Addressing critiques of resilience as an urban model
With our research partner and the cities, we will explore the tools, assessments and indicators currently used to measure urban resilience. And, perhaps more importantly, who makes these measurements, who has access, and who controls the results?
The concept of resilience has grown into a powerful conceptual model that can help us to think more strategically about how we can better plan, build and run our cities. But there are several valid criticisms of employing the concept of resilience as a guiding principle for urban planning, development and management.
There are three main critiques that are worthy of consideration. The first is that there is a lack of specificity as to what resilience looks like in practice and how it can be measured. The second is that resilience-planning models don’t typically consider power dynamics or social relationships among actors. And finally, there is concern about the potentially negative consequences and distributional impacts of resilience-building efforts: Different social groups or neighborhoods could experience the effects of interventions differently, sometimes with negative consequences.
Since late 2012, the Rockefeller Foundation has been exploring and researching those issues as part of the foundation’s work to develop a City Resilience Index. The foundation has begun the fieldwork to test our framework for our index in seven cities across the globe. Our research partner, Arup International Development, will conduct in-depth interviews and focus groups in each of the seven cities to determine if the index can help cities adopt resilience as a central planning tool and address the concerns raised by each of the three common criticisms of those types of efforts.
The index aims squarely at the first concern about measurement. Through practical research, the index aims to develop a measurable, evidence-based and accessible way to inform and shape urban planning, practice, and investment patterns. With our research partner and the cities, we will explore the tools, assessments and indicators currently used to measure urban resilience. And, perhaps more importantly, who makes these measurements, who has access, and who controls the results? We will look at where resilience-related information can be found and how it can be stored, aggregated, owned and shared safely and ethically.
But the index could also shed significant light on the other two critiques about power dynamics and distributional impacts. Arup will engage actors from city government, from civil society and from the business and private sector. Moreover, we will survey these actors in their roles as users and providers of critical services. We will try to understand what resilience means to these different actors, what they require from the city in terms of support for different critical functions, and what shocks and stresses these actors believe are most likely to disrupt their cities.
We will also assess how different actors within cities achieve resilience. What do the different groups perceive as being the factors that disrupt key urban functions during events or under prolonged stress? Of these, which are the most critical or should be given greatest priority? Who has control over and who has influence over these factors?
This fieldwork will not overlook a powerful new component of urban resilience: data. In addition to in-depth interviews and focus groups, in the same seven cities we plan to engage data scientists to explore with us whether perceptions of risk and the general public’s priorities can be discerned from big data sets and social media. If so, could they be mapped spatially and socially? We will look at whether big and small data can help identify practices and procedures that help people and their government sense emerging change, respond to disruption, or build regenerative capacity. We will explore how big data capture can help us to understand the performance of urban systems and their assets so as to learn and transform what’s needed for better resilience.
As important as any of those questions are, we are also building in time to explore the really critical questions about the safe and ethical access, control and use of data for resilience building. This could be as important as what the data say, according to discussions among a group of Bellagio/Poptech Fellows during a retreat on the subject of Big Data and Resilience sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation in August.
As one of the fellows, Amy Luers, wrote in the Stanford Social Innovation Review:
“Big data has transformed scientists’ ability to understand the climate system and develop plausible scenarios of the future. However, while those roles are important, ultimately society’s ability to cope with climate change will depend less on the accuracy of these projections and more on the level of “resilience derived from bottom-up community efforts.”
We are still exploring means to test the use of big data in a substantial number of cities in ways that fosters resilience at the community level and above, that is inclusive and not extractive, that builds regenerative capacity, helps respond to disruption, and supports learning and transformation. It is another important tool that can be used to pursue urban resilience in a manner that addresses even the most substantial concerns.