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During ‘Rebuilding in Puerto Rico’ webinar, experts explore role of universities in advancing community resilience

The National Council for Science and the Environment, in partnership with the Julian Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University (ASU), hosted a webinar on Wednesday aimed at outlining the role universities can play in building community resilience.

The session, entitled, “Rebuilding in Puerto Rico: Universities as Leaders in Community Resilience,” featured presentations by Global Resilience Research Network (GRRN) Summit participant and professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez Dr. Cecilio Ortiz García, Global Resilience Institute Director for Strategic Research Collaborations Dr. Jennie Stephens, and Dr. Clark Miller of ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society.




Dr. Ortiz García opened the webinar by outlining just how devastated Puerto Rico was by Hurricane Maria, which tore through the island in September 2017. He described how 2,478 miles of transmission and subtransmission lines, 31,446 miles of aerial lines, 1,723 miles of underground lines, and 293 substations were damaged or destroyed by Maria, bringing down an electric system “that was already on its knees.” The resulting blackout would enter the record books as the largest in US history and the second largest in world history.

The hurricane, Dr. Ortiz García explained, “brought to a halt every single aspect of societal activity on the island.”

Eight months later, Puerto Rico is still wrestling with questions of recovery, of rebuilding back better and more resilient. Over 10% of the island’s population still lacks electric service and critical infrastructure is still reliant on over 1,200 Federal Emergency Management (FEMA) generators to operate.

But, as many have suggested, there is opportunity despite the devastation–Puerto Rico has the chance to rebuild from a  “blank canvas.” This, as Dr. Ortiz García noted, “opens the door for some Picasso to come in and paint his masterpiece.”

However, rebuilding cannot be focused solely on the grid’s physical infrastructure, but the governance and institutional issues at the root of reconstruction. This is where universities, as neutral conveners of academics, governmental actors, community members, and other stakeholders, can contribute most.

Dr. Stephens highlighted one such example of universities exercising their collaborative capacities in an organized, powerful way: the Global Resilience Research Network, which held its inaugural summit in Boston in March 2018. The summit brought together experts from 20 universities and five continents to share best practices, identify transdisciplinary applied research projects to pursue, and strengthen relationships for long-term resilience-building.

For more information about the Global Resilience Research Network, click here.




Dr. Miller expanded on the role of universities in supporting community resilience, describing vulnerabilities as flowing “along interdependent network pathways” and universities being “critical nodes” in these multi-sectoral networks. Not only do they have access to financial resources and a talented community of faculty, staff, and students, but they are uniquely positioned to leverage their international knowledge networks and ties with federal and international agencies to reach a goal. Moreover, by their very nature universities are inextricably embedded in local communities.  

With all of this potential, how can universities, especially when working in large networks, enhance resilience? Dr. Miller outlined four key ways: 1) Through use-inspired and community-engaged research, 2) Through the training of resilience-minded professionals for business, government, and society, 3) Through networked city-university partnerships, and 4) Through the mobilization of transformative, translocal expertise.

When universities listen to each other and to their surrounding communities, together, they can build a more resilient society for all.    

Further Reading

Rethinking Electric Power, Prompted by Politics and Disaster — New York Times

Puerto Rico: 11 years in recession and now no electricity — CNN Money  

For Investors, Puerto Rico Is a Fantasy Blank Slate — The Nation

Why Can’t We Fix Puerto Rico’s Power Grid? — Wired