Cities of the future are resilient: it’s all about the fine print

Melbourne takes the initiative and creates a first-in-Australia resilience strategy: what does that mean for other cities and towns?

There are cities and there are cities.  Comparing cities is rarely particularly meaningful.  Even so, we like to do it and we like rankings and categories and all kinds of things that make distinctions about cities.  But I am not convinced these classifications stand up to much of their claims.  While rankings can be an interesting and revealing read; from the ‘best cities’ rankings like these produced by the Intelligence Unit at The Economist, to rankings that the National League of Cities (USA) produces, through to rankings such as the Quality of Living Rankings by Mercer and many others, the simple fact is that cities each have unique histories and did not start life as part of some formal competition.  I love Paris and so do millions of other people.  Apparently over 30 million visitors per year feel the same attraction.  But then there are other places too which are easy to like.  Ranking, categorising, benchmarking, and sorting cities into categories makes sense in that we make sense of the world by using some forms of sorting information.

Urban food growing is part of the city future:  like this Pop Up Veggie Patch in Melbourne.  Photo: Yellen

Urban food growing is part of the city future: like this Pop Up Veggie Patch in Melbourne.
Photo: Yellen

However, looking into the merits of categories we apply to cities, we do see value when the criteria is very specific.  Like city resilience, borne out of the 100 Resilient Cities initiative pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation.  No need to further applaud the initiative as its smart idea has been praised abundantly over the few years since its launch.  In a decade’s time its true value will become even clearer given the economic, socio-economic, political and environmental impact it will have globally.

It is now very clear that the network of 100 cities which took initiative to compete for the 1 million dollars in funding awarded by the Rockefeller Foundation in what has proved to be highly competitive process, will reap massive returns on their outlay.  Frankly, it is hard to find a better investment.  One million dollars is not a large amount for a lot of cities that have become part of the network.  However, in using the funding smartly to craft a resilience strategy for their cities they have created conditions for business investment that previously were not there.  There is an ever increasing demand on business globally to be smart when investing by considering factors that make cities both vulnerable and resilient.  Cities that make an effort to be resilient by being specific and transparent can add a lot of competitive advantage.

And that is the key to a resilient city strategy.  Making a city, and its people, better prepared to cope and recover from a diverse range of disruptive forces provides confidence to anyone who wants to visit or do business with it.  Cities that do things with resilience in mind will also lower the cost of business and living in general.  That is why the recent launch of Resilient Melbourne is significant in Australia.  Sydney will follow next year with its own resilience strategy.  And that is as far as it goes in Australia.  No other city has been successful in joining the global network.

Other cities would be naive to sit and wait for another opportunity to get funding to kick-start a resilience program. However there is an opportunity now for other Australian cities to take the initiative and join the global movement by investing in resilience.  They could talk to Melbourne and Sydney and learn from them.  This is not just about capital cities.  Far from it.  Many cities in the 100 Resilient Cities network are small regional centres that displayed the same quality of vision as the administrators of mega cities such as of New York.  The first city in Europe that designed a city resilience strategy is a small Danish town called Vejle – it is the size of Port Phillip.  .

Obviously the Rockefeller Foundation grasped the importance of creating a network that is not only about big and powerful cities.  The idea is to create a culture of resilience globally where every city, regardless of its size, thinks about its future differently.  Resilience is about the long term prosperity of a city and as such is difficult to implement.  The long term game though is vital for cities that want to be relevant.  This is important for a whole host of reasons; the most obvious being the fact that humankind now lives predominantly in urban environments.  The city is the principle place of economic and social development.  As the Brookings Institute points out, between 2000 and 2013 the majority (almost 60pc) of jobs created in the OECD space were in metropolitan areas.  This fact alone tells us a lot: cities will grow and with that comes pressure.  It is against that background that cities have to integrate resilience; not like some kind of rescue plan when things go wrong, but as part of city culture.  Residents of any city must feel that they have what it takes to be resilient despite inevitable disruptions; be they natural disasters, public health or a cyber related disruptions, socio-economic disturbances borne out of a lack of inclusiveness and equality, or economically driven crises.  As Judith Rodin, the CEO of Rockefeller Foundation, says in her book The Resilience Dividend; “when cities and populations are overburdened, chronic stressors grow and can reach a tipping or a crisis point”.  This reminds me a bit of the fine print on the prominent TV advertisement for a super fund here in Australia which states in the fine print that its past performance is not an indicator of its future performance.  City resilience is about the fine print.  City leaders entrusted to guide cities need to engage with people and craft a future where prosperity is measured not in numbers of skyscrapers alone.


The dangers of declaring your business resilient

Telstra considers itself resilient. Late last week its CEO Andy Penn was quoted in Business Day (Telstra outages hits NBN and ADSL services across Australia) declaring that a review of its network found that Telstra has ‘incredible strength and resilience’. It should not be surprising that the word resilience is applied liberally in media releases and public comments by businesses everywhere. In fact not using the word may immediately raise concerns by those paying attention as to the real business acumen of a given enterprise The moment a feature of business becomes desirable it also becomes marketable. Such is the case with resilience. Businesses are fast off the mark to declare their resilience.

seinfeldIt would be foolish to assume one can determine how resilient a business is by looking only from the outside in. A lot can be gleaned by looking at a business from the customer’s perspective, competitor’s perspective, investor’s perspective, business analyst observer’s perspective and so on. The real conclusion though can only be drawn when every aspect is examined, including any internal factors, often hidden from public view. Telstra’s internal review may indeed have reached an agreeable position, and its leadership may have satisfied their own standard of resilience. That being said, the simple fact is this: there is no mandatory business resilience standard which can be used to judge Telstra’s self-branding of resilience against what may be acceptable to its customers. More importantly, a business can declare publicly that it is resilient all it likes, but that quickly raises more questions than if the business was more reserved in the way it manages its image.

I only refer to Telstra as a recent case of a business that is trying to manage its services in light of the ongoing frustration it manages to deliver to its customers. It is certainly not an inspiring business as we look to future challenges. What is interesting is that a company of such a scale has not yet realised that resilience in business is a whole different ball game today than it was two decades ago. It is not a small part of business strategy: it is a strategy in its own right. Among the well credentialed talent that makes up Telstra’s Leadership Team, there is a missing link; a Chief Resilience Officer. The structure of the team clearly reflects on a business model that has been around for a while; i.e. someone in charge of finance, someone in charge of sales, someone in charge of marketing, and so on. There is no specific leader dedicated solely to resilience. The assumption here would be that resilience is just a part of operational strategy. This is a major flaw in the thinking of most businesses today; not recognising that resilience is more than a passing issue, but rather a discipline of as equal value to competitive business as, say, finance and marketing.

It has been noted that business leaders do recognise that resilience is important and in fact the majority believe that resilience offers a competitive advantage. A very good reference point can be found in ORGANISATIONAL RESILIENCE: Building an enduring enterprise, a study published in The Economist not that long ago. Here is a direct quote from the report: “Some 88% of respondents say that resilience is a priority for their businesses, and 80% say that resilience is indispensable for long-term growth. Moreover, 61% say resilience is a source of competitive advantage. Yet only 29% say that resilience is “fully embedded in their organisations and a clear factor in success”, and only 44% expect resilience to be fully embedded in three years’ time. These results suggest that there is a gap between aspiration and performance.” The report is a reminder that there is a major gap between what has been said about business resilience and the actions necessary for businesses to be able to better deal with disruptions. As a customer who pays thousands to Telstra for its service, I expect it to be resilient. I expect it to know what resilience means. The only way I can judge is by the quality of service they provide.

Looking at the recent Another Telstra Event (what else can it be called) I reach for some comic relief by remembering Seinfeld. In one episode Jerry is frustrated with the customer service at a car rental. After learning that the car he reserved is not available and thus offered a different car he makes his point, which goes something like this; ‘You know how to take the reservation. You just don’t know how to hold the reservation. You see it is the holding of the reservation that makes it work.”

About the author

Jelenko Dragisic is the founder of the Global Resilience Collaborative (GRC) , a collaboration strategist and disaster resilience developer. As founder of ROADMENDER, Jelenko advocates a view that future enterprises will be critically dependent on their collaborative strategy. The formation of GRC was borne out of years of observation and analysis that clearly identifies that resilience in a systematic manner is not possible without a collaborative approach involving a broad range of disciplines.

Resilience….isn’t that just good old preparation?

It was not that long ago when a conversation about disaster resilience was only a code word for disaster preparation the old fashioned way. I can’t recall all the conversations I had about this subject but I do recall some really well. I still recall some conversations, when in the aftermath of the Queensland Floods and the Cyclone Yasi (just about the time when Australian government released the first National Disaster Resilience Strategy) when the resilience certainly was a big word, how some felt that resilience was really nothing new. The existing model of disaster preparedness was more than adequate, was the thinking despite the simple fact that it was not. For instance, we rarely saw any activity on the part of government/s during the winter period that talked about disasters. Mostly those things were done seasonally, just before the natural disasters were likely to happen. The resilience culture is not something that can be built seasonally. It is something that marks our behaviour all year round. On surface it seems as if no real benefit can be derived from talking about cyclones in July. But, I think that is where we go wrong. Not all preparation can be done only weeks ahead of a storm or cyclone. Brisbane North storms took place only two weeks into the season and it certainly caught many residents off guard. As someone once remarked; culture eats strategy for breakfast; so it is with resilience. It should be a culture and not merely a strategy.

The Gap storm 2008One of the most important lessons about the way resilience to disasters needs to be approached I gained when I was talking to different groups of people across Queensland when I was thinking about various projects that I wanted to include in the proposal to funding via National Disaster Resilience Program. Two points emerged then. One was what I considered clear lack of awareness in general public about the disaster resilience and what governments meant by that. It is not that hard to come across member of public today who would not be able to elaborate on the concept of disaster resilience. But a few years ago, especially before the Queensland Floods and Victorian Bushfires before that, that was almost the default state. So, on local level people essentially thought the disaster resilience is just another fancy government speak. To an extent that was that too, but in reality there was an emergence of a new thinking about the way we engage with natural disasters. The second part of the lesson was the way how communities assessed their own resilience. Essentially, there was no real consensus that was based on common understanding on what matters in relation to resilience. People were looking at different indicators of resilience in order to make a right call. That may not have been necessarily a bad thing because it also indicates that there are different things that matter to people. However, a good policy as an ingredient for resilient community and society at large can’t be developed without some degree of consensus. Which is precisely why a national strategy has to dovetail with local factor.

Those were only very small part of long list of insights that when compiled into a coherent narrative reveal some crucial principles of what resilience should be. I’ve come to think that the overarching narrative of resilience has to be expressed in subtle manner. Perhaps that is well summed in the words of Rolf Jensen formerly from Copenhagen Future Studies Institute when he states “A society without a positive attitude towards the future – one that does not believe that the challenges can be met and the problems can be solved – is not a healthy society.”

The aspect of resilience that remains unclear to many is the total benefit it delivers not only to community but also individual. I am reminded of point that Scottish philosopher David Hume made centuries ago when he asserted that government plays a unique role in mediating the shortsightedness that is so common among individuals pursuing self-interest and the long term interest of society as a whole. So far we have not explained to people what they have to gain by being resilient. Instead we preached to the converted. Resilience does deliver immediate and long term benefits and that has been observed globally in variety of situation. How much of that was a result of a direct strategy behind it is not completely known. But we can learn from that.

The above article is an excerpt from When We Stopped Eating Bananas, an e-book reflecting on disaster resilience since Tropical Cyclone Larry. It is available now on Amazon. 

Resilience lessons from distant history

One of the most fascinating adaptive behaviours (socio-cultural) to a cataclysmic disaster (Lisbon 1755) was the emergence of a pessimistic world view. “The catastrophe convulsed the European belief system” – notes from Candid. As Voltaire wrote in a letter; “This is indeed a cruel piece of natural philosophy! We shall find it difficult to explain how the laws of motion can produce such fearful disasters in the best of all possible worlds?”

—Artist rendering made after All Saints Day 1755 Source:

Artist rendering of Lisbon made after All Saints Day 1755

“Candide has been injured by some falling masonry; he was stretched out in the street, covered with rubble. He was calling out to Pangloss: ‘Help! Get me some oil and wine; I am dying.’ ‘But these earthquakes are nothing new, replied Pangloss. ‘The city of Lima in America experienced the same tremors the last year; same causes; same effects; there must certainly be a seam of sulphur running underground from Lima to Lisbon.”(from Candide, p.14).

The quoted chapter seems contemporary. It resonates with every disaster experience in the world today. There is always a sense of disbelief and shock. And yet it clear that there have always been preceding disasters which offered lessons we may or may not have learned.

Looking back, we realise that the Lisbon disaster was significantly smaller than many disasters since. The Central China floods in the 1800s, and more recent Pacific 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami came with a manyfold greater death toll, and yet the sociological shift of the scale post the Lisbon disaster did not repeat itself. The two world wars of the twentieth century have perhaps dented our human capacity to be surprised at large scales of destruction. Perhaps, in today’s global world, nothing is ‘too much’ any longer.

The above article is an excerpt from When We Stopped Eating Bananas, an e-book reflecting on disaster resilience since Tropical Cyclone Larry. It is available now on Amazon. 

Reporting on the Resilient City

 By Dr Peter Rogers

As a social scientist one of the constant pressures we face is translating our, often esoteric, work into a publicly accessible format or, more often, into something relevant to policy makers and practitioners in their host organisations. I have not always been particularly good at this – a long standing joke amongst one group of my colleagues is that the first draft reads like it was written by one of those dead white men you hear so much about in social theory courses – so it is a joy to me when a major publication or influential non-academic organisation takes an interest in one of the ‘soups’ I am ‘stirring’.

The round city of Baghdad in the 10th century, the peak of the Abbasid Caliphate. Illustration: Jean Soutif/Science Photo Library

The round city of Baghdad in the 10th century, the peak of the Abbasid Caliphate. Illustration: Jean Soutif/Science Photo Library

For some time now the Guardian newspaper has devoted an entire section of its online presence to reporting on the resilient city, giving this area of research an easily accessible public face very different to the rapidly spreading glut of academic publications that engage with urban resilience, climate resilience, green infrastructure and a host of other related ‘keywords’ and ‘search terms’. What we see in this emporium of interesting articles are a suite of easily digestible exemplars of contextually embedded projects and commentaries on the tensions emerging around the contested landscape of resilience in a rapidly urbanising world. It is a safe space for rethinking some of our assumptions about what resilient urbanism is and might be, offering a range of debates over what makes a city resilient. Whilst a bold attempt to engage with the wider themes of resilience it can also at times appear a little like a stone skipping across the surface of deep water, we know not what the pattern of these ripples signifies for wider thinking or for research and policy, nor what depths lie below the waters into which these articles may sink. Perhaps the value lies in the range and scope of examples and challenges documented from around the world, written up in a way not beholden to a research agenda or a policy platform. Articles range from flooding waterscapes in the public plazas of Copenhagen to the coming suburban health crisis in Houston appear next to discussions of flood defence and high rise development in Tokyo and tracking the impact of new public transport networks in La Paz, and more.

These exemplars show the breadth of interpretations one can draw around an urban resilience portfolio, where themes may not directly connect but the polysemy of the resilience concept allows for its use across a number of areas. It helps show not just the scope of different challenges, but also to highlight the nuance of place (the meanings attached to locations by those using them) and of spaces (the physical fabric of the location) as well as how the form and focus of building resilience can change over time and in different contexts. We must remember that cities are made for the people who live there not for the extraction of financial gain from the resources that move through them by private profit seeking entities. How people use these resources (power, clean air, water, food and yes, money) and how they see the challenges they must manage in their day to day lives – be it getting to work on time, finding a soulful location in which to contemplate life or engage with strangers in a distrustful world, and of course gain access to vital services where access is uneven (from basic utilities – shelter and so on – to ubiquitous ones – like internet access)– these are central to building inclusive, collaborative, meaningful resilience. Such resilience thinking has the potential to close the gap between the governor and the governed whilst empowering both to act in the interests of the whole population. What a capital and profit oriented city cannot do is help us move as one, and we are strongest by far when we do so. Not just in terms of our well-being but in terms of the democracy we inhabit.

The story of cities series also draws together a range of lessons and ideas from cities not just spread across the world but also spread throughout history, to tell creative stories of the role cities play in our changing world. This wide angle lens ranging from the birth of Baghdad was a landmark for world civilisation to how Canberra’s vision of the ideal city gets mired in ‘mediocrity’ gives a wider context for thinking about specific projects on a broader world scale that transcends the here and now or the specific locale project, but still inform our thinking about resilient cities in exciting ways.

Resilience projects can be designed in many different ways, and can be reported in as many different ways. But is not the goal to avoid forcing the citizenry to comply with external, expert-driven standards and to help inspire people to think about where they live in new more resilient ways? Expert driven thinking can often be too narrow, outside the interest or frame of experience of the general public. Bringing resilience down to tangible outcomes in stories of change that the citizen can read (jargon-free), that they can see, feel and use, that inspire people to rethink how they live in an urban world are important aspects of how we communicate the benefits to a wider audience. Through common interests and tangible interest stories, we can document the gains and dividends of resilience in ways that inspire – this can only be a good thing. Stories can help push the trajectory of building resilience away from expert-driven think tanks subject to subversion by the policy agendas of organisations, or academic research tied to project funding schemes and towards something accessible to a broader public readership. This can open a door to deeper engagement, help build a greater trust and wider understanding, and perhaps inform that sense that all are working towards the same goals. Perhaps this is something we might have lost from many modern constituencies in many democratic countries. Connecting the dots between different types of activities that fall under the banner of resilience is not entirely necessary, but such repositories of information as that provided by the Guardian raises the profile of the agenda rather well, and to a much broader audience than think tank white papers or peer-reviewed journal articles. A greater appreciation of the lessons to be learned from each example also allows experts and lay persons alike to reflect on a common understanding of resilience, to seek out ideas relevant to their own locale from the stories told about others, creating an opportunity for all to amend one’s own thinking. The freedom of the journalist to document ideas and lessons in different ways to practitioners and academics can be something informing our own work, showing examples embedded in exciting new and different contexts with potential to rework these ideas for our own locale, and if not then talking to those local to us to create new ways of working that empower our own resilience from these examples.


Peter Rogers is a Senior Lecturer in the Sociology of Law at Macquarie University. He is the former Co-Director of Climate Futures research centre at Macquarie University and author of two books on urban resilience.

Reimagining Resilience: Women, Resilience and Disasters (audio recording)

On 11 March 2016, the Global Resilience Collaborative hosted another event as part of its Reimagining Resilience initiative.  The event was supported by a number of collaborating partners, including the Queensland State Government which assisted in funding for the event.

GRC's Moderator Leonie Sanderson in action

GRC’s Moderator Leonie Sanderson in action

The session started with an acknowledgment that “women are disproportionately affected by disasters and disruption”.  That statement, shared by the session’s moderator Leonie Sanderson, provided a backdrop for what followed over the next two hours.  We heard many insightful things about resilience from a group of women who shared their professional experiences, interlaced with personal anecdotes.  As always the power of personal narrative combined with specific professional input made for very engaging dialogue.  Such was the latest session of Reimagining Resilience.

We are pleased to share the audio recording here, courtesy of PopUp Radio Australia.  We encourage people to listen to the session in full and share it with colleagues.




Why Reimagining Resilience

Panel of speakers shared insights into resilience

Panel of speakers shared insights into resilience

The Global Resilience Collaborative (GRC) firmly believes in the power of conversation; particularly the kind of conversation where every participant is a valued contributor. Lived experience, knowledge, ideas, information, relationships all matter. The initiative is designed to create conditions for trans-disciplinary dialogue, learning and innovation that will lead to new ways of thinking about resilience. Our hope is that new ideas will lead to new solutions and projects and programs that will make resilience a genuine value.

Disruptions are not new. But in our hyper-connected world, disruptions have acquired a new relevance; they’re now a key feature of our lives. Some disruptions immediately trigger a recovery process. Others trigger more adaptive processes.

Natural disasters generate a special kind of disruption. The disruption associated with a natural disaster lasts longer. Recovery can take more than 10 years. There may be several disasters that ‘roll over’, one on top of the other, as seen recently in Nepal when a second damaging earthquake was experienced only days after the first.

Natural disasters increasingly tend to have a knock-on effect that reaches far beyond the area of immediate impact. The damage to nuclear power plants from the Fukushima tsunami in March 2013 resulted in an impact far beyond the tsunami itself. This type of disruption renders traditional notions of disaster management almost irrelevant. In a world where there are on average 2-3 disasters per day, this is particularly important.

Disruption is the new normal. Cultivating our resilience will give towns, cities, countries, businesses, indeed all of us, the edge to survive and more importantly prosper in a world dominated by the unknown and the improbable. Now is the time to extend our discourse on disasters beyond Prevention, Preparedness, Response and Recovery, to Resilience. Resilience has increasingly proven to be the best possible answer to the relentless level of disruption brought on by natural disasters.

Resilience in Context: the urban and the workplace

By Dr Peter Rogers

In my previous post to the resilience reporter I flagged up some common themes. I also gestured towards the use of feedback from resilience-related projects in which I and others from the GRC are engaged. This is an ongoing effort to try and link research with practice in a public commentary on building resilience. It is not enough to be working with a definition. We’ve established that the definition of resilience necessarily changes depending on the point of view from which the concept is approached. This means there are as many types of resilience as there are areas of interest, the definition is one of alignment to the needs of the user. And, I have to be honest here, this also means that there is as much ‘bad’ as there is ‘good’ out there as a result of what we have called the ‘polysemic’ nature of resilience. The term MAY fall out of favour, it may be misused (and in some cases already HAS been misused). Much of the usefulness of the idea in future will depend on which version of resilience, on which trajectory of meaning-making gains ascendency during the roll out of resilience practice in different contexts. To try and flesh this problem out a bit more I will flag up a couple of these issues here.

We know that change can be difficult, even painful, in any entrenched system. Too often the political capital to enact sweeping reform is too costly and those tasked with governing dare not take the risk. It may seem easier to protect the status quo and to conduct our governance much as we always have, following the well-trodden path and allowing the inertia born of our momentum to drive us onwards. The thing is, just because something has always been done that way does not mean that the established way of thinking, doing or acting is the best one. Those engaged in the interminable negotiation over project and funding, the grinding cycle of grant or project applications and the conformance culture of evaluation and reporting using the same tools again and again will tell you that as much as these factors ensure a minimum standard of quality at low risk they also stymie innovation and limit the possibilities of what can be achieved by being more adaptive, more flexible. One may understand that such benchmarked practices can be useful in certain circumstance, but as universal rules they create as many problems as they solve. Such tools are rigid and undermine progress towards meaningful resilience. From a more scholarly perspective we might say that the lack of general resilience in the most neoliberal alignments of democracy at fault here – but that is perhaps a discussion for elsewhere. Here and now, in terms of the potential to change our complex systems of governing through resilience thinking and practice, there is so much more we can discuss.

Around the world efforts are ongoing to try and incorporate resilience into white papers and strategic frameworks as a means of giving practitioners and politicians alike a point of departure in doing resilience for real; to my mind these too often smack of rhetoric – especially when the fine-grain is pulled back and we look into what the those key players are actually DOING differently, which is too often not much at all. Resilience is more than a rebranding of environmental management, sustainable development, climate mitigation or adaption or any other policy space that has become overly contested or ‘stuck in the mud’. Despite the critics, I do not believe that resilience is being used as an excuse increase the distance between citizens and their representatives, or to pass the buck for dealing with disasters onto citizens. Rights come with responsibilities and that has always been the way in democracy. One can even argue that a greater distance between the professional politician and the citizen is actually useful for the empowerment of local communities – another of the more uncomfortable unresolved tensions in resilience thinking. All the while the main players soldier on, doing good work, not-so-good work and on the odd occasion down-right bad work. One can argue that the most interesting and progressive attempts to build resilience into the way we organise our world are coming from the non-governmental and third sector more generally, and identifying which players are proactively changing the rules of the game is an important feature of documenting the positive possibilities of real world resilience.

unsdrI will give you a couple of examples, very briefly, of two programmes which have helped seed some interesting changes through the resilience concept. The UNISDR ‘Making Cities Resilient’ campaign is perhaps the biggest programme in the world today and alongside the Rockefeller Foundations ‘100 resilient cities’ campaign these two programs have been driving real change through the milieu of urbanism. Perhaps in both cases it is the appreciation that local context and local people need to be a key driver of developing a resilience strategy for the city that sets them apart from more nationally focussed government discussions, typical of national strategy documents. One might say that this sounds much the same as any white paper on community resilience you might encounter, but there are significant differences in the way such work is being undertaken. Bringing local expertise and knowledge into the fold is not here being championed through entrenched methodologies of lip-service consultations, producing documents for councillors or department heads which never again see the light of day. Here the work of governance is often focussed on the benefit of a more direct form of democratic engagement.

UNISDR work spans the globe, but in Manchester, England has a long history of dealing with disaster events from the IRA bombings to floods and foot and mouth throughout the rollout of Civil Contingencies legislation the North West region has skin in the game of being prepared. A dedicated ‘civil contingencies and resilience unit’ coordinate work with a host of agencies to build resilience across ecological, technological or industrial risks. With these areas of what might be considered traditional disasters well-grounded they are also now looking at the social, economic and other human system based dangers that might be strengthened, including aspects of urban greening, sustainable design and community engagement in these practice to build trust and deepen the connections that underlie a strong and healthy community. This has not gone unacknowledged and Manchester has long since been heralded as a role model for total resilience.

The importance of local context cannot be overstressed when looking at resilience. For example the Rockefeller funded resilience team in Porto Allegre, Brazil have a long history in participatory budgeting, using the 100 resilient cities money to enhance and expand on this they have created a strategy that emphasises the lessons learned over time. This creates an evidence base of best practice locally to help coordination of future local projects. It is a local strategy therefore it does not prescribe the way of working in a professional standard, rather creates a case study of the possible which other cities can reflect on. In Bristol in the UK there is strong history of energy and waste efficiency which is now being expanded into a ‘future proofing’ goal to deal with a range of challenges, including social, ecological, economic challenges as well as human well-being and quality of life. Each Rockefeller resilient city engages the funded position of Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) with a nuanced focus relevant to the local context, though the long-term impact of such work remains uncertain it has significantly raised the profile of resilience thinking and many CRO’s have become arbiters of change within their host organisations. Through Rockefeller this has also created a network of CRO’s with annual meetings to help share expertise and build the exchanges of information across these local contexts that facilitate a broader translation of lessons learned into the local contexts of each agent.

Most importantly in these examples, taken from two continents, there is a drive amongst those engaged in the work to seek out new ways of governing. Central to this is the need to deepen collaboration with the local population throughout the process, moving from services delivered by experts to services in which the local community have a direct stake and active role. By encouraging a more permeable interface between the vertical hierarchy of expert services and the flattened network of community members information flows much better and trust is built between all participants. In times of stress or shock these relationships are invaluable for increased resilience, but they also facilitate a longer term improvement in the quality of life of all those involved. Beyond the development of a resilience strategy which sits underneath Rockefeller investment there is a drive to leave trails of change in the everyday lives of local inhabitants which change the way in which the locale is governed. This gives those of us advocating change much to think about in exploring the right kind of change and where to best place the lens with which resilient thinking is drawn into clearer focus, thus informing the potential of more resilient practice for the future.

Peter Rogers is a Senior Lecturer in the Sociology of Law at Macquarie University. He is the former Co-Director of Climate Futures research centre at Macquarie University and author of two books on urban resilience.

Women, disasters, resilience and the future

By Jelenko Dragisic

The fifth anniversary of the 2011 Queensland floods has just passed and in couple of weeks we’ll have a chance for yet another reflection; the 10th anniversary of Cyclone Larry that took place in North Queensland in March 2006. To add some global perspective, we don’t need to travel far. 22 February marked the fifth anniversary of the Christchurch earthquakes which inflicted an economic loss to New Zealand of approximately $NZ40 billion. The cost of Queensland floods was estimated at over $10bn just in property and infrastructure damage. Additionally economic losses were over $30bn. The floods, combined with the effects of Cyclone Yasi, cost more than $ Queensland’s GDP for 2010-11.

Some have pointed out that with that money we could have funded, not one but two, Snowy Mountain nation-building schemes. In general, natural disasters currently cost Australia $6billion per annum – a number that is expected to triple in 30 years’ time.

"Good for her. Great for us. When women achieve, Queensland succeeds." - The theme of the Queensland Women's Week 2016

“Good for her. Great for us.
When women achieve, Queensland succeeds.” – The theme of the Queensland Women’s Week 2016

There are many angles that can be examined when it comes to the effects of natural disasters. As we approach Queensland Women’s Week (7-11 March) and International Women’s Day (8 March), I would like to use this opportunity to focus on women and disasters. To begin with, it may be worth reflecting on a recent report by the UN Population Fund called Shelter from the Story. Among many vital points, the report states that disasters impact women and men differently. As a result, humanitarian responses are not effective as they should be.

Women do not fare well in disasters. Take a look at this statistic; during the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, up to four women died for every man in hard-hit Aceh, Indonesia. One contributing factor was the fact that women in Indonesia do not usually learn how to swim or climb trees. Another interesting and telling story about the effects of natural disasters on women is told through The Women’s Resilience Index (WRI). The WRI is a joint project by ActionAid, The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and the Australian Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade. It assesses a country’s capacity for risk reduction in disaster and recovery, and the extent to which women are considered in the national rebuilding efforts. The index points towards a major disparity between, say, Pakistan and Japan, which further elicits critical factors affecting women in some regions of the world.

But things can get even sadder. Consider this tweet by a businessman, “Let our daughters and sisters learn a lesson or two from such calamities. It is high time they stick to modest clothing and repent. Shamelessness will ruin us.” The tweet was in relation to a major flooding event in Kashmir a year ago. It reflected on a sentiment in some parts of the community which sees a negative link between natural disasters and women who dress in western style. As one local journalist reported “Women in particular have been made scapegoats, with some men commenting in the marketplaces as well as social networking sites on the “western dressing sense” of women which, according to them, has angered God.”

I could go on but the list is too long. However, when we consider all these findings we certainly cannot ignore the fact that there is room for better action, better policy and a major shift in the way we account for a resilient society. Perhaps this was best articulated by Philippines Senator Loren Legarda at the World Assembly for Women 2014 in Tokyo, convened by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, when she asserted that “Women have the ability to lead their communities towards resilience. In fact, there are many best practices led by women in many nations, including the Philippines.” Furthermore, some like the Pan-American Health Organisation (which acts as a regional WHO organisation) argue that women are better in mobilising communities to respond to disasters.

Resilience to major disruptions, including pervasive natural disasters, has already shaped up to be a key priority globally. Be it resilience in the workplace, city, community at large or a whole country, it is without any doubt clear that gender issues have to be better integrated into policy settings, together with investment in pragmatic programs. After all, an inclusive society is the mark of a resilient society. And that is where socio-economic prosperity starts.



On 11 March 2016, the Global Resilience Collaborative, in collaboration with the Queensland Government, is hosting a ‘free to the public’ event at Parliament House that focuses on women, disasters and resilience. To attend please register here:


SO you are interested in resilience?

By Dr Peter Rogers

That’s good. So am I. In fact I’m so interested in it that I’ve spent a large part of the last decade travelling the world and exploring resilience in a range of different contexts. I feel safe in saying that I have learned a lot about resilience, what it can be, what it might be, what it could one day turn into, but I still have no definitive answer as to what resilience IS. How can that be? I would say because there are many different types of resilience. This may be the most important angle I have to share… the type of resilience you encounter in each place that you go to will always depend on the background and experiences of the people to whom you are talking and on the contextual specifics of where they live and work. How you encounter resilience determines its utility.

“That’s nice” you might say “but how does it help me right now?”

Stop for a minute then and think about how you have encountered the term resilience. Think about the place that you work, about where you live. Think about the type of goals that define the parameters of success or failure in the projects with which you are engaged. Those who work in sustainable development or environmental offices will have a different understanding of resilience to those who work in infrastructure development, land-use management, planning departments or equity and social justice. If one works aiding families in times of stress or helping vulnerable demographics amongst our citizenry get access to work, to health care or to other basic services, be it Bangalore or Newcastle upon Tyne you will probably see resilience differently to a member of the Rural Fire Service in Brisbane. Those working with young skateboarders in the city centre of a medium sized post-industrial town and those working to bring relief to war torn areas (foreign and domestic) are all working in different forms of resilience building. This makes it very hard to nail down one way of thinking or of using the concept.

Think bigger, think beyond the organisations that employ us. Think global resilience. When taking this one on it is sometimes useful to give the mind a workout. There is some logical gymnastics required to join the dots here. When thinking globally one must also think locally – I know I abhor the cliché but it fits so well, deal with it. To make resilience work the importance of the local context cannot be overstated. In a global melee to ‘own the idea’ or create what us academics call a ‘grand narrative’ it is too easy to lose sight of the local context within which a person is working. What being resilient means to the inhabitants of a Bangkok slum will be different to a Manhattan high rise, what resilience means to an emergency worker in Melbourne will be different to a local councillor in England. The challenges in each of these examples are rooted in the idiosyncrasy of time, of space, and of place. What does that mean? Well, it seems straightforward to think that London is different to Manilla, that Washington DC is different to Puerto Allegre, or Singapore distinct from Mumbai. Yet in a world of international standards, benchmarks and professional guidelines that inform how we work there is a constant tension, a push and pull, between understanding what works right here right now and negotiating the boundaries of how we are expected to work (and report back to our managers). Another element of tension comes from a perceived need to ‘scale up’ successful projects into a universal tool kit. The idea that one example can be turned into a one-shot fix for making everyone, everywhere, resilient in the same way is not helpful to anyone. What we are finding as we research resilience around the world is that it is not always easy to understand how different communities move through and use the different spaces of a given city at different times – be it time of day or time of year. Not all agencies are able to design comprehensive interventions or projects that pull the local culture, traditions, customs and knowledge of the general population together with the culture and way of working typical of governing bodies – ranging from ethnic tensions to organisational corruption to entrenched resistance to change or the use of rigid tools in the wrong context. Resilience thinking is used to design flexible practices that can be realigned and redesigned to fit the needs of any given context. Just think of the changing dynamics of pressures in Tokyo during cherry blossom season, or Sao Paulo during the World Cup. The lack of contextual understanding between the different organisations and interests before, during and after Hurricane Katrina or in the planning, design and management of the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Such examples created cascading failures in systems felt around the world. Such examples show us how important local knowledge is to understanding the dangers one might, one day, face. The dynamics are thus spread over a wide range of possible stressors and shocks, so resilience activities need to be focussed on the right contextual details to be effective.

In such a world is no longer helpful to look for a universal definition of what resilience is, nor to seek that singular silver bullet that will allow us to fix the problem of a perceived lack of resilience amongst certain elements of the population. What many of us are now seeing develop is the beginning of the real challenge; how do we think differently about what is done under the banner of resilience. What is growing is a general acknowledgement, amongst experts and lay folk alike, that if we are to do this thing properly then different thinking is required. Thinking resiliently informs new opportunities for doing it differently in practice, for harnessing the lessons of the past, existing tools or expertise and using them in new ways. For identifying vulnerabilities and mobilising flexible workers in collaborative partnerships to facilitate creative solutions to wicked problems. Encouraging a different approach to anything ‘across the board’ is a big challenge, so in our own work we are aiming to encourage this in a number of ways. One of those is by building case studies of best practice and sharing an evidence-base with interested parties. The hope is that by stimulating ideas and discussion with high quality research findings we can show where the dividends from being resilient actually are; but more than that we are seeking to develop a collective of collaborative thinkers and practitioners who can steer the trajectory of resilience towards its more positive forms. Yes, despite my advocacy on this issue I also acknowledge that if those using the idea use it poorly then not all aspects of work done in the name of ‘building resilience’ are potentially good.

In future posts I hope to bring you more of our efforts to show the difference and ensure the better versions prevail by reporting on previous, current and future projects, undertaken both with the Global Resilience Collaborative and with other partners across our expanding network. In the next post I will look at urban resilience a little more, touching on the UN ‘Making Cities Resilient’ campaign and the Rockefeller Foundation ‘100 Resilient Cities’ programme.

Peter Rogers is a Senior Lecturer in the Sociology of Law at Macquarie University. He is the former Co-Director of Climate Futures research centre at Macquarie University and author of two books on urban resilience.

Reimaging Resilience: Women in Disasters: 11 March 2016, Parliament House, Brisbane

The Global Resilience Collaborative (GRC) has been successful in winning a small grant from the Queensland government to support its initiative, the “Reimagining Resilience” Speaker Series. This grant enabled us to organise a public event with a special focus on disaster resilience and the role of women.

Clem Campbell OAM President, United Nations Association Qld spoke at the launch of Reimagining Resilience program.

Clem Campbell OAM, President – United Nations Association Qld spoke at the launch of Reimagining Resilience program.

The event is a collaboration with United Nations Association of Australia (Queensland Division), PopUp Radio Australia and Volunteering Sunshine Coast and will take place on 11 March during Queensland Women’s Week 2016. This is an opportunity for Queenslanders to come together and celebrate the achievements of Queensland women and girls. The theme this year is Good for her. Great for us. More about the Queensland Women’s Week can be found at the official website

This event is free to public.  Registration is essential at this link (Eventbrite)

This GRC event is collaboration with the Queensland Government and the United Nations Association of Australia (Queensland Division).