What is Resilience and Why Does it Matter Now More Than Ever?

This post is adapted from Michael Berkowitz’s plenary speech at the Habitat III Conference, The United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development.
What is urban resilience and why does it matter now more than ever?

In many ways, resilience is fundamentally concerned with disasters. But we’re not just talking about the ability to bounce back from the sudden disasters – think fires, earthquakes, floods – that are commonly associated with the word. We’re also focused on the long-term, slow-burning disasters that weaken a city over time. These stresses – poverty, endemic violence, an inadequate transportation system – are persistent and no less pernicious than sudden disasters.

Look no further than your morning newspaper to see that cities today are facing tectonic challenges—from refugees and displacement, to the spread of Zika, to natural disasters like Hurricane Matthew that strike with alarmingly greater frequency. At the same time, tremendous opportunities lie ahead. A global coalition has announced unprecedented commitments to fight climate change with a spend that could be $90 trillion over the next century.

We’re here to make sure that cities get the most out of every dollar they spend, whether on climate change or another challenge — and that they focus on solving multiple problems at once – building strength in multiple areas will help cities survive and thrive in the face of 21st century shocks and stresses. And that’s what this work is about.  Helping cities become stronger in both good times and bad; ensuring that they can rebuild better in the wake of challenges they face; and that they are ready to handle both the expected, and the unexpected.

Though 100 Resilient Cities is only 3 years old, we’re already seeing that resilience is working—and that cities are beginning to institutionalize and mainstream this work beyond the bounds of their relationship with our organization.  In preparation for this week we prepared a report on this progress, which we released this past Sunday.

Resilience is entering the bloodstream of cities, civil society and the private sector companies and flowing to new and exciting places. I want to focus on three brief examples.

Let’s start in New Orleans, the American city ravaged by years of social stress and pummeled by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  In 2015 the city released a holistic resilience strategy which has proven to be its roadmap to a better future. The strategy is now so central to the city’s decision-making that they have formally amended their budget process to map priorities from the resilience strategy into their budget. And Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who is well-steeped in the value of resilience-building, has elevated his Chief Resilience Officer, Jeff Hebert, to simultaneously serve as his First Deputy Mayor, making Jeff the Mayor’s highest ranking advisor.

Jeff and his team are the city’s resilience consultants, tasked with reaching out to city departments, the business community, and civil society, helping them imbue the resilience mindset into their projects and priorities. And this approach—institutionalizing resilience—is already paying dividends. New Orleans won $141 million from the National Disaster Resilience Competition, a US government grant-making initiative to help communities improve their ability to withstand future disasters. And the city won a National Planning Excellence Award from the American Planning Association, which praised New Orleans for addressing social equity at the same time as environmental issues and disaster preparedness.

We have found that mayors are not only empowering their CROs with expanded authority and resources, but in some cities, we’re seeing this outlook transcend political allegiances.

Consider the city of Thessaloniki, Greece. Their CRO is also a Deputy Mayor, a position that gives her the tools and leverage needed to drive this agenda. But what’s really amazing is that the opposition party has appointed the world’s first Shadow Deputy Mayor for Resilience. The creation of a “shadow CRO” demonstrates that resilience has staying power—even if the current mayoral administration leaves office, this agenda will remain a priority.

The final city I want to highlight today is Porto Alegre, Brazil. Like New Orleans, Porto Alegre is home to a dual-hatted, highly effective CRO who also serves as the secretary for local governance. This year cities in Brazil have faced mayoral elections, potentially leaving the institutional future of Porto Alegre’s resilience work in the lurch. But the Resilience Office turned this challenge into an opportunity. They convened a candidates’ town hall, and secured pledges from 8 of the 9 people running for mayor to continue implementation of the resilience strategy, honor the current administration’s commitment to invest 10% of the city’s budget in resilience, and to maintain the CRO office.

Not only is resilience being institutionalized in municipal governments across the world, it’s increasingly front-of-mind in the private sector.

One of our goals in launching 100RC was to signal to the private sector what tools are needed to fuel and scale this work. And we are seeing early evidence of that happening with firms developing new products and services that specifically target cities looking to build resilience.

To give you just one recent example, in Los Angeles, three private sector firms – the data and analytics company Resilient Solutions 21, the GIS leader Trimble and the satellite imaging firm DigitalGlobe – teamed up to develop a new tool to help cities understand the effects of extreme heat.

One of the big challenges facing LA is what’s called the “urban heat island effect”.  Because of concrete streets and buildings, cities get hotter during the day than surrounding areas and don’t cool down as quickly at night.  The new tool will use cutting-edge technology to pinpoint and analyze which surfaces most contribute to the heat island effect, arming planners with the insights to more precisely address the challenge.

And we’ve seen other private sector firms weave urban resilience into their business operations as well. AECOM, the construction giant, hired a new Global Director of Resilience, tasked with connecting and growing the firm’s resilience and climate-adaptation suite of services. SwissRe, the prominent reinsurer, has amended its company vision to be ”We Make the World More Resilient.” Think about that. The company’s core mission now speaks to resilience-building. And Amec Foster Wheeler, the British engineering firm, is applying a resilience framework to their water projects, with an eye toward adding long-term value.

What’s so striking about these initiatives and policy changes is that the businesses reached the decision to pursue them on their own accord, without prodding from 100RC. The leaders of these firms took a hard look at best practices in their field and concluded that resilience-building will make their companies stronger and more competitive. And that message should reverberate well beyond the corporate world.

Emboldened by the progress we’ve made in cities and in the private sector, we at 100RC are setting our sights ever-higher. Our long-term goal is nothing less than sparking a full-scale revolution in the way the world’s cities assess and act on their risks and opportunities.

In May, our organization reached the milestone for which we were named. But you don’t need to be part of our 100-city network to prioritize resilience-building. We encourage all cities to develop resilience strategies. To date, 19 strategy documents have been published in cities around the world, identifying key priorities and laying out actionable plans to achieve them. Pick up a copy of these strategies. Read them. Be inspired by them. Begin the process in your own city.

This is not just about the actions of municipal governments  — if we are going to truly and fundamentally change our cities  mayors need to be comfortable reaching beyond the boundaries of their formal responsibilities and engage partners at other levels of government and in the private sector and civil society. Mayors can set ambitious targets, and do what it takes to achieve them—and that means building broad coalitions, and using both soft and hard power.

The story of resilience is really one of collaboration—it takes all levels of government, the private sector, and civil society, working cooperatively toward a common purpose: reducing catastrophic risk and, at the same time, improving the daily lives of residents.

And certainly mayors should consider hiring a CRO on their own. A number of places outside the 100RC network – from Minot, North Dakota to the state of Victoria in Australia have already hired their own Chief Resilience Officers because they recognize the position’s immense value—its power to strengthen communities and prepare them for the challenges ahead.

If you rip a page from the book that cities like New Orleans, Thessaloniki, and Porto Alegre are following – not to mention companies like AECOM, SwissRe, and Trimble – and institutionalize resilience into your way of thinking and acting, I am confident you will find your city more responsive to the needs of its citizens, better able to understand the risks it faces, and ultimately better able to address them.

That is the practice and promise of resilience.