January 21, 12 – 1pm “Dialogue: Are You Ready for the Next Catastrophe – The State of Resilience Planning” – Virtual event

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Event Summary

This online dialogue started with opening remarks by Mr. Lance Jay Brown, President of CSU, and a welcoming introduction by Ms. Emmanuelle C. Slossberg, Board Member of CSU. Ms. Slossberg expressed that CSU was encouraged to begin 2021 with this dialogue as part of CSU’s mission to increase awareness of emerging issues, fostering connections, cooperation and connections by promoting the SDGs especially SDG 11 and the New Urban Agenda.  

The moderator, Mr. Urs Gauchat, Founding Member of CSU and Dean Emeritus of the College of Architecture and Design at New Jersey Institute of Technology, restated the question: Are you ready for the next catastrophe?  He affirmed that there are “known unknowns” such as climate change for which we can prepare and save lives and property. However, “unknown unknowns” such as wars cannot be predicted and thus harder to prepare for. He clarified that the event will focus on threats we know about but do not know where and when they will appear.

The first presenter, Mr. Sarbuland Khan, Chair of CSU Advisory Board and the former Executive Coordinator of the UN Global Alliance for ICT and Development, gave an eloquent speech on the challenges posed by disasters. He quoted “In times of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit change.” World we knew has been radically transformed, he said. How can we learn to adapt to this vulnerable world with vast changes socially, economically and with our environment. He made the following key points:

  • Despite warnings and many efforts to develop guidelines, most countries were caught by surprise by rapid growth of the Corona threat and made many mistakes. For example, national border closing actions were taken mostly after the virus was in their countries.
  • There were gaps in leadership and inconsistent coordination in leadership. Performance has varied: 2019 Global Health Security Index rated US and UK first and second yet Viet Nam was more successful in controlling the virus due to strong and effective leadership, timely coordinated actions in testing and mobilizing community action.
  • The impact of pandemic on the world economy has been devastating — 2020 global GDP declined by $6 trillion and GDP in the US estimated to have lost $5 billion with massive loss of jobs and livelihoods. Poverty and hunger indices have increased.  We could have done better. Cost to save lives would have been far less than what is needed now.
  • Experience has shown that the rend of disasters is on the upswing in frequency and intensity. There is growing evidence that disasters are part of a larger trend unleashed by human activities on the natural environment.
  • We must intelligently connect the dots. We need to recognize that design thinking can help us make the world more resilient; we need integrated and holistic planning for cities, people and assets. Emerging technologies can serve as innovative tools for policy planners and design experts to connect the dots and to plan for next disaster.

Mr. Khan presented the following thoughts regarding UN’s SDGs: progress toward SDGs has been mixed with pandemic making achievement of SDGs more difficult. Building long term resiliency in the world’s economy is key and Resilience Building is relevant to all 17 SDGs. An idea that proposed Mr. Khan is to mobilize needed support, it would make sense to have the UN add Resilience Building as an additional SDGs with its own targets and indicators.

Dr. Amjad Umar, Chief Architect of UN ICT4SIDS Partnership and a Professor at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, presented “Solution Approaches for Resilience” as a follow-up to Mr Khan’s presentation. He emphasized that

Disaster Resilience has the following goals:

  • Prepare to Avoid Disasters
  • Save Lives and Property Disasters Happen 
  • Control and Manage the Threat, and
  • Rebuild and Transform for Resilience

Many UN organizations such as the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) and country specific agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the US have provided numerous solutions over the years but still there are questions such as  the following:

  1. How can new technologies enable and strengthen the resilience services?
  2. How can regional and policy considerations be included in the solutions?
  3. How can thousands of point solutions be integrated into larger solutions?

Dr. Umar displayed the following chart that attempts to answer the first two questions by showing examples of how enabling technologies along with policies and procedures can provide effective solutions.  The challenge is to determine how the various solutions shown in this chart – the dots mentioned previously — can be integrated and customized for location specific solutions. He proposed the idea of a factory which produces cars by integrating different technologies and policies into  location specific solutions. He concluded his talk by describing a working prototype of an eFactory that produces location specific solutions for different SDG. More work is needed on the concept of eFactory for Resilience.

The Respondent, Mr. Esteban Leon, Head of the City Resilience Global Programme of UNHabitat, stated that we do not know what we are supposed to know  and this puts us all at risk. He emphasized that we should work on vulnerabilities after knowing the challenges. We do not know, it seems, much about how the cities really work. In many Cities Resilience Programmes he coordinates, most of the cities do not know the number of residents and the type of services (e.g., health and housing) needed by the residents. We analyzed many cities to determine the stress points and analyzed them to understand the systems that were under stress. We found that there are many. Adding a pandemic on top of already stressed systems creates serious problems. For example, most cities had stresses in healthcare systems before COVID hit us. Major challenge is impact of climate change and cities are not prepared to deal with it. Another challenge is how to contextualize each city and not apply the same methodology to all cities.

Mr. Gauchat moderated the discussions after the presentations. The topics spanned the need for long term solutions, the importance of not always relying on the past for future solutions, the value of solutions that people can see to get buy in, the need for scenario planning  to convert unknows to knowns and the importance of implementing locally and leveraging it into national policy. Mr. Gauchat asked us all to think of what each of us can do to address the huge problems.  

Note: This summary is based on first-hand knowledge of the event and the excellent notes taken by Ms. Katherine Kline.