Resilience and people power
Watching and studying disasters has always been at the heart of my research and teaching, and so the unfolding of the Covid-19 pandemic has been of particular interest. It has confirmed my belief in the power and efficacy of strong, well-connected communities and how they can contribute to resilience.
My definition of community is a broad one: we see many different types from the social, neighbourhood type of communities where people are drawn together through physical proximity, to communities of practice where members are brought together by professional links. The small island community is another example, this time founded on the shared experience of the pleasures and constraints – not least in areas such as food and medical supply chains – of living in a place surrounded by the ocean.
Smaller communities can have a particular mindset that proves beneficial in resilience. This can include having a greater awareness of the people around you, but it is also more than that, communities often work together in impressive ways.
One of the extraordinary stories to emerge from the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, brought about by an earthquake and tsunami, involved the so-called Fukushima 50. This was the group of employees who elected to remain onsite to stabilize the reactors after all other workers were evacuated. This work community knew the nuclear plant extremely well and were even prepared to risk their lives to work together in the mission.
Just one year later, New York City witnessed the benefits of powerful community cooperation. At the time I was Dean of the School of Engineering and Science at the Stevens Institute of Technology and was part of the effort advising bodies in New York and Hoboken, New Jersey, in the run up to the Hurricane Sandy disaster. In the week before the hurricane made landfall, a number of the infrastructure owners and operators called in many retired and former workers to help in their disaster preparations. It was a wise move, this work community had intimate experience of the networks. They knew how to bypass automatic systems, how to keep water out of the networks, where to keep trains out of harm’s way. This was all invaluable knowledge that less experienced staff may not have possessed. A number of owners and operators unable to make these preparations found their transit systems out of operation for many months.
The message is that no matter how well engineered the safety and security systems are, ultimately people are the source of resilience.
More recently, The Rockefeller Foundation’s former programme known as 100 Resilient Cities (now morphed into the Resilient Cities Network, and the Resilient Cities Catalyst) went a long way to build urban community resilience. It achieved this by promoting and facilitating the consideration of resilience and resilience planning a part of everyday life for cities and other organizations.
The Resilience Shift is making great progress, too, working with infrastructure owners, designers, operators and maintainers. Whether an organisation is involved with water and power networks, transportation or communications systems, the whole professional community needs to understand the resilience challenges and join in the effort to achieve the shared goals.
Education and resilience
A key element in ensuring the success of the global resilience quest will be education. In the same way that the environmental movement influenced and infused education programs, and therefore professional practice, so we now need the same for resilience. It would be unthinkable today to carry out major projects of any sort without consideration of the environmental impacts. We have not yet reached this place in terms of resilience.
There’s been little available in terms of teaching about resilience, however there are signs of change, often brought about in response to disasters. For example, at the University of Tokyo, post Fukushima, a special program in resilience engineering was established. Closer to home for me, at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, an Institute for Sustainability and Resilience was established in 2018. (Note: a list of further education courses focused on infrastructure resilience is available here)
Covid-19 and community of resilience
A further sign of disaster-driven positive change is unfolding in the global scientific community. Around the world we’ve seen laboratories and individuals unite in their focus on developing treatments and vaccines for Covid-19. In an unprecedented collaborative effort, data and findings are being shared. Where once intellectual property (IP) was carefully guarded, the urgency to find global solutions has risen to the fore. This style of collaborative science will change the nature of research, and I predict it will have a positive and permanent impact on how we do science.
Another community contributing to resilience for the sake of us all.