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Understanding Risk 2020: Are infrastructure disaster risk models still fit for purpose?

What has 2020 taught us about infrastructure risk modelling? In a time of complexity and uncertainty, are infrastructure risk models still fit for purpose? Resilience Shift Deputy Director, Dr Juliet Mian, joined an expert panel at Understanding Risk 2020 to assess the lessons learnt from this year and how risk models can adapt to increased shocks and disruptions.

Critical infrastructure systems, such as energy, transportation, water, waste, and digital communications, are the backbone of modern economies and societies. Failures of these systems can result in large-scale economic losses and social disruptions. But the main impact of natural shocks on infrastructure is through the disruptions they impose on people, communities and the economy. To quantify these impacts, many data and models have been developed over the past years for critical infrastructure risks assessment at the level of local, national, and even global scales.

What though happens when they come up against a year like 2020, where what was previously considered incredible for risks models became a global reality? And how can risk models be updated and turned into useful tools for practitioner and decision makers?

Understanding Risk 2020

Taking part in Understanding Risk 2020, the global disaster risk forum for experts and practitioners, Resilient Shift’s Deputy Director Dr Juliet Mian talked attendees through the lessons learned from 2020 for infrastructure  disaster risk models and resilience. Speaking alongside Juliet were:

Dr Raghav Pant, Senior Research Associate, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford

Dr Scott Thacker, Infrastructure Sustainability and Resilience Specialist at the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS)

Dr Elco Koks, Assistant Professor at the Institute for Environmental Studies, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Kicking off the session, Elco Koks highlighted how the past year has shown the complexity of society and how the level of dependency on infrastructure can swiftly change. While we used to travel the world for meetings, heavily relying on airport infrastructure, we now heavily rely on telecommunications infrastructure.

Raghav Pant took attendees on a whistle stop tour of present risk modelling and how they come up with resilience options to reduce vulnerabilities and risks for infrastructure. Raghav highlighted the best present-day models take a ‘system within systems’ approach, acknowledging that no infrastructure system exists within a silo and the cascading effect of the failure from the local level out when infrastructure assets fail. What is needed are for models to highlight risks to infrastructure assets but also the benefit of addressing these risks though resilience enhancing actions, even with limited budgets.

Scott Thacker walked attendees through UNOPS’ project in St Lucia, producing a national infrastructure assessment which modelled both strategic, long-term planning and the acute risks relating to climate shocks and hazards. Adapting risk models and infrastructure decisions for climate hazards can ensure development across multiple Sustainable Development Goals and have wide-scale capacity building impact locally. With substantial investment in infrastructure projected around the world, Scott emphasised the need for infrastructure investments to follow models which lock in resilience and climate adaption.

Reviewing the lessons learnt on infrastructure risk in 2020, Juliet highlighted how the year has created tangible examples and evidence on concepts that were otherwise abstract. The acceleration of digitisation, interconnectedness as a result of globalisation and significant urbanisation, all underpinned the need to focus on infrastructure systems connectivity and recognise the connection to the people who are responsible for running and using them. Going forward Juliet said there is a need to factor in deep uncertainty to risk models, and ensure users of risk models are also taking up the tools that can help them create more resilient infrastructure systems.

What are the biggest gaps in infrastructure risk modelling?

The speakers were joined by attendees from the UR2020 conference who emphasised that current gaps in risk modelling are a lack of data, the incorporation of complexity and dealing with uncertainty.

Participants mentimeter answers from UR2020 session

While acknowledging these gaps, participants prioritised a focus on socio-equity inclusion followed by system vulnerabilities and policy interdependencies, all key themes of the Resilience Shift’s work.

Participants mentimeter answers from the UR2020 session

Whilst 2020 has shown that risk models need to incorporate previously unthinkable scenarios, like the prolonged closure of transport systems, it has also demonstrated societies ability to change in response.

To learn more about the Resilience Shift’s essential insights for resilience visit our information page here.

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