Urban Challenges: Lessons Learned and a Path Forward

Otis Rolley is 100RC’s Regional Director, City and Practice Management, overseeing our partnerships with cities in Africa and North America. 

Before joining 100RC, Otis served as CEO of Newark, NJ’s economic development corporation. He previously worked for a public-sector management consulting firm, leading strategic planning, and performance management in municipalities and large urban school districts and was founding president of a regional nonprofit dedicated to improving and expanding transit and transportation options for Central Maryland. Otis was also Chief of Staff, Director of Planning and First Deputy Housing Commissioner for the City of Baltimore.

What I Learned from City Government

In the public sector, I had the opportunity to work for 5 different mayors in 3 different cities and about a dozen other cities through my private sector, for profit, and nonprofit work. One of the most common challenges of the cities that I have worked in throughout the United States is a combination of the tyranny of the urgent and the implementation chasm.

Charles Hummel describes the tyranny of the urgent ultimately as a problem of priorities. Cities are notorious for letting the urgent things crowd out the important. The urgent matters and shocks that city leaders must contend with on a daily if not hourly basis, often demand an immediate response or reaction. The time, energy, and resources dedicated to these responses and reactions often come at the expense of important long-term needs of a city. When the urgent wins in the tension between the urgent and the important, cities are unable to adapt and grow. They stay in a constant loop of being reactive instead of resilient.

I have also seen visionary leaders and cities with ambitious and inclusive plans, but who are unable to implement and execute.  What I’m describing is not analysis paralysis or a lack of will to move forward in a way that benefits a city. Instead, what I have seen as one of cities’ greatest challenges is being able to acquire or activate the talent and tools necessary to successfully implement. There can often be an entire chasm between a dynamic vision and successful implementation.

Why Our Work is Necessary

100RC’s approach attempts to resolve the challenges of both the tyranny of the urgent and the implementation chasm. As a trained urban planner, I love the power inherent in planning processes.  At 100RC, we work intimately with our network to strategize, not just to plan.  From research to analysis to implementation, we are keenly focused on addressing those questions that go to the heart of the city’s ability to be resilient.  We partner with the city to identify what is important, so that they can carefully invest in and resolve those stresses while being appropriately prepared for the urgent shocks that could derail the city.

We attempt to bridge the implementation chasm with our unique approach and offerings. We guide cities as they begin their resilience journeys. We partner with cities in problem solving, capacity building, strategy development, project design, implementation, and measuring success.

We bring to cities access to non-profit, private sector, and academic tools, systems and partners worth in excess of $200 million to cities toward the implementation of their strategies, so that resilience strategies are not merely plans that sit on shelves, but living guiding documents.

All 100 cities are part of our learning community. Mayors and Chief Resilience Officers can learn from the successes and failures of the other member cities, both in their own regions and across the globe. This is revolutionary because if we can make our cities more resilient, better equipped to deal with the shocks and stresses, we not only make lives better, we save lives. With more than 70% of the earth’s population residing in cities by 2050, failure is not an option.

The Path Forward

We envision a world where a city must have a Chief Resilience Officer, much as it would not fathom operating without a Chief Financial Officer or a Chief of Police.

In every city, all day and every day, someone must be thinking about how to mitigate the city’s risks and opportunities for building resilience. Someone who is able to look cross-functionally, across departments and divisions, to address the city’s shocks and stresses.

We passionately believe that we can provide our cities with a model to successfully institutionalize the tools, resources, talent, and systems to craft an innovative, inclusive and inspirational resilience strategy based on the best possible analysis, data and best practices; and the assistance and support to implement the projects and initiative within their strategies. While 100 cities may seem a small sample size on a planet of over 10,000 cities, we feel differently. The cities within the 100RC Network provide the right examples for almost any urban context on the globe.