Advancing resilience assessments: the social dimensions of electricity supply in South Africa

Author(s): Dr Susara Elizabeth van der Merwe
Link to CST author(s):
Year: 2019
Full reference: Van der Merwe, S. 2019. Advancing resilience assessments: The social dimensions of electricity supply in South Africa. Stellenbosch University Thesis.


Electricity supply serves as a lifeline, is foundational to the effective functioning of modern society, and powers multiple layers of other critical infrastructure systems. In South Africa, Eskom, the national state-owned electrical utility, generates 95% of the country’s electricity, making the South African economy highly dependent on the utility. Eskom has been caught up in socio-political, technical and financial challenges, including corruption and state capture allegations. Futhermore, owing to supply deficits, Eskom had to resort to national load-shedding from 2007 to 2008 and from 2014 to 2015. Withdrawal of labour and acts of sabotage by employees during a national strike again necessitated load-shedding between June and August 2018. Eskom is described as the biggest risk to the South African economy, by investment bank Goldman Sachs in 2017, as well as the International Monetary Fund at the end of 2018. Resilience is a systems-level outcome that emerges as a result of dynamics within complex adaptive systems. An essential service, such as electricity, is resilient if the complex adaptive socio-technical system, from which it is produced, has the capacity to sustain delivery of the core service amidst disruption and ongoing change. A fundamental departure point for this study is the realisation that a resilient technical infrastructure is not enough to ensure the supply of essential services is resilient. The dynamics of the embedded social component is often overlooked, but contributes both inherent strength and vulnerability to the functioning of the socio-technical system that delivers the essential service. This dissertation uses the implications of complexity thinking and resilience thinking to investigate approaches to assess and build the resilience of the embedded social resources required to ensure resilient essential service delivery. The specific objectives of the study were to: develop a conceptual framework for assessing resilience of essential services; pilot two methods for assessing and building resilience (through a principle-based formative assessment approach and a narrative-based sensemaking approach); and to describe the SenseMaker® methodology, as it is increasingly utilized in academic research. These objectives were addressed through four research papers around which the dissertation is structured: The first paper develops a framework to conceptualise domains of resilience that distinguish between social and technical resilience investments, on the one hand, and between specified and general resilience, on the other. Specified resilience deals with resilience of particular system components to defined threats, whereas general resilience is a generic capacity to adapt and transform amidst unpredictable threats and unforeseen risks. Investments in all four of these domains are required in complex adaptive socio-technical systems to ensure resilient essential services. The paper also distinguishes between summative and formative resilience assessments. The first involves assessments of resilience whose primary aim is to report to a third party what is in place. The second entails assessments for resilience whose primary aim is to establish, through engagement with relevant stakeholders, what resilience is required and agree collectively on how to build it. The second paper develops and pilots a formative resilience assessment approach, using an appreciative inquiry facilitation approach to assess how the seven generic resilience building principles from the field of socio-ecological systems can be utilised to enhance general social resilience within socio-technical systems. Six participatory workshops were conducted that produced assessments situated in the collective experiences and perspectives of the participants. The study operationalised the seven resilience building principles into an assessment process that can be rapidly and repeatedly conducted to involve several members of a community. The study found participants identified opportunities to enhance resilience based on the principles of resilience governance towards adaptive and transformative resilience capabilities. The third paper provides a detailed description of the SenseMaker® method used to perform the sensemaking-based resilience assessment in paper four. Originally developed as a decision-making tool for corporate businesses, SenseMaker® is now increasingly used by researchers, but has not been well documented in the academic literature. This paper describes the SenseMaker® method, how it can be used, and its significance and shortcomings in research settings. The fourth paper develops and pilots a narrative-based sensemaking approach for assessing the strength of social resilience competencies and the relative combinations of specified and general social resilience resources that people draw on in the face of disruption. The approach was piloted in a national emergency exercise conducted in Eskom, which simulated sudden cascading failure across interdependent systems and functions. The study found that employees drew more on specified than general resilience resources. Results were interpreted relative to the quality of cognitive, connective and purposive sensemaking that participants displayed in response to the simulated failure. The key contribution of this dissertation is that it provides conceptual clarity regarding the different domains of resilience that need to be considered in socio-technical systems. Moreover, the study develops and pilots two methods for assessing social resilience. The first assessment approach is formative and uses the seven principles; and, the second is summative, using the narrative-based sensemaking approach. The importance of sensemaking capacities in social resilience is emphasized, and methodological clarity on the use of the SenseMaker method in research settings is provided. The findings from this study advance conceptual and methodological aspects of resilience assessments, in particular assessments of the social dimension of socio-technical systems. This study is especially significant as it was performed in a technical organization with an engineering driven culture, but focused on social aspects that affects systems-level resilience. These insights may also have relevance in advancing the assessment of social dimensions of resilience in social-ecological systems. On a practical note, the findings may assist a wide range of actors seeking to assess and build the resilience of essential service delivery in socio-technical systems.