Systems thinking
  • SEE10 Project Planning/Assessment/Control
  • SEE13 Risk and Opportunity Management


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