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Systemic Strength

February 2018

By Sally Grans Korsh

In partnership with their cities and towns, campuses can bolster the structures and systems that communities need to weather unexpected events and adverse conditions.

Colleges and universities have always played an important role in their communities—offering education and employment opportunities for diverse populations, boosting economic growth, partnering on infrastructure and energy improvements, and helping fill local resource needs, such as providing community spaces. In their role as knowledge partners, academic leaders and administrators, likewise, routinely share their expertise with government, nonprofit, and private sector entities to strengthen local and regional interests for the benefit of all stakeholders.

That kind of cooperative approach to solving common problems is needed now more than ever, notes Bryna Lipper, chief resilience adviser and senior vice president of 100 Resilient Cities (100RC), a Rockefeller Foundation program dedicated to increasing the capacity of cities around the world to address the social and economic challenges that are a growing part of life in the 21st century. These include not only the shocks of natural disasters or of a disruptive or catastrophic event, but also a host of stresses that can gradually weaken the fabric of a community, such as sustained high unemployment, transportation problems, endemic violence or disease, or a crumbling infrastructure. Building strength throughout systems and structures requires a proactive, integrated approach with a view toward transformation, allowing communities to thrive in good times and bad, says Lipper.

One example of how higher education institutions are helping propel a new systems-oriented mindset for addressing existing or emerging threats is through Resilience by Design University. The initiative is a partnership between Rebuild by Design and 100 Resilient Cities that brings together local and regional universities to fine-tune an interdisciplinary understanding of resilience and to facilitate interaction between students and experts seeking solutions to the vulnerabilities of a particular place, explains Lipper. In this interview with Business Officer, Lipper details the indicators of a resilient community and the specific role that colleges and universities can play in advancing community capacity.

How do you characterize resilience? 

At 100 Resilient Cities, we look at resilience in response to three major trends of the 21st century: globalization, climate change, and massive urbanization. By 2050, up to three-quarters of the world’s population will reside within an urban environment, up from about one-half today. Through this perspective, we define urban resilience as the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.

Within that context, what does resilience encompass?

Through extensive research and evaluation of the experiences of cities around the world, we have determined a common set of drivers that enhance a city’s resilience in the face of adversity. These drivers—codified into a resilience framework designed by global consulting firm Arup—are condensed into four dimensions:

The framework furthermore demonstrates that city systems which exhibit certain features are better able to foster resilience. These include being accepting of change, organizing resources, and engaging with other systems.

It strikes me that these dimensions are likewise essential elements for a healthy campus. In building resilience, what is the hardest part of getting buy-in from stakeholders?

Building urban resilience requires looking at a city holistically: understanding the systems that make up that city and the risks it may face. This is different for every city and depends on a range of factors, such as location, government structure, environmental conditions, and available human and financial resources. The level of autonomy a city has in its decision making can be a huge challenge. Nevertheless, all cities within the 100 Resilient Cities network go through a rigorous process of developing a strategy to better understand the challenges that they face and their ability to address those challenges and unite people, projects, and priorities to collectively act on their resilience challenges.

Because the scope of challenges is different for every city, as part of our program, we ask each member city to carefully examine its biggest threats, including the slow-burning stresses that erode the urban fabric over time—issues like social and economic inequity, structural racism, lack of affordable housing, and more. This feeds directly into each city’s resilience strategy, which outlines concrete and actionable initiatives ripe for implementation.

Embedded within the strategy development for each city is extensive stakeholder engagement. In fact, the process seeks to mobilize, connect, and catalyze action across diverse stakeholders and sectors. City leadership, residents, experts, and other critical parties help create a holistic scan of resilience-building opportunities and challenges. These are also the stakeholders who can be called upon when the city shifts gears toward implementing its strategy.

How much of the hard work of resilience is a structural or operational challenge, and how much of it is a funding issue?

One of the biggest changes we encourage in our network of cities is to institutionalize resilience thinking. A clear indicator of this is the establishment of a city resilience office that counts on political and financial support from the local government. This helps ensure that a city has the structure in place to take on that hard work moving forward. We can also point to cities using their resilience strategies as a basis for prioritizing investments and embedding resilience into city operations. For instance, voters in Berkeley, Calif., passed a $100 million infrastructure bond in November 2016. Instead of that money being earmarked for typical projects, the city has instead begun planning and design for six high-priority green infrastructure projects, some of which came directly from the city’s resilience strategy.

How much does resilience depend on policy change and civic engagement?

Even before taking on political and policy change, cities can begin by applying a resilience lens to their work so that resources are leveraged holistically and projects planned for synergy. Each city in the network hires a chief resilience officer within its municipal government structure who acts as the point person for building resilience, helping to coordinate all the city’s resilience efforts. Working under the auspices of the city’s chief executive, the chief resilience officer brings together multiple agencies to collaboratively take on resilience challenges and opportunities—an effort often unseen in municipal government divided into silos.

With regard to civic engagement, an interesting example is the Civic Design Lab in Oakland, Calif. This is an innovative approach that pulls in systems thinking, human-centered design, and a racial equity lens to transcend institutional silos in government and create more responsive policy and services for those in the community who most need it.

How do resilience efforts in the U.S. compare with those in other regions of the world? What is transferable across geographies and cultures?

We’ve seen across all regions globally that the top three priorities are resilience integration, better collaboration among stakeholders, and improved governance. That said, many cities in the U.S. are talking specifically about socioeconomic equity and coastal storm water management, whereas in Europe, for instance, the cities in our network are more concerned with youth, workforce development, and community leadership.

Important to note is that catalyzing a global urban resilience movement is a multigenerational mission. In many regions, it will take time to transform cities so that they can improve the livelihoods of billions of urban dwellers. What we are doing today is laying that groundwork, so that in partnership with global and local actors, cities have greater capacity to learn from each other and design and scale up innovative solutions.

What unique attributes do colleges and universities bring to this sea of change?

We see institutions of higher learning as key players in the resilience-building movement, particularly as innovative research hubs as well as disseminating a holistic vision for our future. For instance, we have worked with New York University’s Marron Institute to project urban growth in 20 of our largest cities. With the University of Montreal consortia, we worked on a research partnership to develop a Canadian network of scholars and practitioners on urban resilience.

Several academic institutions additionally serve as our platform partners, which, along with leaders in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors, give our cities access to the resources that they need to become more resilient. The Institute for Global Environmental Strategies in Japan currently offers services that help cities quantify the benefits of mitigating climate change and air pollution in Asia. Resilience is fundamentally an interdisciplinary approach, so it’s both important and inspiring to see curriculum and professional schools embracing that mindset.

Many local academic institutions additionally work in partnership with cities as implementing partners. For example, in the Netherlands, the city of Rotterdam is working with Delft University of Technology, Netherlands, on innovations in water systems that lead to resilient market solutions, and the City of Melbourne and the University of Melbourne jointly created a Chair in Resilient Cities position to advance resilience knowledge and action in the city.

How can the higher education sector play a more central role going forward to help nurture resilience within its communities? 

The higher education sector is a natural collaborator on resilience efforts. We would love to see business, policy, and planning schools studying the body of work coming out of cities in the network and advancing the successful practices. Academic institutions are furthermore an asset to cities in helping them think through roadblocks. As one example, we work with a group of academic researchers and practitioners from the University of California, Berkeley, who offer to our cities a “problem formulation workshop.” This exercise helps cities see larger systemic contexts of organizational problems.

Urban resilience is still a new field that requires new thinking. As hotbeds of research and innovation, colleges and universities sit in a unique position to help shape and evolve the broader understanding of resilience, and work to integrate it into mainstream education and policy development.

SALLY GRANS KORSH is director, facilities management and environmental policy,  NACUBO;
BRYNA LIPPER is chief resilience adviser and senior vice president of 100 Resilient Cities.


Related Topics
LeadershipOrganizational Effectiveness

Building urban resilience requires looking at a city holistically: understanding the systems that make up that city and the risks it may face. This is different for every city and depends on a range of factors, such as location, government structure, environmental conditions, and available human and financial resources.

As hotbeds of research and innovation, colleges and universities sit in a unique position to help shape and evolve the broader understanding of resilience, and work to integrate it into mainstream education.