Andrew Wisdom, Catalyst, Keynote, Project, Team, Individual


Our linear infrastructure systems struggle in a crisis like Hurricane Sandy. So people take matters into their own hands and generate their own power.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I contacted some friends of mine who live just outside New York to check if they were OK. They said they were fine – they had simply fired up their portable generator and carried on.

They have their own generator?

It had never occurred to me that people would regard a generator as a necessary part of their toolbox, but I guess why not? So I had a look at Home Depot’s site and discovered you can buy one of those things for as little as five hundred bucks. It seems like a reasonable price to pay for peace of mind. I looked afresh at those images of people lining up at gas stations.

This seems to me to be a straw in the wind. As we come to accept that we have lost the battle to avoid climate change, our collective attention will inevitably turn to thinking about what we can do to protect ourselves in the face of its effects. Events that we might once have regarded as abnormal are likely to happen with greater frequency and greater force. If one-in-one-hundred-year storms start happening every couple of years then eventually they stop being abnormal and simply become part of the environment we live in.

Our response to an increasingly hostile environment must be about resilience, a word whose trajectory I predict will follow that of sustainability: It will have increasing currency and power over the next few years before falling victim to everyone and anyone wanting to co-brand themselves as slightly forward-thinking.

Still, let’s use the word while it still means something. Resilience is about being able to absorb shocks and carry on successfully. A key part of urban resilience is about having systems – power, telecommunications, water supply, food supply, waste collection – that continue to work in the face of extreme challenges or, if they stop working, can return to service quickly and effectively.

We have come to expect that centralised urban systems will provide us with the services we need. Over the course of the twentieth century, these systems were refined and pared back to function as efficiently as possible. We are now being reminded more and more often that a system designed to work efficiently in benign conditions is not necessarily effective in extreme conditions.

Writing in the New Yorker in January 2013, Future-proofing the City Eric Klinenberg reviewed how those responsible for New York’s systems could do better at future-proofing the city. But our customary urban systems, with their centralised operations, long logistics chains, and limited redundancy, tend to be challenged by extreme events, regardless of how well we design them.

However high we build the barrier, how ever resistant we make it to sea-water intrusion, we have to accept that something will go wrong. The essence of resilience is for us to be effective in recovering from whatever problems emerge. If a storm hits and power is cut off, water supply compromised, food unavailable and, critically, people struggle to know what is happening, how do people cope? Repairs to power systems, water supply and other systems take time and the damage created by a major storm can occur across an enormous area, which can place a strain on repair crews, no matter how well equipped and trained they are.

Part of the answer is for the balance in our urban systems to swing back from efficiency towards redundancy. How do we achieve this? Well, my friends outside New York and the thousands like them are already doing it: They have created their own redundant systems. They have a power back up that they control. Of course, their generation capability was pretty rudimentary and relied on the continued availability of gas, but was reasonably effective for all that. People with photovoltaic systems weren’t so lucky of course, but I assume those systems will be refined to allow off-grid operation. What else can people do? Water can be collected from roof runoff (indeed, in Melbourne, where I live, water tanks are a required part of any new residential construction), grey water can be recycled instead of being sent for treatment. More food can be produced locally; waste can be converted to energy. I see massive commercial opportunities in all this.

The point is that the resilience challenge is largely not one of technology or technical feasibility; it is one of attitude and habits. It is about abandoning the patently silly assumption that things will be fine and then being surprised when they are not; it is about accepting that extreme events will occur and being prepared for them. In my home state, 173 people died on an awful day of bushfires in 2009, many of them defending their houses from the approaching fire, whose like no-one had ever seen before. Many of those who died had a bushfire survival plan; they simply underestimated the violence of what hit them. Almost without exception, those who lived through the fire said that next time they will simply leave. That response is about being prepared and realistic in the face of extreme abnormality. We should all be so ready, whatever the threat.