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The Biomimicry Column

Resilience: Nature’s lessons for surviving its worst moods

Shocks to the built environment, like the recent earthquakes in Nepal, drive home the opportunity to borrow from ecosystems.

The recent earthquakes in Nepal, along with the ongoing and tragic aftermath in local cities and villages, bring to mind inevitable questions about what type of community planning might have prevented the worst of the damage and chaos.

The answer for Nepal is a complicated one, which stretches beyond my experience with either the country or the disciplines of civic planning comprising potential solutions. Such events have made me reflect, however, on the general lessons nature might have for us when it delivers one of its episodic and disruptive events.

One of the key concepts from ecology is resilience, the ability to maintain or regain equilibrium in the face of such disruptions.

The renowned ecologist C.S. Holling defined the resilience of an ecosystem in 1973 as the “Measure of the persistence of systems and of their ability to absorb change and disturbance and still maintain the same relationships between populations or state variables." Others have elaborated to include the retention of function, structure and feedbacks, all of which form a system’s identity.

Clearly, all three of these parameters have been severely compromised in Nepal's built environment, with over 8,000 killed, 2 million displaced and rebuilding costs set at $10 billion. It will remain to be seen what lasting effects this has on a society known for its own special brand of resilience.

In natural ecosystems, resilience is a result of a few critical factors. First, the notion of maintaining equilibrium is dynamic, not static, so flexibility and adaptability are key. Second, such qualities are supported by diversity and integration that spread risk and maximize effort and efficiency. Finally, a certain amount of robustness resists chronic stress that can make a system more vulnerable to episodic events.

The ecological concept of resilience is a universal one that can apply to all linear scale levels, and indeed, as Holling had written, exists at each level of a system’s hierarchy. It has, therefore, been readily adopted by other professionals such as sociologists, economists and urban planners. A case can be made that it is perhaps one of the most readily adopted paradigms that has emerged from the natural sciences.

Rethinking resilience

While the main idea of resilience has been translated to other fields, the details of making such concepts work are quite another challenge.

One group that is putting it to practice on a broad scale is the Rockefeller Foundation with its 100 Resilient Cities program. The initiative recognizes the demographic imperative of a world that is becoming more crowded and urban, with an increasing scarcity of resources and less predictable climate. To address these trends, the program seeks to help 100 select cities solve endemic problems that might compromise their existence in the face of a natural disaster like the Nepal earthquake.

The 100 Resilient Cities Program has collaborated with the giant engineering and design firm Arup to translate ecological precepts into actionable framework for a set of client cities. Founded in 2013, they have listed seven qualities that make for tougher cities: reflective, resourceful, robust, redundant, flexible, inclusive and integrated. It is not difficult to see how these qualities are mutually supportive — another characteristic of natural systems where combinations produce emergent phenomena.

The program organizers have also prepared a City Resiliency Framework as an organizing tool. It is divided into four basic dimensions of urban resilience: health and well being, economy and society, infrastructure and environment, along with leadership and strategy. Within these spheres, they list 12 drivers or aspirational objectives for city improvement. An example within the infrastructure and environment dimension would be, “provides and enhances natural and man made assets."

The program reviews candidate cities and then identifies particular impacts of both long-term chronic and episodic acute stress placed on them. So far, two of the three cohorts of cities have been chosen. A third and final group will be accepted later this year to complete the one hundred.

Participating cities then receive financial and logistical support to establish a Chief Resilience Officer (CRO), develop programs and network with other cities and those in the private and public sector who can help. The program funds the CRO for two years, and in that time he or she does a six- to nine-month assessment of challenges, capabilities and planning, then helps lay out a strategy to shepherd.

The overarching objective is to share both challenges and solutions through a network in order to proactively make cities more capable of overcoming both the routine and exceptional stresses placed upon them. This could be the threat of flooding on the coast, or lack of a good water supply, but it could also include social challenges like income inequity or violence on the street.

Putting technology to work

One way that resiliency tactics are helping in post-quake Nepal is through a citizens’ mapping initiative developed by the nonprofit Kathmandu Living Labs (KLL).  KLL was established by the Open Data for Resilience Initiative of the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery, a global partnership managed by the World Bank.

Such open mapping is supported in part by the Rockefeller Foundation’s Resilience Network Initiative. The initiative connects citizens with tech tools with local governments for a mutually beneficial exchange of information.

A day after the 7.8 earthquake KLL, working with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team was using its software and expertise for humanitarian mapping; showing locations of schools and hospitals, roadblocks and victims, for instance, to guide responders.

The impact of the heroic efforts of the KLL team will not be known for some time, but it seems clear that providing such timely and granular mapping information saves lives in a disaster. Indeed, founder Dr. Nama Raj Budhathoki was inspired by the successful efforts he had seen in Haiti during a similar event.

Similarly, the broader preventive measures being taken in cities around the globe should help us to use some lessons from nature to survive its wilder behavior.

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