Amidst a global pandemic, we all know what it feels like to live in a society under threat. Our work and personal lives have been disrupted; many of us have lost friends and family; our society is struggling to balance the need for liberty with the need to protect our vulnerable populations through vaccines and vaccine passports. Beyond our attempts to mitigate COVID-19, communities and organizations worldwide now face the consequences of rising seas, heat waves, and a variety of other shocks. Summers are hotter and drier, putting the elderly and alone at risk, and coastal communities see regular flooding.
Our neighborhoods, cities, and institutions need resilience—and trained leaders can help get us there. One way to develop your resilience skills as a leader and prepare your organization to handle these 21st-century challenges is through Northeastern’s MS in Security and Resilience Studies (SRS) program.
What is Resilience?
Security is the ability to keep ourselves, our institutions, and our communities safe from shocks. But resilience is the ability of a person, neighborhood, or organization to recover from a shock and ideally move forward. Rather than merely returning to the ways things were before a flood or pandemic, for example, a resilient city would create new ways to handle future shocks. Resilience is critically important; without it, a shock can push a company into bankruptcy or destabilize a family.
Some shocks can empty neighborhoods, forcing residents to move elsewhere. These communities must have skilled resilience leaders to help guide them forward. For example, when several East Boston neighborhoods faced repetitive flooding, they turned to Northeastern University and other local institutions for advice. Rather than simply building a sea wall or making every window and door waterproof—which are expensive and often prone-to-fail solutions—local residents adopted a resilient framework perspective. They created new citizen science programs to help residents track floods and prepare more effectively for them. Locals also participated in zoning and land use planning, turning some unused land into a blue/green park that would provide a play space that could hold water and prevent flooding.
Similarly, when Boston’s Logan Airport was planning a new, more resilient terminal, Northeastern SRS students spent a semester investigating potential shocks to the airport, including rising sea levels, terror attacks, and increasing heat. When planning Terminal E, Northeastern students pushed to build a physical structure able to rebound from multiple of these challenges. As travelers pass through the structure on the way to their destination, they may not notice these improvements and upgrades, but they certainly will appreciate them during the next King Tide or hurricane.
Critical Skills and Strategies for Studying and Understanding Resilience
A resilient organization, community, or society does not come about randomly. Research has underscored that demographic factors like wealth (or poverty) also aren’t the key. Instead, these resilient outcomes result from the interaction of a variety of skills, infrastructural elements, and extended work. Whether a security analyst in a global manufacturing firm or the Chief Resilience Officer for a thriving urban city, people serious about creating resilience will need to access these skills and abilities when helping design programs and events. The SRS program sees three skills as critical in the process: a holistic perspective, a broad analytical toolkit, and the ability to communicate clearly about complex problems.
Too many of us approach problems from a narrow framework, rebranding issues and challenges to meet our preconceived notions. But a broader approach—a holistic one— tackles problems from a variety of angles. Many are unsure how to frame their investigations of issues. How broad is the problem? Can we draw from historical evidence to predict future patterns? Are there ways to interpret data from various sources, like maps, social media platforms, and failed projects, that can shed light on the problem? The ability to answer these questions requires a broad analytical toolkit, one with various approaches to organizing data and analyses. Finally, we need to be able to talk about the complexities of real-world problems in ways that non-experts can understand.
How to Develop Resilience Leadership Skills
The SRS program has three main ways to train leaders: formal education, experiential learning, and mentorship through networks. Northeastern trains leaders to manage future shocks and crises. This unique approach gives students a holistic resilience framework for problem-solving, experiential learning opportunities, and access to broad networks.
All Northeastern’s graduates take at least one course on research design, enabling them to tackle problems of all kinds, including critical infrastructure resilience, terror threats, cybersecurity attacks. They learn to organize available data and consider a variety of causes for the problem. Students can learn to map resilience challenges through geographic information systems (GIS) classes, detail networks through social network analysis, and analyze the tone and nuance of political publications through text heuristics.
Further, Northeastern’s courses come from not just one college at the University, but from across the spectrum. SRS students can take a programming course on Python or C++ in the Khoury College of Computer Science, tackle interdisciplinary engineering problems in the College of Engineering, or investigate hard and soft power in the College of Science Sciences and Humanities. Our holistic approach prepares students to take on challenges that have yet to reveal themselves rather than the ones that we know best right now.
Northeastern takes experiential learning very seriously. The SRS program was the first to encourage its graduate students to take a co-op during their master’s program, providing them with up to six months of experience at a private firm, public institution, or NGO. For example, during the spring semester, SRS co-op students work full time at their organizations, gaining new insights and bringing them back to the program. Northeastern students have worked at Vertex (a powerhouse biopharmaceutical company), Boston City Hall, and the Federal Reserve Bank, among other institutions.
Finally, all Northeastern faculty are full-time, research-active instructors with networks across the public and private sectors. Some instructors regularly serve on blue-ribbon committees on national security, consult with Facebook on how to encourage evacuation before hurricanes, and carry out research for the Nobel Institute (home of the Nobel prize). Our faculty are committed to the success of our students.