San Francisco CRO Patrick Otellini on risk beyond the Big One

Golden Gate Bridge San Francisco earthquake resilience
ShutterstockPiotr Zajda
Economic inequality, inadequate housing and vulnerability to sea-level rise are just a few challenges facing San Francisco.

This week, San Francisco made its mark as the eighth city globally to launch a comprehensive resilience strategy, joining the likes of flood-prone New Orleans in the search for greater adaptability in the face of climate change and the ever-evolving demands of the modern economy.

Fresh off the heels of neighboring Berkeley, California's resilience strategy launch earlier this month, the famous city by the Bay released a plan focused on connecting the dots between interconnected risks related to natural disasters, social turmoil and other political and economic forces. 

A total of 49 other cities around the world are also developing such strategies under the leadership of chief resilience officers (CROs) and with support from Rockefeller Foundation spinoff 100 Resilient Cities. Designed to help cities both adapt to and bounce back from localized challenges, the project is backed by a $100 million investment from the foundation. The next round of selected cities will be announced at the end of May.

Ultimately, it’s the job of the CRO to work across agencies and sectors to develop and implement a comprehensive resilience strategy for their city.

The San Francisco Bay Area has the added layer of being the only region in the world with CROs in three adjacent cities: San Francisco; Oakland; and Berkeley. That decision, made by the 100RC selection committee, was intentional, and has offered a unique opportunity for these three cities to think beyond their municipal borders and work collaboratively to bolster resilience of the region more broadly.

After all, sea-level rise and earthquakes don’t abide by city limits.

Two years ago, I spoke with Patrick Otellini, San Francisco’s CRO, when he first took office. Here, in an edited interview, is an overview of what he’s been working on since then, and what he envisions is yet to come for the city of some 837,000 residents experiencing a technology-driven transformation.

Shana Rappaport: Developing a resilience strategy for San Francisco has been a primary function of your job since you took office two years ago. What exactly was your mandate for this plan?

Patrick Otellini: Being one of the first cities in the 100 Resilient Cities network meant that San Francisco was essentially a pilot for this concept. In the beginning, we didn’t know much, other than that we wanted to see San Francisco develop a holistic approach to resilience — bringing together efforts that previously lived in different silos or departments, and harnessing the unique energy of our city to make it more resilient.

The word "resilience" can mean many different things, so the last two years were really about figuring out what it means for our city.

Rappaport: What are some highlights of San Francisco’s resilience strategy?

Otellini: It’s important first to understand the national context, and that the resilience narrative in our country has largely been built around two disasters: Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy.

In San Francisco, are we seeing the effects of climate change in our own way? Absolutely. Are we concerned about sea-level rise, since we're surrounded on three sides by water? Absolutely. But San Francisco's resilience story has always been told through the lens of seismic risk. It’s really much more profound than that.

The strategy we put out this week really show’s how we're thinking about all these issues in a more holistic way, including seismic inevitabilities, as we plan for uncertainty.

Rappaport: So much of your role is about bridging silos — both internally, across city departments, and also externally, to engage other stakeholders across the region. What makes this collaborative approach so critical when it comes to resilience, and how do you unite so many disparate interests?

Otellini: Resilience has always been associated with a specific personality. It's always lived with a person. And in a lot of ways, my appointment as chief resilience officer was a repeat of that same concept.

If the city really wants to institutionalize resilience, to make this a part of what we do in all policies, we have to quickly make it not about a person, and make it about a department or an agency. That’s why, as of today, we are establishing a new Office of Resilience and Recovery — the idea being not that this office is in charge of everything, but instead that it acts as the conduit.

Just as I saw my job description as CRO, now we have a department to do the same. That's really one of the biggest victories and one of the biggest steps forward. We are starting to institutionalize this, to have some succession planning. We are beginning to think about questions like: What does this look like 25 years from now? Do we still have someone doing resilience in San Francisco?

Much of my work over the last two years has involved meeting the rock stars of each city department — the people taking initiative to get stuff done. Meeting those people, seeing the passion they have for this work, has restored my faith in public service. Getting these kinds of people together — from city departments, nonprofits, community groups and the private sector — has really grown our efforts and has positioned us with the buy-in to be even more effective on implementation.

Rappaport: More specifically, what’s the role of the private sector in all of this — both big companies and smaller ones?

Otellini: Let's talk about it first as a workforce issue. Some of the corporations we have in San Francisco end up being the largest employers of the city, attracting the world's top talent, and that's fantastic. We want to cultivate that here in San Francisco.

What we're also seeing is that brings a lot of new people to the area — a more transient population, where the average person stays in San Francisco for about seven years and then leaves. Getting the private sector to the table, to be able to train their employees about things like seismic risk or urban flooding, is critical to the success of our resilience strategy. That type of training, and that kind of corporate culture, is hugely important to making sure employees become good corporate citizens that want to be a part of the city for years to come.

On the other hand, this is also about continuity of operations. This resilience strategy, while we like to talk about earthquakes a lot, is relevant in all types of hazards that can impact a business. How do you maintain your operations in a way that keeps your clients happy? In a way that keeps your services being delivered?

This is all part of having a resilient city. You can’t have a resilient city without having resilient businesses. 

Rappaport: And how about citizens? What’s your plan for engaging residents in participating in resilience efforts?

Otellini: One of our goals is to empower neighbors through improved connections to the city. It’s obviously no surprise to city government that residents sometimes feel like they have a hard time accessing the services they need. So, streamlining that service delivery and that user experience has been hugely important to us. That way, not only can the average citizen connect back to San Francisco government better, but we can connect to them better, too.

Then there are also the connections between neighbors. That's something we've really tried to harness. It's something that the city doesn’t usually have a tremendous amount of influence over, but we can set the environment for it to happen. It's a really tricky thing. It's hard to cultivate, and it's even harder to measure when we do this.

Rappaport: The Bay Area is unique in that you’re the only region selected by 100RC with CROs appointed in three neighboring cities. What has it been like to have those counterparts?

Otellini: When we engaged with the Rockefeller Foundation in this grant, we knew it essentially did three things. It paid for a chief resilience officer, and it helped us with a strategy. It also gave us access to a platform of partnerships and services to try to launch some of these initiatives. It also created this network of other chief resilience officers throughout the world.

I thought it was actually the network was going to be, "Oh, yeah, that's cute. You know, we're going to have that, too." Hands down, the most profound advantage that we've had has been the development of the network of CROs. There's no one else who understands these kinds of pressures, especially the chief resilience officers here in Oakland and Berkeley. I also work a lot with Marissa Aho in Los Angeles, especially on seismic policy and issues around that.

I would like to really acknowledge people like Jeff Hebert in New Orleans, who was one of my thought partners when creating our strategy. You'll see our strategy almost acts as a sister strategy to Resilient New Orleans. Different hazards, but we're also looking at really what does it mean to make the cities that we love more resilience?

Rappaport: What was your biggest frustration — the thing you hoped would be part of the strategy but wasn’t?

Otellini: Huh, that's a good one. I think the most significant frustration has been our struggle to define resilience. It’s something that we are going to continue to debate in both academic and government circles for decades to come. That's really hard when you have to form a strategic vision for the city centered around a concept and there are disagreeing opinions as to what it actually means.

We always said that we wanted people to look at the table of contents for our resilience strategy and have no question about how San Francisco defines our resilience challenge. I feel really good about that. I feel like we actually honored and delivered that.

Rappaport: I’d be curious to know, what’s something that has surprised you most?

Otellini: You know what surprised me, and I guess I shouldn't have been surprised by this, but sometimes folks are so resistant to change. We're pushing them to an uncomfortable space. We're pushing them into a place that puts political capital at risk. We're pushing them to a place that actually really requires bold leadership and making a stand on issues.

When I saw some people thinking that they owned the space, or that there was a turf war happening, I've never run my shop that way. That's not how we operate. And I think for us, it's more people at the table, the better.

But it is really interesting. You see why there were problems in trying to implement this type of stuff 10 years ago. When that happens, we've got to be able to step in and make people understand the big picture, and put away these kind of petty turf war issues that can happen, either between departments, or they can happen with community groups. People like to have their ownership. Trying to make sure we approach this in a very non-threatening way to people was probably one of the keys to our success.

Rappaport: Now that you have a strategy in place, what comes next? What does success look like?

Otellini:  So one of the things I'm most excited about for the immediate term is we had a breakfast this morning at the San Francisco Foundation with about 60 local philanthropic organizations that really represented the entire Bay Area, not just San Francisco. We had Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, Mayor (Libby) Schaaf from Oakland, as well as a bunch of other high ranking government officials that were there as well, to talk about our Resilient by Design competition.

This is a design challenge based off of Rebuild by Design that we saw happen after Sandy in New York. We've been working on it for the better part of a year. To date, the city of San Francisco has really put up a lot of the money, and what we're trying to do now is make this less of a San Francisco-led thing and more of a regional issue. So if we can make this regional effort actually successful in trying to reimagine what our waterfronts look like in the Bay Area, that's huge for us.

Development on the Bay or talking about infrastructure on the Bay are just always riddled with politics and controversy and regulatory bodies. Being able to couple that, to an extent, and say, "Guys, this is the conversation we need to be having, so let's have the conversation, and let's bring everybody to the table" — I think that will ultimately yield a more resilient and sustainable design for our city's waterfront and the region's waterfront.

The ultimate goal for San Francisco coming out of that, though, would be this vision of having a disaster resilient waterfront by 2040, addressing not only the hazards that we face for seismic risk with our waterfront, but also as our seas rise, as we begin to see storm surge coming over our Embarcadero seawall on a regular basis during the year. We need to be thinking about adaptability in a big way.

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