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Cities that bounce back

Climate change will make or break cities in coming generations. Ironically, climate change itself will be made or broken by the cities of the future. By 2050, the population of cities worldwide is expected to increase by 2.5 billion. India alone will add 400 million urban residents – the equivalent of building one new city of about one million people every month for the next 35 years. Cities already produce 70% of the world’s energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, so this urbanization trend makes them key players in both creating and solving climate-change challenges.

Cities that bounce back

A broader view

In as much as cities are key players in the climate change nexus, they are not easy to manage. Cities are complex systems. They are intersections of physical, ecological, social and governance structures. If one component breaks, it can create cascading effects that ripple through the entire city. To increase resilience and reduce vulnerability to climate change, these structures need to work together better – which is usually beyond the powers of a single organization. It also needs a long-term perspective, whereas individual organizations are apt to be short-termist. That is why we need systems thinking and collaboration.

Systems approach

Different fields – ecology, engineering, psychology – have contributed to resilience thinking, but as Judith Rodin, President of The Rockefeller Foundation writes in her book The Resilience Dividend “the concept of resilience draws on systems thinking.” When a disruption hits, causes and effects are not always closely related in either time or space. Very often both causes and effects are found in the intersections of the systems that form a city and in events beyond its borderlines. For example, the 2010 drought in Russia resulted in sudden restrictions in wheat exports, driving up food prices in the Middle East and North Africa, which economists claim contributed to the 2011 Arab Spring protests. So to build resilience, a city must be seen in totality, using a systems approach. This can give us a clear perspective on the scale, complexities and uncertainties of climate change hazards, and can help to fight short-termism.


Strategies to build resilience can take many forms, for example distributed decision making, modularity, redundancy and ensuring the interdependency of components. Some of these are seen in the electrical power sector. Critical for sustaining many of the interacting structures in a city, power generation is also very vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather. This vulnerability extends through the entire value chain, with potential for interrupted fuel supplies, reduced power systems capacity, damaged transmission lines and changes in demand.

Concerns over climate change have redirected the strategy of the US company Entergy, for example, which operates in both power production and retail distribution. In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita cost Entergy over 2 billion US dollars in damage. Since then, the company has chosen to consider climate change a serious risk, accepting that it will probably increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. To improve resilience, Entergy partnered with reinsurance company Swiss Re and they assessed the risk to the energy sector, communities and ecosystems. They identified areas to build resilience and exploit opportunities. Further, they engaged with the community and customers. So when hurricane Isaac struck Louisiana in 2012, they were in a much better position to deal with the disruptions and lower their losses. Entergy’s strategy of involving different stakeholders also translated into increasing the resilience of communities along the Gulf Coast.

It’s not only traditional centralised large power systems that need to be more resilient in the face of climate change. Electricity systems are changing, with a profound shift towards renewables, especially solar and wind. This means more distributed power and storage – which again requires systems thinking to develop technical solutions and resilient business models.

Fortunately, some cities have already started to light the way. Forward thinking cities like Berkeley, California are pioneering innovative solutions such as microgrids with embedded distributed generation. Rather than depending on conventional diesel generators for grid outages, the microgrid acts as a resilience measure which also provides co-benefits such as peak-shaving, to reduce costs and cut emissions.

Tomorrow’s cities need fresh thinking. Ad-hoc and silo solutions are unsustainable; instead we need to take a broader view that promotes collaborative efforts. This calls for collaboration between governments, business and civil society – an inclusive systems perspective that integrates adaptation and mitigation strategies.

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