In a world of deep uncertainty how do you define quantifiable metrics for infrastructure resilience and set boundaries for those who need them? Seth Schultz and Juliet Mian of The Resilience Shift consider the issues.
As the Biden-Harris Administration gets to grips with the implications of its massive new infrastructure programme, we have a crucial window of opportunity to make the right choices in our infrastructure planning and delivery to ensure that it is sustainable and resilient. It’s difficult to emphasise enough how important this is and the consequences for future generations of the ‘wrong’ choices.
Measurement of our progress towards a safe, sustainable and resilient future for all is essential. If decision-makers can’t see the measurable impact of shifting their decisions towards resilient outcomes, we are unlikely to see the change at scale that is needed.
It’s not news to any of us working in the resilience field that the multifaceted, multi-scale, complex nature of resilience makes it hard to pin down. The flip side of the ‘what gets measured gets done’ mantra is that it can take the focus away from the important things that are not easily measured. Many of the co-benefits of resilient infrastructure for the communities it serves fall into this category.
In our world of deep uncertainty, one thing we can be certain of is that the past is no longer a good predictor of the future. John Matthews from the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation writes about measures built on “faith-based resilience”. In other words, are we measuring the wrong things, based on our faith in past performance? Efficiency, access, volume of money spent, return periods and cost-benefit-analysis are all examples of metrics that do not reflect what we need to measure if we are putting the emphasis on building the resilience and long term sustainability of our infrastructure for the communities who depend on it.
Our engagement with decision makers across the infrastructure value chain repeatedly confirms some of the following aspects that are difficult to measure, but essential to create the shift we want to see.
- The need to overcome fragmented governance across a system, such that all stakeholders are part of the planning, response, recovery and adaptation cycle.
- Considering infrastructure for the critical services it provides to the wider system it is a part of, i.e. focusing on outcomes (connectivity) not outputs (a bridge).
- Taking a broader view of the social, environmental and physical elements of an infrastructure system, to understand how a change to one part of the system can impact other parts.
- Connecting stakeholders and guidance across different sectors, towards a joined-up approach across the infrastructure system-of-systems rather than multiple siloed approaches.
- Unlocking the finance through articulating the value of resilience through the whole infrastructure lifecycle, to governments and investors
- Leadership. Our future leaders need to both be resilient, in the face of deep uncertainty, and to lead for resilience, recognising all of the previous points.
The challenge (but also the fun) of embracing systems thinking and complexity, is that it can seem fuzzy and create unhelpful tensions with those who really need defined boundaries and quantifiable metrics – engineers and investors for example.
There is often a tension between those who believe quantified metrics are essential to drive change and those who believe that this is too reductionist for the solutions we need.
Our work at The Resilience Shift seeks to measure the potential created for short or long-term co-benefits to people and societies. It’s not only a question of saving lives and livelihoods, but also measuring the impact of improving the lives and wellbeing of communities and the related economic, social, and environmental factors that surround them. And measuring the cost of other impacts not happening or being mitigated.
Seth Schultz is CEO of The Resilience Shift and Dr Juliet Mian is an infrastructure resilience expert at Arup and technical director of The Resilience Shift.