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ANNA SMITH: Resilient cities are made of adaptable people

I keep hearing Bakersfield residents described as hard-working, filled with grit and determination.

These are certainly laudable qualities. Our city's founder himself, Col. Thomas Baker, was known to be a daring and resourceful frontiersman. He capitalized on what many saw as weaknesses in our region, "reclaiming a swamp wasteland and making of it a fertile valley," as Naomi Bain wrote in her biography of him. And I'd bet you have your own modern-day personal stories to prove that many of today's residents share his frank persistence and creative capitalism. I know I do. Neighbors and friends that I look up to the most here are entrepreneurial to their core, committed to experimentation, inquisitive and continually adapting to fit the times.

Many researchers are learning that it's not actually the strongest of the communities or the smartest that survive, it's the most adaptable to change that do so. This concept is called "urban resilience" and it's a fascinating way to think about our collective ability to cope with the challenges of the future.

Our world is constantly shifting at what seems to be a faster clip all the time. The pace of change is not slowing down, and we all feel it in our daily lives. According to a report published by Dell Technologies, 85 percent of the jobs that will exist in 2030 do not exist today. Generations of kids will soon be thrust into a workplace with industries that we couldn't even dream up today. That's a sobering fact. "The ability to gain new knowledge will be more valuable than the knowledge itself," Dell published in a statement about the report.

As new professionals entering the working world, students are facing a different landscape than the one even I encountered a few short years ago. In the United States, according to a study by LinkedIn, young workers now switch jobs four times in their first 10 years after graduation. That's an incredible amount of change.

I think that as parents, one of the best things we can do for our children is to encourage their ability to adapt. Of course, adaptability is innately part of every child's temperament in varying degrees. Even so, child development experts such as Cindy Jett, a psychotherapist and author of Harry the Happy Caterpillar Grows: Helping Children to Adjust to Change, suggest that there are lots of ways we can nurture their ability to be more adaptable, which includes learning to adjust more quickly to unexpected changes, remain flexible about schedule shifts and enjoy the novelty of new activities and ideas. Later in life, those who have learned to embrace adaptability are said to be happier and more satisfied, better able to handle inevitable life transitions and able to bounce back from adversity.

Historically, it was believed that the brain was a physiologically static organ, that it was created in childhood and now we're stuck with what we've got. While it's true that the brain is much more plastic in the early years, plasticity happens throughout life. We just may need a little more focus and persistence as we get older. We are meant to adapt.

We can't always control the change that happens to us. We can manage our response to it. This is what I hope to instill in my children because I think the world demands it. Jennifer Jones, a researcher who has studied adaptability for more than 10 years, has identified characteristics that the most adaptable people have in common. In a TED Talk delivered by Jones that I recently heard, she explained that "They're non-fixed characteristics. They're not genetic, but they can be learned and developed over time. This was quite a breakthrough for me because I realized that all these people I'd studied and worked with who were adaptable had not just been adaptable. They had learned how to be adaptable."

I see adaptability as an increasingly important component of education. Progressive kindergartens are creative labs, not top-down, rule-heavy spaces. Gustavo Razzetti is the founder of Liberationist, a consultancy that helps purpose-driven organizations make positive change. Razzetti explained that in the best educational environments to teach adaptability, "students and teachers behave as a team and co-create the learning environment. There's no right or wrong answer, everything is learning."

For workers, Razzetti even describes adaptability as "the new MBA." Employers seem to increasingly want workers who can adapt.

For the last few years, the Rockefeller Foundation has run a "100 Resilient Cities" campaign. It has helped 80 cities around the world develop comprehensive resilience strategies. The foundation explains that communities across the globe face a growing range of adversities and challenges in the 21st Century, from the effects of climate change and growing migrant populations to inadequate infrastructure, pandemics and cyber-attacks. The campaign notes that just like people, "resilience is what helps cities adapt and transform in the face of these challenges, helping them to prepare for both the expected and the unexpected."

It's fascinating and instructive to think about how a collective group of individual human lives, and their ability to adapt, can be multiplied on such a scale to impact the larger direction of entire communities. Cities like New Orleans are interesting case studies in resilience. The Rockefeller Foundation spotlights New Orleans since it has had a unique experience dealing with and recovering from major urban emergencies. From hurricanes to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill to frequent boil water advisories, New Orleans harbors important lessons about what it takes to become a vibrant, resilient city that serves all its residents — particularly its most vulnerable. But not all stresses on cities that require resilience are acute. Some can be chronic, like high unemployment, low education levels and lack of industry diversification.

All this is to say that our success as professionals, educators and parents and the future of our community will increasingly rely on our ability to adapt to change. It's much easier to continue doing something we have always done than to stop. We should acknowledge this and make a conscious commitment to embracing change. It is important to have a principled approach to our way of life, but we must also be open to strategically growing with the world around us.

We should channel Col. Baker's resilient, undaunted persistence and pair with it an awareness that to prosper in times of change requires adopting a new mindset and constantly remaining open to new ideas and ways of thinking. In this way, we can thrive on the unexpected. To keep up, we have to be proactive about evolving to shift with the world around us.

Anna Smith writes a weekly column about Bakersfield. She can be reached at The views expressed here are her own.

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