Victoria Cronin, researcher for the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering’s Center for Sustainable Development, discusses residents’ perception of housing and infrastructure development in Kamgar Putla, an informal settlement in India that suffers from annual flooding. Well-mined data could provide the foundation for smarter, more sustainable and resilient societies. Photo by: Engineering at Cambridge / CC BY-NC-ND

The twin concepts of sustainability and resilience have taken center stage in the international development discourse. Indeed, the sustainable development goals will chart the course for the post-2015 development agenda, and building resilience of communities, governments, as well as physical infrastructure, is a major thrust of new development policy.

While fashionable and sometimes overused, the concepts of sustainability and resilience logically stem from an understanding that two trends, one social, and one environmental, will confront and challenge the world in the future in new and unprecedented ways.

Demographers predict that, by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population, or more than 6 billion people, will live in cities. If the models are correct, the “urbanization of the planet” will present serious challenges to the sustainability of natural resources like food, water and energy.

At the same time that urban populations swell — concentrating risk, especially for slum dwellers and residents of coastal communities — concerns grow that climate change, with predictions that warming seas and melting icecaps will contribute to an increase in natural disasters, droughts and other climatic shocks.

Mass urbanization and climate change have certainly created a worrying context for humanity in the 21st century for sustainable and resilient infrastructure, or SRI.

However, these challenges are not without precedent. Recall British economist Thomas Malthus’ discredited hypothesis that exponential population growth will inevitably exceed growth in agricultural production, thus leading to famine, disease and war.

Malthus’ inability to foresee the dramatic impact that innovation, and more specifically, farm mechanization and science (e.g., Green Revolution), would have on agricultural yields provides a valuable lesson for today’s leaders.

Yet information technology is often overlooked in the discussion of SRI. Indeed, the traditional view of resilient infrastructure calls for the creation of redundant systems, and the “hardening” of assets that are designed to withstand threats and stand up quickly if brought down.

A different view of resiliency considers the creation of “smart” infrastructure that is instrumented, interconnected and intelligent, and provides the owners with adaptive capacity, the foundation for resilience.

Consider Rio de Janeiro’s use of technology to mitigate a threat posed by persistent and deadly flash flooding. Today, the city of Rio, with the help of IBM, has created an Intelligent Operations Center that integrates information from 30 separate agencies for a unified response to floods, landslides and other natural disasters. Through the use of flood modeling, advanced weather technology and micrometeorology, the IOC provides precision forecasting that helps city officials plan for, and response to, emergencies more timely and effectively.

The application of information technology has also helped city planners in Bangalore, with the help of IBM, to improve the water supply to its 9 million inhabitants through the installation of hundreds of Doppler meters, linked by cellphones to a SCADA system to better manage flow, detect leaks and create pressure balance in the system so more citizens have access to reliable water.

Technology is also being used in numerous cities to fight social ills like crime. Software designed for police, IBM i2 Coplink, consolidates data from multiple sources to generate tactical leads that help prevent crime and catch offenders. The use of predictive analytics is just one of many technological solutions helping to create more sustainable and resilient communities.

These examples not only illustrate how IT is helping to create sustainable and resilient social and physical infrastructure, they provide a modern corollary to the Malthusian Catastrophe and the Green Revolution: The smart application of technology will provide answers to many of the challenges facing a crowded and turbulent planet.

However, underneath IT’s solutions, it’s data — whether generated by flow meters in Bangalore’s pipes, pluviometers on Rio’s hills or by policemen patrolling city streets — that are being harnessed, analyzed and put to work for the benefit of citizens everywhere. Indeed, data are the new natural resource that when mined well, provide the foundation for tomorrow’s smarter, more sustainable and resilient societies.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of IBM Corp.

Natural disasters, resource constraints and new patterns of development require companies and governments to plan for energy and other related infrastructure to be both resilient and sustainable. During this monthlong series brought to you by Devex and Bechtel, we’ll explore strategies for deploying sustainable resilient infrastructure to help advance global development. Visit the campaign site Engineering the Next 100 Years and join the conversation using #build100.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Tim Docking

    Tim Docking leads IBM's Emerging Markets Funding group, a center of competence on international development finance. Prior to joining IBM in 2008, he was Senior Advisor to the CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation.