Making the business case for urban resilience

2013 saw the publication of the third edition of the UNISDR’s Global Assessment Report (GAR) on disaster risk reduction, ‘From Shared Risk to Shared Value: the Business Case for Disaster Risk Reduction’. Once again this has highlighted the importance of the private sector and appropriate risk assessment in DRR. The report highlights that in the future the increasing cost of disaster is going to fall no the private sector, and yet at present this relationship is poorly understood. In terms of the business case it notes:

In today’s global economic and political turmoil, rapid technological change and increasing inter­connectedness of global trade, financial markets and supply chains, larger businesses perceive a riskier world. For the private sector, this means an array of complex, unpredictable events and sud­den change in which risks can manifest swiftly and unexpectedly, with far-reaching ramifica­tions. Within this landscape, the reduction of disaster risks is taking on new significance and urgency for all global players. Investments in disaster risk management are increasingly being seen less as a cost and more of an opportunity to strengthen re­silience, competitiveness and sustainability. (p.4)

Although the focus of this report is on DRR its underpinning ideas have much relevance across a range of other urban resilience areas.  This is especially the case in nations impacted significantly by the on-going global economic downturn where, in an age of fiscal retrenchment and attempting to do ‘more for less’, the finances for resiliency measures are under strain with the need for attractive ‘business cases’ becoming ever more important.  But how might an improved business case be presented?

One way is to argue that resiliency measures will have more than one function – to be of dual use. For example, can the structural robustness required for counter-terrorism interventions also help reduce crime? Can they de designed in such a way as they might aid flood prevention (by also acting as a sustainable urban drain)? And could they provide a promotional benefit for a site wishing to market itself as ‘safe and secure?

A second way is to utilise the mechanism of insurance. Can, for example, communities or developers in a flood prone area obtain a reduction in premium for putting in place flood mitigation measures that will limit the exposure of the insurance industry. To date such a ‘sweetener’ has seldom been forthcoming to cover such risk (unless through specialised syndicates), and indeed the industry is often keen to distance itself from such risks as they evade the normal rules of insurance in terms of predictable occurrences and impact (liability).

A third possibility is to rely on the corporate social responsibility ethos of the private sector to deliver on resiliency efforts, although this is fraught with pitfalls and often lacks transparency.

The aforementioned approaches, and others, are ‘carrot’ approaches – attempting to encourage the business sector to engage with the collective resiliency effort. The alternative and less well tried method is the ‘stick’ approach, which will regulate and legislate so as to ‘encourage’ (i.e. insist) the private sector plays its part. Most developed economies however have a phobia about additional red tape and thus this is an approach which, despite calls from many, has so far been largely ignored. Some guidance has been forthcoming but this is not obligatory.

For example, in the recently released UK National Planning Policy Framework (DCLG, 2012), it is articulated that Local Planning Authorities should ‘work with local advisors and others to ensure that they have and take into account the most up-to-date information about higher risk sites in their area for malicious threats and natural hazards, including steps that can be taken to reduce vulnerability and increase resilience’ (emphasis added).

Constructing a good business case for resilience might however be mutually beneficial for the public and private sector alike. As the UNISDR 2013 GAR report (p.5) notes:

 … if business becomes more risk-sensitive, governments will be encouraged to in­vest more heavily in disaster risk reduction. Effec­tive disaster risk management will become a basic requirement for competitive countries and cities that are successful in attracting business invest­ment. Growing convergence of public and private initia­tives to model and estimate disaster risks is begin­ning to underpin these efforts. Disaster risk man­agement platforms and applications are now being developed to allow businesses to incorpo­rate these data into their investment decisions. Accurate risk data, in turn, facilitate the develop­ment of insurance markets, with appropriate pric­ing that encourages risk-sensitive investment (p.5).

The above approach, emphasising what we might consider to be a more ethical approach, does rely on a change in corporate culture. As one delegate from the Philippines at the Resilient Cities conference in Bonn in June 2013 noted with regard to the UNISDR approach ‘the higher value of corporate business is not found in the monetary profit it brings neither in the wealth it creates, but in the nobility of purpose – to improve the quality of life of the people and to build a sustainable and resilient human society’.

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What do we measure in assessing urban resilience?

‘Resilience is a wonderful metaphor. It somehow conveys in a single word the qualities of bending without breaking, of healing after an injury, of tensile rather than brittle strength. Oak and palm trees are resilient to the power of strong winds, before which they bend and then straighten again. Resilient people pick themselves up after being knocked down, draw on their reserves of ideas and strength to deal with difficult challenges, or hunker down until the gale has blown itself away. Resilient economies bounce back, and resilient ecosystems restore themselves after the fire or the flood has passed’ (Vernon, 2013)

This year I have had the pleasure of being invited to a number of international events, which have sought to unpack what resilience is and how we might construct it within an urban setting. At these events many speakers from numerous disciplines have spoken about their own interpretation of the term, often from a country-specific perspective. The latest event I attended in mid-May was hosted by the German National Academy of Science and Engineering (acatech) and Fraunhofer EMI and was focused upon ‘international perspectives on resilience’. What became clear during the workshop was that the trajectory of the so-called ‘resilience turn’[1] is being played out at different speeds and in different ways depending on local and national contexts. Likewise, the ways in which different disciplines choose to ‘measure’ or assess resilience varies markedly both between the engineering and physical sciences and social sciences, and between academics and policy makers/practitioners within these fields. Despite the attempts of some global action programmes – such as the UNISDR Making Cities Resilient campaign – to develop a set of generic guidelines that might be applied in accordance of local contingency, overall there is a lack of clarity between different national approaches, and across the academy. This is for many causing confusion, developing messy approaches that are neither holistic nor joined-up , and for the ideas that underpin urban resilience to become hazy and to be seen as a catch-all term to refer to the need for change. This therefore raises a question about what are we looking for when we talk about enhancing resilience? Some will be very specific in their gaze and focus: a focus upon the engineered properties of materials (in the case of resilience to earthquakes), the ability of the market to recovery (as in the ongoing financial crisis), or the impact upon the social infrastructure of a community (such as after a hurricane has hit) as proxy measures of overall (urban) resilience. Although such approaches are extremely useful in their own right, and in response to particular risks, they are, in my view, often limited by a sole focus upon one (urban) ‘system’ and the narrow range of stakeholders who are viewed as part of the resiliency effort.

What many of the recent studies of resilience – from across a range of sectors – now tell us is that we need to think of resilience not of a system but of a ‘system of systems’, as an arena where multiple stakeholders work collaboratively towards shared goals (although this is of course often difficult). The city (or another unit of analysis) is a complex socio-technical entity and as such those studying it are required to take account of the interconnections and interdependencies between its constituent parts and plan accordingly. Resilience in this context can be an ‘outcome’ e.g. an urban area’s ability to anticipate, absorb, respond and recover to an array of disruptive challenges and change. However resilience is also a (never-ending) organic process of learning, of capacity building, and of governing, guided by a number of principles such as preparedness, anticipation, subsidiarity, integration, communication and co-operation. This crucial linking of outcome and process should be at the heart of attempts to develop multi-systemic and multi-disciplinary resilience action and thinking. Although the many ways in which resilience is used in contemporary debates highlights a plasticity of the concept which is a cause for concern amongst some, it also indicates much potential for the development of more holistic approaches to resilience, one  where resilience as a concept, a practice and a set of processes, becomes a useful bridge between the hard and soft sciences, and in so doing facilitating a transdisciplinary understanding of what it means to be resilient in a range of contexts and operations. Resilience inherently expresses a powerful idea about how stress can be overcome and coping strategies developed…but if we are to assess its relevance as a zeitgeist we should be clear what we are focusing on as the ‘unit of analysis’.


[1] Coaffee, J. (2013) Rescaling and Responsibilising the Politics of Urban Resilience: From National Security to Local Place-Making, Politics

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Security cannot be guaranteed but resilient responses can…

The detonation of two improvised explosive devices in Boston at the end of its marathon course serve to illustrate both the limits of security at sporting events where large number of spectators gather in an unrestricted manner, as well as the importance of resiliency planning. Writing in The Times in 2009 in the wake of the attack against the Sri Lankan cricket team in 2009 in Lahore sports journalist Simon Barnes noted ‘sport is the world’s great soft target, yet has led a relatively charmed life . . . until now’. He continued by noting that it is hard to work out why this is the case:

‘Sport, with its huge crowds and big spaces, is essentially insecure. Sport is already a stage and the world is watching. All a terrorist has to do is alter the script and the publicity in the world is his to command’.

More generally when dealing with issues concerning security and counter-terrorism it is now well understood by state security forces that the modus operandi of terrorist groups has altered with many seeking mass civilian casualties and prepared to use unconventional no-warning attacks. In particular, there appears to be a trend towards attacks tactically aimed at soft targets such as hospitals, schools, shopping promenades, and more generally crowded places. These targets of choice – crowded areas – have certain features in common, most notably their easy accessibility that cannot be altered without radically changing citizens’ experience of these largely public places. In the UK, such crowded places are now defined by the Home Office as ‘sites [which] are regarded as locations or environments to which members of the public have access that, on the basis of intelligence, credible threat or terrorist methodology, may be considered potentially liable to terrorist attack by virtue of their crowd density’. This definition therefore covers not only sports stadia but locations hosting sporting events.

 The fear of this type of targeting is setting new challenges for state security agencies and local emergency responders. It often leads to reactive and protective counter-terror response through the employment of overt security features and policing – as notably seen during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London. However, with regard to the Boston attack, despite rigorous security preparation it would be neigh on impossible to guarantee total security for over 26 miles of largely accessible public space. Given the type of attack which appears to have taken place there would also have been only a very limited role for built-in or technological security in actually preventing the attack.

 In the aftermath of the bombing it was the target – the crowd – that were asked by the agencies of security to become ‘citizen detectives’ and send in any photographs of the attack scene in the hope that intelligence can be gleaned from them. It is also clear from the post-event reaction of the emergency services that contingency planning for an array of disruptive challenges had been put in place and that their response was exemplary. In both cases resilience can be seen to be co-produced amongst a range of statutory and non-statutory ‘actors’.

 Once the dust has settled on this tragic incident we should reflect on how we respond in the short and medium term – not in the reactionary and speculative way that characterised some media reports – but in a balanced and proportionate way so as not to generate undue anxiety whist reassuring the public that all is being done to apprehend suspect and learn from the incident. Here the search for urban resilience through security is as much about preparing for and having the capability and capacity to respond to such incidents if they do occur as it is about attempting to restrict the possibilities of such incidents occurring in order to mitigate damage and impact. Intelligence gathering clearly has a key role to play in attempting to thwart such attacks but this cannot guarantee 100% security: we live in a word where such risk exists and where terrorists can elicit fear and provoke an overreaction. Getting the balance right between security and a vibrant urbanism is not an easy calculation but one we should strive for if we are not to let those that wish to do us harm win.

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Legacies of resilience and security in London

Since Munich 1972, and particularly since 9/11, Olympic security has grown in scale and complexity as security and resilience professionals attempt to deliver the Games with maximum safety and minimum disruption to their schedule and spectacle.

As London has geared up to hosting the Olympic Games, the securitising of sporting spectacles has become increasingly prominent. Security concerns and responses played a critical part in the bidding process and were brought into sharp focus immediately after the host city was announced with the terrorist attack on 7/7/2005, prompting ever more detailed security plans, and quadrupling the security bill from £225 million to over £1 billion. Olympic security concerns were grafted onto a pre-existing security infrastructure, which had evolved over many years in response to the threat of Irish Republicanism and other forms of terrorism. Ongoing resilience planning has further sought to maximise the Government’s ability to respond to a range of threats and, where possible, to plan out vulnerabilities in advance. Such risk falls broadly into four main categories: terrorism, organised crime, protest and incivility, and natural hazards, with terrorism dominating debate.

The final preparations for Olympic security and resilience planning are currently being overshadowed by the high profile failure of G4S to fulfil its contractual obligations to provide 10,000 trained security staff, and the subsequent drafting in of additional military and police officers to protect athletes, venues, the ‘Olympic family’, the torch relay and spectators. Given the importance placed on security provision since London was awarded the Games it is hardly surprising that this enhanced militarisation of the immediate Olympic environs has become a key media leitmotif. However, the current media attention also highlights a wide-ranging set of issues that both the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) and Londoners will be forced to confront this summer and beyond. The use of military hardware to control city spaces, airspace and transport corridors, and issues regarding policing the Games in what will be an unprecedented UK peacetime operation have dominated media reports.

Importantly, as the Games approach, the everyday impacts both on Londoners and visitors to the capital are also being highlighted. Restrictions limit access to, and regulate behaviour in, particular dispersal and exclusion zones amidst the fear of hostile reconnaissance such as ‘Occupy’ protest or unauthorised advertising and trading. Tents are among restricted items for Olympic ticket holders. The enhanced security that London will increasingly experience – both as the Olympics approach and during the event itself – raises key questions over the proportionality of the security effort and the extent to which local people have been consulted, over resilience-related plans that will affect their neighbourhoods.

Less well documented in the coverage of security and resilience planning has been post-games legacy. There is no sign that the hi-tech equipment purchased by police forces will be put away following the Games. The security infrastructure is embedded within transformative urban regeneration programmes and is promoted as central to long term community safety. It is hoped that Olympic related security will assist in developing safer neighbourhoods, through measures such as improved lighting, and lead to a reduction in crime and the fear of crime. For example the Olympic Park area has been granted ‘Secure by Design’ status presenting a permanent material security legacy to its residents and users. Likewise, a significant repository of knowledge and expertise will be retained in London-based networks regarding civil contingency planning for an array of disruptive challenges, and for designing security into urban areas.

The story of securitising the 2012 Games did not start on 7/7, but evolved over many decades into protection of the Olympic spectacle. Nor will it end once the well-protected Olympic flame goes out in Stratford this summer. The legacy of London’s security preparation – the most extensive in Olympic history – will continue in London, and lessons will be transferred to preparations for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and the 2016 Summer Olympics and Paralympics in Rio. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) diktat of security being comprehensive but unobtrusive is at odds with lockdown security for the 2012 Games, but London’s security and resilience attempts do represent the latest phase in securitisation of mega-events and trends towards increasingly militarising our urban areas.

This post was first published as a University of Birmingham Policy Briefing on 19/7/2012

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World Risk Day and organisational resilience

June 26th 2012 was the inaugural World Risk Day. Its aim is to both encourage businesses to think about risk in smarter ways, embedding this thinking within their organisations and to ‘provide a global forum for business leaders to share best practices on how taking smarter risks drives corporate strategy, improves business confidence, and grows profits’. Moreover:

‘World Risk Day is based on the premise that the smarter management of risk can create big benefits for an organization. Many enterprises today are trying hard to increase their corporate risk maturity to gain visibility of risks and opportunities across their business. Risk directly impacts profitability and drives competitive advantage, but many conventional approaches to risk focus solely on compliance, leaving these benefits on the table.

World Risk Day is all about elevating the conversation around enterprise risk management and discussing how risk management is a strategic imperative that can create opportunity for an organization’.

In this sense, importance is increasingly placed upon risk assessment through ‘horizon scanning’ and the detection and response to emergent threats in a way that assures stakeholders or investors that all is ‘under control’, that the company has the ability to ‘bounce-back’ from such disruptions. For example, Yossi Sheffi, (2005) in The Resilient Enterprise, explored the response to disruptions that occur in private sector business functioning. He illustrated how this is focusing not only on security that might be deployed but on ‘corporate resilience’ and how it is possible that investments made to embed such resilience might in turn be beneficial in terms of ‘competitive advantage’. Reputational risk is also important here and requires careful management and will involve risk identification, prioritisation and developing appropriate responses, in order to build a robust and integrated risk management system that can forge a sustainable reputation. In short, the management of ‘reputational risk’ is now seen as a key element of good corporate governance and should be able to identify and proactively plan for events that might impact either positively or negatively on the organisation’s reputation and brand. Therefore resilience is seen as a key component of reputational risk management.

Such strategic thinking is now playing an increasingly important part in emergency situations and specifically in ensuring businesses continuity – a key aspect of urban resilience. Business Continuity Management is seen as “a management process that helps manage the risks to the smooth running of an organisation or delivery of a service, ensuring that the business can continue in the event of disruption”. From an Australian perspective Carl Gibson and Michael Tarrant have highlighted how organisations should enhance adaptive capacity to ‘better understand and address uncertainty in our internal and external environments’ arguing that ‘the basis of organisational resilience is a fundamental understanding and treatment of risk, particularly non-routine or disruption-related risk’. In a similar way Margaret  Crichton and others in a 2009 paper entitled Enhancing Organizational Resilience Through Emergency Planning: Learnings from Cross-Sectoral Lessons argued, through examples drawn from emergency simulation exercises, that learning lessons from such events is vital and it is noted that:

‘organizations can become wiser by looking at incidents outside their own sector and by using these recurring themes to explore the resilience of their emergency plans’.

The focus on risk and risk management promoted by World Risk Day highlights a number of overarching questions for leaders of business and services: How then do businesses and organisation build and embed risk management processes into their strategic planning? How is this done proactively and hence more effectively to improve the adaptive capacity and resilience of organisations? How do organisations learn from the previous mistakes and weaknesses of themselves and others whilst increasing their resilience and protecting their brand? Do flexible, agile and joined-up organisational forms make them more resilient? And, perhaps critical in an austerity era, what are the costs and benefits of deploying such future proofing strategies?

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Urban resilience and climate change adaptation

How can cities prepare for the inevitable adaption required as a result of climate change?

It is increasingly apparent that in responding to the risks associated with climate change urban resilience requires joined up solutions amongst a range of stakeholders. In particular urban planners and urban designers have a vital role in developing practical solutions to sustain cities in light of likely disruptive challenges associated with these risks.

Much prior research has highlighted how urban adaptation can facilitate enhanced resilience in the wake of sea level rise, the increased occurrence of inland flooding or weather abnormalities, and other associated impacts resulting in climatic change. For example, in 2009 Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change highlighted seven modifications which could be made to the built environment and linked to city design, community orientated development and the use of new technologies which have the potential to enhance urban resilience:

1)      Enhancing renewable energy technologies

2)      Increasing carbon neutral design

3)      Adopting increasingly localised instead of large centralised infrastructure systems

4)      Improving green infrastructures and spaces

5)      Developing a system where energy and material increasingly come from renewable sources

6)      Supporting place-based solutions (linked to the above)

7)      Committing to sustainable transport particularly electrified vehicles, cycling and walkable cities.

Although such a transition was seen as desirable, a series of issues – not least financial constraints especially in the austerity era – were seen as barriers to the realisation of such a vision.

More recently research projects conducted by the University of Manchester (EcoCities) and the European Environment Agency (EEA) have highlighted that ‘urban areas need to build in additional capacity to adapt to the range of threats posed by climate change’ and that city planners were key to the implementation of such schemes and strategies in order to ‘climate-proof’ urban areas. As noted by one of the Manchester researchers:

“It is about building in resilience that relates to current climate extremes. By preparing for current risks, you are actually building capacity for the future.”

Here three key priorities were identified:

  • Safeguarding future prosperity,
  • Protecting the most vulnerable communities,
  • Build resilience into the urban infrastructure.


Similarly, the EEA project report Urban adaptation to climate change in Europe warned that predicted climate scenarios presented a number of threats, including flooding, economic disruption and a range of public health issues. Such threats also risked undermining urban lifelines – infrastructures like energy, waste and transport – which are essential for the day-to-day functioning of cities and their inhabitants. As the authors of the report noted:

“What we are trying to do is to get city managers to anticipate that they will need much quicker event planning, and there are already things that they can anticipate…This is where political leadership is very important – if you have a vision, and understanding that climate change and adaptation is part-and-parcel of running a city today, it is not something you can renege on.”

However, urban areas should not be seen in isolation. The report stresses that a ‘systematic adaptation planning process at and interlinked between all levels – local, regional, national and European’ is vital in enhancing urban resilience.

What connects such endeavours is the critical role of adaptive capacity which reflects the ability of the (urban) system to alter its current modus operandi in order to prepare for and respond to changes in its external environment, and to recover from disruption to internal structures within the system that affect its ability to continue functioning or to protect itself from vulnerability. To achieve this built environment policy makers and practitioners to think and act differently and embed resiliency principles into the design, construction and management of urban areas.

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Is resilience thinking useful in urban affairs?

The increasingly accepted use of the term resilience illustrates is importance, but is its overuse in danger of undermining its meaning and value?

In the last few years resilience has become a ‘catch all’ phrase used to express a wide range of responses (social, economic, security-related, psychological, ecological, governmental, etc) to threats of many kinds. Increasingly there is a broad-brush yet normalized notion of resilience that pervades everyday life, which should pose critical questions regarding the relationship between broader resilience policy for dealing with disruptive challenges (such as flooding) and other emergent social policies directed at the civic realm (such as community empowerment – now often badged as community resilience). This month (May 2012) a number of academic papers have emerged which have engaged in this debate. They problematise the use of the term resilience and question whether it is relevant to use resilience thinking within the social sciences and specifically within urban planning discourses. The special set of commentary pieces in the Journal Planning Theory and Practice  address a variety of ideas at the intersection of resilience thinking and urban policy:

  • Resilience: A Bridging Concept or a Dead End?;
  • “Reframing” Resilience;
  • Urban Resilience: What Does it Mean in Planning Practice? Resilience as a Useful Concept for Climate Change Adaptation?; and
  • The Politics of Resilience for Planning: A Cautionary Note.

A key thread running through many of the ideas presented in these think pieces is that resilience both shapes the way we perceive the challenges we face as well as providing a framework by which to respond.  It does this in part by attempting to bridge the science-policy divide.

 As these articles highlight, the many often interrelated facets of the emerging urban resilience discourse have meant that pinning down its actual meaning has proved difficult and led to much confusion, especially over terminology. In many ways it can be considered a brand, a ‘free-floating signifier’, disconnected from a fixed meaning and thus capable of attaching itself to any relevant agenda.

This ambiguity can be a positive. For politicians it allows ideological flexibility, offering a new lexicon to make sense of a range of disruptive challenges affecting urban areas. The use of resilience has been applied to a series of issues ranging from recessionary impacts, climate change adaption, disaster recovery and community self-help.  For research purposes resilience is a metaphor which can now be applied in a variety of national and international contexts. This is allowing connections to be made between different strands of research through a common terminology and consistent threads of analysis, albeit with an appreciation that ‘context matters’.

Yet the ambiguity in its use raises a series of questions of whether the term resilience has become so universal as to lose all relevant meaning? Will it become the new ‘sustainability’ which when it emerged was clearly understood as a central policy metaphor for dealing with environmental change yet then become overused in an array of policy discourses? Or is resilience a contemporary example of Rhizomatic knowledge* describing multiple connective (networked) knowledge’s and interpretations which may be integrated to help us make sense of complex systems? Or is such a postmodern/post-structural synthesising merely a deflection which might hinder responding as quickly as possible to the immediate challenges we face? Have the multiple interpretations of resilience created an ever expanding analytical framework, diluting its original meaning still further? If this is the case, what overarching term/metaphor/discourse will emerge to challenge the current dominant position of (urban) resilience as a central narrative of our time? And finally, does all this talk of the language and discourse of (urban) resilience actually matter and moreover does the obsession with etymology it deflect attention away from what is an inherently practical and purposeful set of practices and processes which assist in the management of disruptive challenges?


* A rhizome is a form of plant-life which spreads, without a central root or logical pattern

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