Resilience and the Decade of Action
The coming decade will define all our futures. The United Nations (UN) has named the 10 years to 2030 as the Decade of Action – the time for achieving its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outlined as a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.
We already know that these will be turbulent times. The Covid pandemic has come on top of the urgent need to address climate change and the biodiversity crisis. Next will be the economic fallout from the virus but also the opportunity economic recovery provides to ‘build back better’ and ensure we are better prepared for the longer term, including shocks and stresses we may not even know about yet. Critical infrastructure resilience remains very firmly at the top of the agenda in delivering life’s essentials.
Through the magnifying glass
In terms of achieving the SDGs and infrastructure resilience, Covid-19 has provided a window of opportunity. It’s given us an insight into how our planet can recover when human activity pauses, and what needs to be done to tackle a global crisis. It has provided a magnifying glass on inequality and has shown that the recovery needs to be inclusive as well as green as we build a net zero future.
Interconnectedness, resilience and sustainability
The spread of the pandemic has demonstrated how interconnected we all are. ‘No man [or country] is an island entire to itself’. We rely on a complex web of transport networks that underpins our global supply chains for everything from fuel and food to pharmaceuticals and protective clothing. When there is a surge of demand or one link of the chain breaks, shortages and economic impacts are swift to follow. We take infrastructure for granted until something goes wrong.
Historically infrastructure was designed not to fail. We believed that we could predict the future and design it to prevent disaster. But in an uncertain world this doesn’t work. The future will not be the same as the past. Resilience is about mitigating the risks that we know about as well as anticipating and preparing for those we don’t.
With work already under way on a green recovery, this is the moment to ensure that it is also a resilient recovery. The future of cities and communities globally relies on infrastructure that is not only safe and sustainable, but also resilient and inclusive.
The critical role of cities
Most cities around the world experienced significant drops in emissions during the heart of the lockdown, and those are the levels we need to be achieving every year for the whole of the Decade of Action. It’s a tough ask, but it’s possible and necessary to focus all our efforts on creating a sustainable future, that is also resilient.
A report last year authored by The Coalition for Urban Transitions and funded by The Resilience Shift has considered the economic case for greening the global recovery as we come out of the Covid-19 pandemic. This argued that investing in sustainable cities boosts resilience to future pandemics and climate change. As COVID-19 has shown, our collective capability to survive and recover from such events necessitates coordinated, cost-effective multi-sector resilience planning. Cities need to be at the heart of such planning. As cities are the confluence of people, economy and assets, when they stop working, so does the global economy.
Cities have the ability to boost a national economy’s resilience to a wide range of economic, health and environmental risks. Cities around the world have been assessing the multiple impacts of the crisis and have already begun designing and implementing ambitious place-based recovery packages and strategies that consider a range of environmental and inclusion criteria. Given the interconnectedness of systems in cities, investment in resilience for cities lessens the impact of cascading failure. The costs for climate change and future pandemic preparedness rise, the longer countries and cities postpone acting decisively.
Resilience and the human dimension
Much of the time infrastructure is considered to be a built asset – networks of physical pipes and wires, roads and vehicles – rather than a complex system. There are digital elements, including sensors and monitors of all sorts that help us understand how these networks and services are performing and meeting needs. An often-forgotten component in infrastructure resilience is the workforce of people who operate and maintain the networks and services. Humans are the most adaptive part of any system, so any resilience shift needs to recognise the people who are keeping things working and the decisions the people designing infrastructure make.
The Resilience Shift’s CEO, Seth Schultz is this year’s Institution of Civil Engineers Brunel Lecturer. In his series of lectures throughout 2020-21, Seth highlights the significant opportunity investment to stimulate economic recovery provides. Above all he urges the engineering community to engage in decisions about what projects to fund and build them with resilience in mind from the outset. This will give us not only the short-term economic benefit of construction activity now but also the long-term benefits of sustainability and resilience.
For this critical decade, and critical year of action in the run up to COP26 as we come to terms with the economic impact of the Covid pandemic, we must focus investment in infrastructure that enables a rapid transition to a net zero economy and to navigate the uncertain impacts of climate change, future pandemics or whatever happen/ other shocks or stresses that lie ahead.