Tag Archives: resilience

Chief Resiliency Officers Versus Antifragility

At The Atlantic CitiesEmily Badger writes about a new program from the Rockefeller Foundation called 100 Resilient Cities, focused on equipping cities with a new employee called a Chief Resiliency Officer. The program states its goals as follows:

Building resilience is about making people, communities and systems better prepared to withstand catastrophic events – both natural and manmade – and able to bounce back more quickly and emerge stronger from these shocks and stresses.

[. . .]

There are some core characteristics that all resilient systems share and demonstrate, both in good times and in times of stress:

  • Spare capacity, which ensures that there is a back-up or alternative available when a vital component of a system fails.
  • Flexibility, the ability to change, evolve, and adapt in the face of disaster.
  • Limited or “safe” failure, which prevents failures from rippling across systems.
  • Rapid rebound, the capacity to re-establish function and avoid long-term disruptions.
  • Constant learning, with robust feedback loops that sense and allow new solutions as conditions change.

In his book Antifragile: Things that Gain from DisorderNassim Taleb defines antifragile as something that not only recovers from shocks, but becomes stronger after recovery, in line with the stated objectives of 100 Resilient Cities. Following its Great Fire of 1871, Chicago demonstrated antifragility. It rebounded rapidly from a disaster that killed 300 people and left one-third of city residents homeless, many without insurance after the fire bankrupted local insurers or the blaze destroyed their paperwork. Despite this great loss, residents of Chicago quickly rebuilt their city using private funding and private charity that was small relative to the amount of damage, but without any government funding. In rebuilding, Chicago developed safer building techniques both through entrepreneurship and with new insurance requirements and  new municipal building codes. The city invested in a better-equipped fire fighting force to lower the risk of fire damage in the future. Despite not having the telecommunications that seem critical to allowing fast disaster recovery today, Chicagoans began building new, safer buildings immediately, investing $50 million in the year after the fire, and tripling the real estate value of the burned blocks within 10 years. Its difficult to imagine a twenty-first century city allowing property owners to move so quickly through the approval process, and its difficult to imagine a Chief Resiliency Officer widening this bottleneck.

A bureaucrat like a Chief Resiliency Officer would not be able to learn the lessons from a natural disaster that the residents of Chicago did in their rebuilding efforts because this knowledge is dispersed, only to be discovered by individuals acting in what they believe to be their own best interest. Taleb describes bureaucrats as fragilistas because they do not suffer from downside risks and therefore cannot learn and grow stronger from shocks. If a disaster strikes a city equipped with a Chief Resiliency Officer and it turns out the city was ill-prepared, he or she will not be held accountable for failing to predict what may have been a very low-probability event. In fact, we often see government efforts toward making cities more resilient introducing fragility contrary to their stated intentions. For example, federal flood insurance minimizes the downside risk of owning flood-prone property. In turn, this encourages more people to live in the highest risk areas, putting them at greater risk when disaster strikes. Cities will not have an opportunity to learn from this to better prepare for future flooding because their rebuilding is subsidized; however, bureaucrats cite this insurance as a success because it facilitates rebuilding without adapting to risk.

The Transportation Security Administration offers a preview of what bureaucratic disaster prevention looks like; top down planning for low-probability events results in attempts to prevent the catastrophic events that we’ve seen in the past without realizing that we’re unlikely to see these same events in the future. As TSA critic Bruce Schneier explains:

Taking off your shoes is next to useless. “It’s like saying, ‘Last time the terrorists wore red shirts, so now we’re going to ban red shirts,’” Schneier says. If the T.S.A. focuses on shoes, terrorists will put their explosives elsewhere. “Focusing on specific threats like shoe bombs or snow-globe bombs simply induces the bad guys to do something else. You end up spending a lot on the screening and you haven’t reduced the total threat.”

Likewise, preparing for low-probability natural disasters, such as 100-year storms, is not something that can be done from the top down. To the extent an event is foreseeable, some individuals and firms will prepare for it, as we saw with Goldman Sachs’ generator and sand bagging efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The disaster revealed successful preparation methods, allowing more individuals and the city as a whole to learn and be better prepared for the next disaster. Chief Resiliency Officers are unlikely to accurately foresee low-probability shocks to their cities. To the extent that they protect cities from these shocks, they will likely take away the learning process that would make cities better able to withstand larger shocks, introducing fragility instead of greater resiliency.

Brad Pitt Seeks Stimulus

Make it Right House in New OrleansVariety reports that Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation is seeking stimulus money to continue their work building houses in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward:

In a high profile appearance that even drew live coverage on MSNBC, Pitt visited Washington in March to promote Make It Right, meeting with President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, along with an array of cabinet secretaries and other elected officials, including Shaun Donovan and Energy Secretary Steven Chu. With Pitt was producer Steve Bing, who has been a benefactor of his housing project.

The foundation was among 12 non-profits joining with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority to file an application last week for a total of $65 million through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which is administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. If they get the funding, Make It Right would probably start spending the money in the spring of 2010. Depending on how many homes the foundation has built by then, it could be used to reach their goal of 150 homes in New Orleans or it could expand the program beyond that, said Kim Haddow, a spokeswoman for Make It Right.

The Make It Right Foundation (profiled here on ABC’s 20/20) — as well as dozens if not hundreds of other local initiatives and non-profits — have done incredible work in rebuilding the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. But much of this success is due to their independence from large government bureaucracies. Stimulus funding has the potential to act as what Jane Jacobs called “cataclysmic money.” There is a real danger that if social entrepreneurs and non-profits like Pitt’s become dependent upon federal funds, they will in effect become arms of the federal government. This would have a dangerous effect on civil society, and reduce our resilience to disasters and shocks, whether natural or economic.

Another problem, of course, is that it’s not a lack of committed federal funds that have slowed rebuilding in New Orleans; it’s the difficulty with getting that money to the street level, and the mixed and oft-changing signals emanating from all levels of government. Stimulus money has the potential to be yet another promise that never comes to fruition, or comes too late to be helpful.

And moreover, having one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, is New Orleans really the ideal place to invest stimulus cash?

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Roberta Brandes Gratz on Planning by Bulldozer

Roberta Brandes Gratz, one of the most interesting and innovative thinkers on urban space and planning, weighs in on current discussions about bulldozing cities (this blog discussed it here) at Citiwire. She likens plans to bulldoze large swaths of cities to the urban renewal projects of the last century.

One is hard pressed to find a city or even a neighborhood that was ever regenerated through demolition of vacant buildings. Didn’t we learn of the hollow results from the discredited post-World War II urban renewal policies that destroyed — and for decades left bereft — vast tracks of troubled residential structures?

Granted some appealing urban gardens are now sprouting in these cities, where piles of debris might have accumulated. Clearly this is better than rubble-strewn lots.

But vast clearance? The fact is the presence of vacant buildings is nothing new in any of these cities; the condition in today’s recession and industrial collapse is just worse. No citywide benefits ever materialized from mass demolition. And the big-bang projects that have sometimes risen where neighborhoods once stood– stadiums, arenas, convention centers, malls and the like — have not only failed in their promise and cost dearly but provided no fundamental basis for citywide resilience in good times or bad.

Her book The Living City: How America’s Cities Are Being Revitalized by Thinking Small in a Big Way is a classic and a must-read for anyone interested in how cities can be transformed by small, locally-based solutions. I was fortunate enough to meet her last year and discuss her work in the context of post-Katrina rebuilding in New Orleans with some of the founders of the New Orleans Institute for Resillience and Innovation.

New Paper on Optional Federal Chartering

David Marlett has a new working paper discussing how an optional federal charter (OFC) for insurers would impact community resilience to natural disasters. Here’s the abstract:

The ability of communities to recover from disasters depends on a well-functioning property insurance market.  However, many states insurance markets are substantially distorted or are hobbled by excessive regulation.

As a solution, there has been proposed an Optional Federal Charter (OFC) system, under which insurers would be able to opt into a federal regulatory system, leaving behind the system of patchwork state regulations.

The merits of moving toward federal regulation have been debated for many years to try and alleviate some of the problems of current regulatory systems. The most common model in recent years is the Optional Federal Charter (OFC). This approach would provide insurers the option of obtaining either a state or a federal charter.

This paper discusses the benefits and problems with both the state-based and federal-based regulatory systems and suggests that, if policy makers choose to proceed with an Optional Federal Charter system, they should focus attention on:

1.       Minimizing political risk,
2.       Allowing competitive rating and minimizing rate suppression,
3.       Minimizing the immediate impact on policy holders, and
4.       Maintaining the antitrust exemption.

Download the paper here.

Addendum: Fixed the block quote which was not formatting properly.