Q&A: How 100RC is helping cities take resilience seriously

Andrew Salkin, senior vice president of city solutions at 100 Resilient Cities. Photo by: The Rockefeller Foundation

What do Boulder, Colorado, and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, have in common? They are both part of the 100 Resilient Cities network, a selection of cities drawn from thousands of applicants, whose leaders have committed to making resilience a priority for their municipal leadership.

Devex spoke to Andrew Salkin, senior vice president of city solutions at 100 Resilient Cities, to learn how the organization — which was “pioneered” by the Rockefeller Foundation — has worked with urban leaders to develop resilience strategies and share the challenges and solutions they uncover across a diverse network of cities.

100RC provides funding for cities to hire a chief resilience officer — a position foreign to many of them — and offers technical support and access to other consultative services. Here is an excerpt from our conversation with Salkin, edited for clarity and length.

The vision for 100RC was that ideas would cross-pollinate between cities facing similar challenges. Is it happening?

100 Resilient Cities first starts with this idea that there’s something common in urban spaces, and they’re all fighting common threats or challenges. The bigger ones throughout the world are urbanization, globalization, the linking of economies to population growth, or the aging of cities. If that’s the premise of what creates the stress, it follows that cities would have something in common, at least in what they’re trying to find solutions for. What becomes quite different is how do you actually solve [these challenges] given the structures that your particular city actually functions in — your governance, your leadership, your population.

What we have found is when cities approach the work, typically they start with kind of a hard infrastructure perspective. But as they start thinking about the challenges they’re facing, people end up being the core center of what they’re doing — that nexus of people, community and economies is critical to how you’re managing the place and the role that leadership plays in that. We’ve found that kind of dialogue — and that learning and that understanding — is happening across the globe.

Big development organizations like the World Bank and others have tried for a long time to share knowledge and expertise between geographically and culturally diffuse places. What have you found to be some of the keys to making that work?

The cities that have joined our network stepped up to that challenge. They raised their hand to say, ‘I want to be a part of this network.’ When we did the challenge process, we weren’t looking for cities that were the smartest or knew the most about the resilience challenge, or had the most charismatic leaders who had won all kinds of awards. We were looking for cities that could say something along the lines of the following: “We’re doing a lot of things in our city, and we know we’re not doing enough. We don’t have the resources to do everything we want to do. We need help thinking about how to do what we’re able to do in better, more proactive ways to deal with the challenges we know we’re going to face in the future — even if we’re not exactly sure what those challenges may be.” We’re looking for cities that are eager and recognize that they need to change what they currently do. If you start with that, that’s a pretty good step.

We’re able to offer the cities very common starting points. We provide funding for a chief resilience officer, who becomes a focal point. One of their key tasks is to help the city begin to understand the concept of resilience — what does this mean for how we’re going to do business differently? We have a common process that all the cities follow, and they begin to create a common language around resilience. One of core pieces of that is the city resilience framework we use as a standard communication tool to help people understand the holistic nature and complexity of the city when you think about it from a systems perspective.

The second piece is creating some trust between everybody in the network, as well as with the 100RC team. That comes from rolling up the sleeves and doing hard, complicated work. Those two things are really helpful to lay a foundation for sharing and the willingness to try to do things that in the past governments would have been [reluctant to do].

Have some cities had more success in utilizing this platform and approach than others? What have you found to be some of the factors that enable a city to prioritize resilience?

The cities all start this journey in a different place. This notion of success sometimes can be measured on where the end product is, or it could be related to where did they start. Where they start is really critical, and part of that starting place is how supportive the city leadership is to the concept of wanting to change and tackle a new problem. These [chief resilience officers] show up and many of them are like, ‘Hi, I’m a CRO’ — and [city leaders respond], ‘Who are you? Why are you here? If it’s going to be more work, I really don’t want to talk to you.’ It takes work to integrate that kind of thinking into governance.

What’s interesting with 100 cities is we’ve been afforded this opportunity to really allow the cities to take on resiliency as an urgent kind of work, where you can’t wait around for something to happen and then start trying to recover from it. You know something’s going to happen and let’s make investments today so that when it does happen you’re better off.

We really want cities to be urgent, but different types of urgency. Many cities move at their own pace, or they’ll have elections, or they’ll have a political crisis, or they’ll have an earthquake. Giving them the space to move at their own pace, while still keeping the heat on and still moving quickly, has been something that is also helpful. We’re not trying to make them do something they’re not ready to do.

One thing that jumps out about your list of 100 resilient cities is that it includes some very wealthy cities, like Boulder, Colorado, and some cities that face pretty extreme urban poverty, like Addis Ababa. Why did 100RC choose to embrace such a wide spectrum of economic development in formulating this list?

The notion was that regardless of a city’s wealth or its stature, the problems it has could be shared, and if those problems were shared, maybe the solutions could also be replicated and shared. The thought was that resilience is such an important topic that it affects pretty much every city, every place in the world. One hundred cities, not only of varying wealth but varying sizes and challenges, would be a good representation of all the world’s cities. We want these cities to work together and inspire the rest of the cities to begin taking on this idea of reorganizing themselves and incorporating resilience into governance.

Has that hypothesis been borne out — that regardless of a city’s wealth or stature, solutions can be shared?

The answer is yes — and even more so than I thought. One of the things that’s emerged as a big topic is how all the problems that typically happen in an urban space will fall to the responsibility of the senior most official — the mayor, the governor, the CEO. One of the things that they also share is that what they’re held responsible for on the public side is not necessarily the responsibility that they’re given from a legislative or legal perspective. One of the challenges that all cities face is, how do you actually solve these problems, even if you don’t control the problem and yet you’re being blamed for the problem?

What has made the difference between cities where the role of the chief resilience officer — and the concept of resilience — has been absorbed into governance and cities where it hasn’t?

The answer to that question was very different from the first round of cities that were announced in December 2013 to the last round of cities that were announced in May 2016. This idea of resilience has matured significantly over that time period. Cities in the later rounds had the advantage of understanding the challenges and the solutions of the cities from the earlier rounds.

In the early rounds, we got a lot of applications saying things like, ‘resilience is really important. With your grant we’ll buy two motorcycles and a jeep.’ In the last rounds we got applications that said things like, ‘We’re facing really significant stresses from our river flooding. Integrating people moving into our city has been a big challenge. How do we begin to tackle these two challenges at the same time?’ All of a sudden, the social issues started to pop up there. The issue got more mature, and people started to understand it better.

Early on, a chief resilience officer sounded great. Today, we know that a chief resilience officer by herself isn’t going to make your city more resilient. We’re able to talk to cities in much more dynamic ways about what the commitment is to do this work, how they’re going to need to support it. What we see in the cities that are coming through the process now, bringing their CROs on board, they’re coming in with staff, with the resources earlier CROs could only dream about.

Can you offer an example of a city whose approach has evolved in terms of incorporating resilience into municipal governance?

The journey that Bangkok went on was really cool. I was the first person on the team to meet with them in January or February of 2014. I was describing this concept of resilience, and I was talking about how the work was going to be, and there was going to be a CRO, and there was going to be this strategy, and they looked at me like I was crazy. This concept of resilience is hard. The two people they put in front of us worked for the governor. One was an international relations person and the other was a chief of staff who came from an engineering perspective. He became the CRO, and he came to our conference in New Orleans, which was the first CRO gathering. At that meeting he said something that was just one of those things that make you want to bang your head — ‘water and transportation, they have nothing to do with each other. They’re just too separate topics.’ Really? Flooding and transportation don’t go together?

Fast forward to this February, and they released their strategy, and it’s still the same CRO. The way he talks about resilience and his transformation and understanding of the issue is great. If you look at the strategy, there are high-level goals. The first one is increasing quality of life, and the idea that they put that there as a government was awesome. But then looking at what the topics were that increased quality of life — they were building a friendly environment that creates health and well-being for citizens, and that’s linked to mobility and a really strong transportation network. The idea that that’s all weaved together for a city like Bangkok that’s all about concrete and hard flood protections — that’s awesome. The other parts of the strategy were flooding and economy, which all go together, and it’s great to see that.

Over six weeks, Devex and our partners will explore what it takes to build a successful smart city, how climate resilient and environmentally friendly infrastructure and technologies are being implemented, and how actors in the global development community are working together toward common goals and engaging local communities in an inclusive way. Join us as we examine what it takes to create our smart cities of the future by tagging #SmartCities and @Devex.

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About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.