By Colin Harrison
IBM Distinguished Engineer
The huge earthquake in the Indian Ocean on Wednesday didn’t cause catastrophic damage, fortunately. But it caused me to reflect on the frequency of natural disasters and their impact on cities. In the past couple of years, I’ve been called in to advise government leaders and businesses in Chile, Japan and New Zealand after major earthquakes devastated cities. These are shattering experiences. But there’s one positive element: Disasters force city leaders and citizens to re-imagine what their cities can be—and to make them more resilient.
There are two key factors in urban resilience. First, communities have to be capable of recovering quickly from disasters. Then they must build up long-term resilience, which depends heavily on having sustainable ways of getting things done.
If you go back over history, look at the wave of adoption that cities made of sewers, of fresh water supplies, of railways, of subways, electrification, telephones. These are all waves of technologies that cities adopted, and not all at once. They took significant amounts of time to propagate. And now this notion of applying information technology to improve the flows of information among citizens and between citizens and their governments has become the order of the day in this age of information.
So what are the kinds of benefits that cities are drawing from that around the world? Some of the early adopters are driven by specific events. For example, in Rio de Janeiro we’ve done a great deal of work in the last couple of years to help the city create an intelligent operations center for managing municipal operations. That project was driven by a terrible flood in 2010 combined with fact that the World Cup will be there in two years’ time and the Summer Olympics will be there in 2016.
Another place where we have been involved is a small city in the Midwest of the United States, Dubuque, that basically lost its identity. It lost its core industry, which was machining wood, and struggled for a long time to find a new identity and eventually seized on the identity of becoming well known as a center for sustainability. This has been a terrific collaboration. The community collectively developed and supports a broad range of sustainability goals and we’ve been able to work with them on pilots to explore different ways of achieving those goals.
Cities rebuilding after disasters or addressing economic stresses need to decide on the narrative they want to tell about themselves. It’s vital to have a strong vision that is strongly embraced by the broad community, so you can make progress quickly and in a far less contentious way. And it’s crucial to involve the citizenry in shaping that vision.
The concept of the sustainable city has become a global movement. These are early days, but I believe that while the momentum could be slowed, nothing can stop it now.