Insight: Successful cities rely on resilient infrastructure

Dr Tom Dolan discusses the importance of resilience in infrastructure
Insight: Successful cities rely on resilient infrastructure
UKCRIC Senior Research Fellow (UCL)

In this article published in the NewCities Big Picture Series on Resilient Cities, Dr Tom Dolan discusses the importance of resilient infrastructure.

Infrastructure Enables City Life

Infrastructure powers, heats, cools, hydrates, connects, mobilises, and sanitises our cities. It supports the movement of food, people, goods, services, and ideas to, from, and within cities. It makes possible the provision of social infrastructure services to city residents. It enables a range of social and economic activity that simply could not occur in its absence. A city’s infrastructure is an enabling catalyst that makes possible wider economic and social activity and creates multiplier effects. Ultimately the purpose of a city’s infrastructure is to enable the quality of life, economic prosperity, and other societally beneficial outcomes that citizens expect.

To become successful and remain so, a city requires infrastructure systems, governance, regulatory frameworks, and decision making processes that are:

  • Fit for purpose i.e. capable of enabling the system-wide outcomes expected;
  • Systemically resilient i.e. capable of sustaining fit for purpose performance in the face of future systemic challenges;
  • Working to enhance the quality of a cities local environment;
  • Supportive of the net-zero agenda;

Infrastructure systems with these characteristics do not guarantee a successful city. But success is much harder without the enabling foundation they provide.

Focusing on Resilience

Resilience is not an all or nothing state. All cities lie somewhere on a continuum between low resilience and high resilience. High resilience cities have a set of intrinsic abilities at all stages of the resilience cycle. These characteristics are less developed in cities with lower resilience. To become more resilient, a city must adopt a systemic approach to city-wide management of its enabling infrastructure and a dynamic focus on all stages of the resilience cycle.

Infrastructure systems with low resilience are disrupted with greater frequency, higher intensity, on a larger scale, and for longer durations than more resilient systems. The impacts of disruption to infrastructure cascade across the city and cause society-wide disruption and potentially jeopardise the realisation of other infrastructure-enabled outcomes; directly reducing a cities Gross Domestic Product (GDP – the sum of all economic activity within a city). In the long term, low resilience can initiate a downward spiral in which more frequent disruptions undermine the quality of city life, reduce productivity and GDP, damage business, and investor confidence, reduced business rates and channel city resources into responsive expenditure and away from other strategic priorities.

By contrast, the more resilient the infrastructure enabling a city, the lower the frequency, intensity, scale and duration of disruption to the lives of citizens, businesses, communities, and the economy. High resilience initiatives a virtuous cycle because by minimising disruption, a resilient city becomes a more attractive and lower risk place to live, to do business, and to make investment than its less resilient neighbour.

Moreover, a resilient city can use its resources more effectively by avoiding the need for ad hoc responsive expenditure, reducing the scale of lost economic activity and preventing peaks in demand for emergency services during times of disruption.

Systemic perspectives

Resilience is a dynamic and emergent property of a city

A systemic perspective on Resilience refers to the infrastructure that enables city life, the interaction between infrastructure and city life, the purpose of infrastructure, the value of infrastructure, and ultimately, the value of resilience. At the city scale, resilience is an emergent property. It arises from the dynamic interdependencies between the multiple ingredients that enable urban life. Therefore, resilience is not a fundamental characteristic of any single component or citizen. It follows, a cities level of resilience (high or low) has no single technical cause, nor can any single intervention can be guaranteed to enhance the resilience of a city. City-wide Resilience is a characteristic that must be nurtured, developed, sustained, and enhanced through careful, consistent, long term management on a city-wide basis. Resilience can be increased if it is prioritised, and will decay if neglected.

The Infrastructure that enables city life is a complex adaptive system

It is not possible to nurture, develop, sustain, or enhance the resilience of a city without first understanding the fundamental characteristics that shape the purpose, performance, quality, and current resilience of the infrastructure that enables it. A perspective of improved systemic understanding of the normal operations of infrastructure systems; the mechanisms through which these catalyse wider activities and outcomes; their vulnerability to disruption by future systemic challenges; and the potential city-wide impacts of disruptions, is needed.

City and the Infrastructure that enable them are interdependent

Infrastructure does not exist in isolation from the city it serves, rather it has co-evolved over time with that city. Moreover, this coevolution has been shaped by the wider national or international context (social, political, economic, financial, legal, environmental, regulatory, local, global, spatial, and temporal) of the city. Current governance, regulatory, decision making, accounting frameworks, management practises, and patterns of demand have emerged from this coevolution. These shape both city demand for resilient infrastructure, and attitudes toward infrastructure and resilience overall.

Interdependence with the external environment

A cities enabling infrastructure is an open system. It is embedded in a dynamic external system.  A long term trend, or shock originating in the external environment can cause disruption to the performance of a cities enabling infrastructure. The impacts of which are likely cascade through a cities enabling infrastructure and adversely affect city life. Therefore, Ensuring infrastructure is resilient to future systemic challenges is vital to sustaining life in cities. These challenges such as climate change, natural hazards, digital transformation, aging infrastructure, greater demand on existing capacity, to name a few, pose a real threat to a cities enabling infrastructure and the city-wide outcomes it supports.

In addition to adopting a systemic perspective, developing and enhancing the resilience of a city requires diverse buy-in from citizens, media, city governments, and all levels in between. It requires a long term collaborative commitment to developing, sustaining, and enhancing the intrinsic characteristics of a resilient system, including avoiding actions that reduce systemic resilience; and, a collaborative, dynamic, multi-faceted portfolio of systemically targeted interventions. Finally, systemic approaches to infrastructure management and governance must be developed at the city scale aligned with requirements above. To be sure, efforts aimed at improving the resilience of a city must be collaborative, dynamic, multi-faceted, and systemically targeted to enable a high quality of life, economic prosperity, and other societally beneficial outcomes.

  • Collaborative because systemic resilience cannot be achieved by a single organisation in isolation, and interventions need targeted at addressing the root causes of systemic vulnerabilities
  • Dynamic because systemic resilience requires continuous action, monitoring review and adaptation to ensure interventions are fit for purpose and sufficient in scope
  • Multi-faceted to avoid overdependence on any single intervention or intervention type
  • Systemically targeted to address the root causes of low systemic resilience, intervene at the most effective points in the system, with the most effective intervention types, at the most appropriate time

Article originally published as part of the NewCities Big Picture Series on Resilient Cities

Additional articles in the NewCities Big Picture Series on Resilient Cities can be found here

Additional NewCities Big Picture Collections can be found here