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How 5 Chief Resilience Officers Are Preparing For The Next 50 Years

From Oakland, California, to Semarang, Indonesia, these chief resilience officers are fighting to make their cities stronger—whether through flood planning or cybersecurity.

Resiliency is everywhere today. Governments around the world are thinking about how to make their infrastructure adaptable to the stresses and shocks of a changing world. Yet, because many federal governments’ attention is stretched thin, compounded by budget issues and political debate, much of the necessary work of resilience is falling to cities—and within cities, to chief resilience officers.

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In 2013, the Rockefeller Foundation started an initiative called 100 Resilient Cities to give 100 cities across the globe the tools to become more resilient. Among the initiative’s many components was the creation of an entirely new C-suite job within city government: the chief resilience officer. With a mandate to work across agencies and departments, the CRO is an advocate for resilient thinking within individual city governments. Now, four years after the initiative was established, 100 cities have signed on to participate in the program, creating a strong network of chief resilience officers around the world.

“There’s a recognition that because we have this concentration of people in cities, we need to think harder about the threats that they face,” says Jo da Silva, the director of Arup International Development, who created a resilience measurement platform for the Rockefeller Foundation. “There’s a ripple effect in terms of cities because we’re all interconnected globally.”

Co.Design spoke with five CROs representing a wide range of cities: Oakland; Semarang, Indonesia; Rotterdam; Pittsburgh; and Mexico City. Each is charged with preparing their city for the decades to come, focusing on infrastructure, mobility, connectivity, disaster preparation, water, housing, education, and everything in between. But while each of the five CROs works within a similar framework, the immediate issues they’re handling have particular ramifications due to the geography, history, and sociopolitical forces at work in the cities they represent. Each CRO comes into a city government armed with strategies from the Rockefeller Center, but it’s up to them and their colleagues to shape what resiliency looks like on a local level.

I asked each CRO how they’re preparing their cities for the future—whether that means the next 5 years, or the next 50.

Pittsburgh. [Photo: City of Pittsburgh]

In Pittsburgh, Surveying The Postindustrial Landscape

Pittsburgh is a postindustrial city in Pennsylvania that lost 40% of its population between the 1970s and 2006. Much of the city’s infrastructure is nearly a century old, and was designed to serve a much larger population, making it challenging for Pittsburgh to reinvest at the same scale.

But recently, the city has turned to resilience as a way to handle this fiscal challenge—while giving the city an economic boost. Earlier this month, Pittsburgh became the most recent city in the 100 Resilient Cities network to release its strategy, entitled One PGH. It’s a detailed breakdown of priorities and initiatives to improve resilience. A central element of the plan is a sweeping survey called Pittsburgh 2.0, inspired by a similar citywide survey commissioned by the Russell Sage Foundation a century ago, in 1908. That survey measured the effects of industrialization on the people and the place itself for the first time in a major American industrial city.

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“It became the foundation of a host of progressive movement activities as well as civic design that occurred in early 20th century,” says Grant Ervin, Pittsburgh’s chief resilience officer who’s been spearheading One PGH. He explains that the original survey was taken during the age of robber barons, where there was a great amount of income inequality. Pittsburgh 2.0 aims to answer the question: Why have we reached a similar gap in income inequality 100 years later? And more importantly, how can the city fix it?

“The activities of resilience aren’t anything new,” Ervin says. “The cities are talking in that same type of language. The difference is the approach.”

For Ervin and Pittsburgh, that means getting practical. He plans to focus on what funding the strategy’s main initiatives, for instance sustainable neighborhood redevelopment, would really need. “If we really want to develop a sustainable redevelopment fund to catalyze sustainable neighborhood development, what would that cost be?” Ervin says. “How do we establish the tranche of investment?”

Rotterdam. [Image: City of Rotterdam]

In Rotterdam, Exporting Resilience And Protecting Cyber Networks

Of all five cities, Rotterdam is by far the most advanced in terms of incorporating resilience into its long-term strategic thinking. Chief Resilience Officer Arnoud Molenaar has been in the position since 2014, and has been spearheading the city’s climate change resilience program since 2008, long before resilience even became a part of the vocabulary in city planning.

That’s partly because the city is located on a river delta, and has been forced to include water management in its city planning for centuries. One more contemporary initiative is so-called water plazas: Open public spaces that act as public squares when there’s no flooding, but turn into makeshift floodplains when the water threatens to overwhelm the city.

Rotterdam is so far ahead that Molenaar says the city averages 80 delegations a year of people from other cities who want to learn about what Rotterdam has accomplished. “We are working on the city but it’s also business—we can export this knowledge to a lot of cities,” Molenaar says. He shares Rotterdam’s techniques relating to water management with other cities like New Orleans and Semarang, which have similar issues. 

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Rotterdam’s support for resilience has widened the very definition of the word. One of the city’s new focuses is cyber resilience, something few other cities are tackling. But this isn’t just about cybersecurity. “Digitization is bringing us a lot of opportunities of course, but at the same time we are becoming more vulnerable,” Molenaar says. “Our systems, our companies, and people are getting more dependent on energy. As soon as one of these aspects fails, for whatever reason, you get a whole cascade effect in your city.”

Oakland. [Image: City of Oakland]

In Oakland, Redesigning Government To Better Serve The People

In addition to the environmental elements of resilience, Oakland’s Chief Resilience Officer, Kiran C. Jain, is focusing on the resilience of the city’s economy and its government.

“Our governance structure over the last 50 years isn’t built to withstand the challenges of the next 50 or 100 years,” she says. “Government needs to learn to be more agile in its service delivery. When you’re looking at a rapidly changing economy and planet, what services do we need to think about today to minimize the impact of what these changes are going to bring?”

Jain has turned to design thinking—a term that originally found its footing in the Bay Area’s tech and design community—to help create a more flexible and innovative city government, one that can adapt quickly to any challenges that might arise in the future. She started the Civic Design Lab, located in Oakland’s City Hall, in order to create better government services and products.

One such service in desperate need of a redesign was the city’s Rent Adjustment Program, a way of resolving property owner and tenant disputes in Oakland. The program was meant to support affordable rental housing in a city that’s gentrifying rapidly, but it relied on a slow, paper-based system with poor record-keeping. After bringing together tenants, property owners, and city officials to voice their opinions, as well as the design firms Frog and Tomorrow Partners, the city recently launched a digital management system and website that makes the process of disputing high raises to rent significantly easier.

That might not sound like a program that would fall under the purview of the chief resilience officer, but Jain believes this is part of increasing financial and economic resilience in a rapidly growing city, while showing how effective a more agile government can be.

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Mexico City. [Photo: ChepeNicoli/iStock]

In Mexico City, Finding A Longer-Term Solution To A Water Deficit

Every CRO I spoke with discussed one issue at length: water. But while most were focused on the problems of too much water thanks to flooding and rising tides, Mexico City’s CRO Arnoldo Matus Kramer was concerned that his city may run out.

While investment in the city’s other main resilience priority—improving its mobility through green and public transportation and moving away from the city’s infamous car culture—has already begun, Kramer has had a hard time convincing both government officials and investors that fixing the city’s water system is just as pressing.

“We are exploiting our aquifer at a very high rate,” he says. “Most people in Mexico City have access to water—generally you can open the tap and you get water. In the future if we don’t do the right investments and management in different areas, that may not be the case.”

Kramer believes that Mexico City could run out of water in the next 30 to 40 years if there is a medium- or long-term drought—and if steps aren’t taken to rethink water management. But because 30 years sounds far away, it’s been difficult to make water a top priority within the government, and he says that citizens are more averse to private-public partnerships in the water arena (even when they’re supportive when it comes to transportation). “There is an underinvestment both at the federal and local level in terms of the needs of water infrastructure,” Kramer says. “In terms of innovation, there are many things we could do in terms of technology and infrastructure to improve how we manage the water.”

Now, along with building out resilience initiatives like his colleagues, Kramer is working with NGOs and universities in order to provide the proof that water is a pressing problem—and convince the government that it is worthy of investment.

Semarang. [Photo: RossiAgung/iStock]

In Semarang, Explaining Why Resilience Matters

Though many city governments have embraced resilience in some capacity by joining 100 Resilient Cities and hiring a chief resilience officer, that doesn’t necessarily mean the citizens are on board. In Semarang, Chief Resilience Officer Purnomo Dwi Sasongko says that one of the greatest challenges of his job is to explain why resilience is important—which depends on who’s asking.

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“Resilience is something new in Indonesia—it has a different meaning,” Sasongko says. In order to convince citizens of resilience’s value, he has to explain it in different ways to different groups. For the younger generation, resilience resonates when he explains it in terms of communication—that the city is sufficiently connected in order to stimulate growth and react to new challenges. For the older generation, he explains resilience in terms of quality of life, describing how it can make the city better in the future. In artistic communities, he focuses on how resilience can help traditional culture and local wisdom survive.

Beyond explaining why resilience matters, Sasongko has focused Semarang’s strategy on three areas: security, mobility, and capacity. “We are like bridges between what the government wants and what the community needs,” he says. But he also recognizes that Semarang cannot be alone in its resilience strategy. “Semarang can be resilient if the cities surrounding the city are doing the resilient work,” he says. “There is interdependency between them.”

That’s especially vital when it comes to the 21 rivers that surround the city. Many other cities in Indonesia are affected by these rivers, so any initiatives Semarang introduces with regards to flood control need to be a group effort.

When asked about his vision for Semarang 50 years from now, Sasongko echoes what he’s heard from the community. As part of his outreach, Sasongko asks locals if they’d like to see Semarang more like Jakarta, New York, or Singapore. The response has been similar: “Maybe Singapore is our inspiration about how to make the city better, but the community of Semarang wants their culture to still be there, local culture and local wisdom,” Sasongko says.

They want to remain Semarang.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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