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Revisiting insights from the Inaugural Global Resilience Research Network Summit: Risk literacy, design and incentives

On March 29, 2018, academics and resilience practitioners from around the world descended on Boston for the inaugural Global Resilience Research Network (GRRN) Summit. The two-day event, hosted at Northeastern University, focused on overcoming barriers to resilience in the face of both natural and man-made disasters. It physically convened the GRRN for the first time, which lent itself to valuable conversations on lessons learned and paths forward in the field of resilience.

The afternoon panels of March 29, 2018, may be viewed below and on the GRI Youtube page.

Panel 1 – Risk Literacy and Education

Panelists: Professor Paul Arbon, Director of the Torrens Resilience Institute in Australia; Dr. Gonzalo Bacigalupe, Principal Investigator at CIGIDEN in Chile and Professor Counseling and Psychology at UMass Boston; Dr. Nadia Al-Mudaffar Fawzi head of the Biological Development of Shatt Al-Arab and the North Arabian Gulf and Professor at the University of Basrah; Dr. Brian Helmuth, Professor of Environmental Science and Public Policy at Northeastern; and Dr. Melissa Forbes, Deputy Associate Administrator (Acting) of FEMA’s Office of Policy and Program Analysis

Moderator: Dr. Robin K. White, Executive Director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University

The first afternoon panel began with a discussion of the increasing interdependence of our world’s already complex systems, and how this relationship exposes individuals, communities, and societies to the devastating potential of cascading failures. The panelists subsequently discussed how emerging technologies and strategies, including some of their own work, can help address this complexity, highlighting the need for actors across the resilience spectrum to look at problems from someone else’s perspective, as well as acknowledge trade-offs in design and implementation. As an example, Dr. Helmuth explained that if tide gates are left open during severe tides, the areas can flood and ruin homes or other structures. However, if closed, the changes in the ecosystem inflicted by a storm can foster highly combustible plant growth.

A key takeaway from this panel is the need for individual education, in order to foster a “culture of preparedness” based on an understanding of these perspectives and trade-offs. The panelists also concluded that resilience must often be bottom-up, starting on the community level. The panelists, through their own work, provided insight into the larger challenge of risk (il)literacy in the field, as well as strategies for combating it.

Panel 2 – Baking in Resilience

Panelists: Dr. Humberto Cavallin, University of Puerto Rico School of Architecture; Daniel Hiller, Fraunhofer, Ernst-Mach-Institute in Germany; Prof. Jim Harris from the Cranfield Soil and Agrifood Institute in the UK; Prof. Xiangrong Wang, Director of the Center for Urban Eco-Planning & Design at Fudan University in China; and Prof. Giovanni Sansavini, Head of the Reliability and Risk Engineering Laboratory at ETH Zurich.

Moderator: Najib Abboud of Thorton Tomasetti

This panel took a design and engineering approach to resilience. A comprehensive understanding of the interdisciplinary nature of our critical infrastructure is essential to building resilience. Panelists discussed the need for a holistic, systems-oriented approach. Prof. Sansavini spoke about managing infrastructure as a network and the need to adapt and unlock new resources as a disaster unfolds. Prof. Harris furthered this theme by talking about the need to design and update systems to be adaptive over time and in response to changing circumstances, using the London sewer system as an example.

Discussion of Puerto Rico and the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Maria was a recurring topic of conversation throughout the day. During this panel, Dr. Cavallin highlighted the larger impacts of critical infrastructure on society and ways of life. Ultimately, the panelists agreed that resilience must always keep the individual in mind: the purpose of infrastructure is ultimately to serve the humans that rely on it.

Panel 3 – Governance and Incentives

Panelists: Alfred Puchala Jr., CEO of Capital Peak Asset Management; Ilan Noy, Chair in the Economics of Disasters at the Victoria University of Wellington; Atyia Martin, CEO and Founder of All Aces and Former Chief Resilience Officer of Boston; and Meir Elran, Head of the Homeland Security Program at Tel Aviv University.

Moderator: Warren Edwards, Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Global Resilience Institute

The final afternoon panel on March 29th focused on incentives to increase resilience. General Elran and Dr. Martin focused on understanding the mission of resilience in the first place, and how the unique needs of communities must be identified and addressed in any attempt to incentivize increased resilience. The conversation then turned toward the incentives structures in place in order to increase resilience. Panelists discussed the insurance gap, essentially the discrepancy between those at risk for a disaster and those insured against it. Dr. Noy gave the example that while Californians face a significant threat from earthquakes, only 10% of Californians hold earthquake insurance.  The panelists highlighted the danger of making assumptions about the desires and needs of any community when it comes to building resilience.

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To learn more about the GRRN, or the summit, please visit GRRNSummit.org