Bridging the infrastructure gap

Talking Resilience with Seth Schultz

I’ve been thinking about resilience and value in a slightly different way these past few weeks.

We need to shift our thinking about critical infrastructure from what it is, to what it does. By doing so, we might more clearly understand the value derived from the multiple benefits that it can have.

We know that there is a massive gap in terms of the infrastructure the world needs, and it differs depending on where you are in the world and what kind of issue you’re talking about. Whether it’s healthcare, communications, water or energy, the investment that needs to be made over the next couple of decades is large.

We also need to transform our society to make it carbon neutral by mid-century based on what scientists are telling us is required to keep climate change from making catastrophic impacts to our planet. This investment will need to provide infrastructure for the overcrowded cities around the world and provide access to infrastructure that many people in Global South countries do not yet have. Simultaneously we need to upgrade and retrofit the existing, aging and crumbling infrastructure in the Global North.

But here’s the silver lining, because this gap is so large, and is yet to be addressed, it represents a massive societal opportunity to bridge ourselves from the current situation into the future we need to have. The next decade represents one of the most critical in our planet’s history and one that will see more advancement and progress than we have seen globally over the last 50 years.

To achieve this, we need investment. Not just in terms of dollars and cents but also in terms of the investment of prioritization and willingness from government and policy makers. To help bring a more urgent focus and the resulting resources from national governments we need to have a bottom up, people powered, end-user demand for it. To compel that investment, we need a broader understanding of how infrastructure works, how it’s interconnected and what it does for us.

This is where the true gap lies – the disconnect that we expect a utility or a company or a local government or national government to solve these problems voluntarily on our behalf without demanding it. In most cases we have the solutions, the ideas, the technology, the policies, and the regulations with which to make it happen.

However, we also need an understanding, at the individual level, of the responsibility that we all have, to help enable those policies, to bring us all together and demand action whether it’s through our professional practice, through community, or with the help of social constructs.

My work in the emergency response space after 9/11, after Hurricane Katrina, showed me just how amazing the resilience built into people is, and in how we all respond to severe events. It’s overwhelming to see in practice but sometimes that’s what it takes to remember how truly resilient and interconnected we all are to each other. In Cape Town during the water shortage crisis of 2017-2018, with its forecast of ‘Day Zero’, it took everyone in the city to change their behavior and consume less water to prevent the whole city running dry. See their reflections in our learning resources available here.

I’m inspired by the work of the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and all those involved in the Infrastructure for Climate Resilience Growth programme in India that cleverly combines technology with traditional techniques to ensure that the assets build community resilience to climate change and can be built and maintained by the communities themselves.

And I am most struck by the resilience being exhibited by people all over the world dealing with the current global crisis of Covid19. We are seeing remarkable bravery from health care workers, touching musical community gatherings on remote balconies in Italy, churches becoming testing centers and cities all over the world pulling together to help the most affected portions of our communities.

We are all end users of the services provided by critical infrastructure and whether we are conserving water at home, or inputting to resilience-led decisions in our day job or working remotely to support social distancing to help our overwhelmed health care systems – we all have a part to play. A shift to more resilient infrastructure will need us all to grow that sense of individual responsibility. By doing this we can scale up our work to generate changes that will make the world a safer place.

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