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Resilient Infrastructure: An Economic and National Security Imperative

On Monday, September 23, 2019, GRI Founding Director, Dr. Stephen Flynn, chaired a panel on Capitol Hill on Resilient Infrastructure: An Economic and National Security Imperative. The panel discussion for Congressional staffers was one of the featured events to mark Northeastern University’s ‘Security Week’ in Washington D.C.

Professor Flynn was joined on the panel by Dr. Najib Abboud, one the world’s foremost thought leaders in the emerging field of resilience engineering. Dr. Abboud is the head of the Applied Science practice at Thornton Tomasetti. Representing the U.S. government was Mark P. Harvey, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Resilience Policy on the National Security Council Staff, and Sue Armstrong, Associate Director for Strategy and Resources in the Infrastructure Security Division of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Offering an important local perspective was Ryan Mast who is the Hazard Mitigation Administrator for the City of New Orleans.

The panelists focused on three key issues. First, was the importance of resilient infrastructure for economic competitiveness. Second, was the value of taking a systems approach where the relationship of infrastructure sectors to each other, the natural environment, and the people and communities that infrastructure support are looked at concurrently. Third, was the central role the federal government can and must play in providing incentives for investing in resilient infrastructure.

In his opening remarks, Dr. Flynn highlighted the overall national neglect in maintaining and upgrading America’s critical infrastructure. As Congress looks to move forward with a major infrastructure bill, Dr. Flynn called for ensuring that resilience best practices are embedded in new construction so that infrastructure will successfully perform in the face of the growing turbulence that the future holds.

Dr. Abboud has played a major role in overseeing the design and execution of many critical infrastructure security and resilience projects to include the rebuilding of the World Trade Center in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Dr. Abboud asserted that 9/11 was a “defining moment for the concept of resilience.”  He explained that efforts to mitigate security risks resulted in many lessons learned. However, those efforts did not adequately consider the risk associated with natural disasters as Superstorm Sandy revealed in 2013. In addition to an “all-hazards” approach to risk, Dr. Abboud emphasized the importance of incorporating risk analysis and adaptability into building plans. The goal should be that risks such as extreme weather evolves, so too should the means of a structure or system to adjust to those risks.  He also stressed the important role the federal government can play in setting requirements that compel people to overcome their tendency to believe that disasters will happen to someone else, but not them. These can include providing “carrots” that reward bolstering resilience such as providing tax advantages to “do the right thing.” The Opportunity Zone program incorporated in the 2017 Tax Cut Law could potentially be leveraged in this way.

As Senior Director for Resilience Policy on the White House’s National Security Council, Mr. Mark Harvey leads the federal interagency process for coordinating efforts to develop and implement integrated national strategies and policies that mitigate risk of catastrophic events.  He outlined the importance of moving beyond the sector-based bureaucratic stovepipes that do not adequately take into account the dependencies and interdependencies of infrastructure systems and networks. He also highlighted that inadequate investment in infrastructure can contribute to catastrophic consequences when disasters strike, referencing the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico in 2017. Mr. Harvey also touched on the relationship between asset systems and networks and outlined the importance of focusing on assuring the continuity of functions that infrastructure provides as opposed to a narrow emphasis on putting in place protective measures for safeguarding infrastructure assets. In addition to being a national economic imperative, Mr. Harvey outlined the resilient infrastructure was a national security one as well.

Ms. Armstrong reinforced the relationship between security and resilience, maintaining that a focus on resilience was key to enhancing security and that the absence of security undermines resilience. “Security and resilience are two different things, but both are inextricably linked,” she said as she went on to outline the importance of taking account the human element in advancing infrastructure resilience. This was especially true with regard to cyber risk. As physical and cyber infrastructure continues to converge, the greatest vulnerability comes from not so much technical sources, but the failure of individuals to consistently update and apply known cyber-security best practices.

Ms. Armstrong also pointed to the role that climate factors are playing elevating the risk to infrastructure. This was an area that Mr. Mast drew on his direct experience dealing with in his role in overseeing hazard mitigation and recovery planning for the City of New Orleans. He shared lessons learned from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to more recent flooding from torrential rains. Mr. Mast cited the value of federal programs in helping cities like New Orleans to both mitigate risk, but also in building back better in stronger in the aftermath of disasters.  He singled out the potential for leveraging investments in Opportunity Zones to support economic development efforts that simultaneously boost a community’s resilience.

The salient points made by these experts and Dr. Flynn reinforce the critical role infrastructure plays in the resiliency of communities, as well as the foundation it provides to resilience overall. The themes that were discussed during the panel have relevance for how to manage the broader issues of cybersecurity, climate change, and the role of government in assuring the safety and well-being of the people they serve.

The Global Resilience Institute is committed to understanding the role these focus areas and others play into resilience, and continue to support building resilience into communities, societies, and enterprises. To learn more about GRI’s resilience solutions, click here.