Deep risks and extreme failures: New tools to imagine resilience
October 19, 2017
Asked to consider resilience strategies for the New York metro area by the Regional Plan Association (RPA), an influential research and advocacy group, a team of designers depicted a dramatically reshaped 2067 shoreline. They envisioned a coast capable of accommodating fluctuating water levels, encouraging amphibious commercial and recreational uses while protecting dense communities on higher ground.
The team asked Greg Lindsay, a journalist and urbanist, to develop a backstory for its design, thinking about what could make ambitious design strategies of this kind politically and economically viable in the coming decades. He dreamed up Hurricane Hermine, a giant storm that would cause unprecedented damage in 2022, convincing everyone from President Zuckerberg to residents of low-income waterfront communities of the need for change.
But just a few months later, Lindsay watched multiple disasters of similar magnitude to the one he had described play out in Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico. “I imagined a storm half again the size of [2012 Hurricane] Sandy, with losses at around $150 billion. [Hurricane] Harvey topped $190 billion and the scale of devastation in Puerto Rico dwarfed anything we imagined,” he said. “My teammates had charted the likely damage to infrastructure in the [New York] region — everything from sewage to fuel storage, to the fact that 75% of electricity generation sits in the 100-year floodplain. And now we’re watching millions of Americans suffer without power or water for weeks — and likely months.”
The hurricanes’ political and economic dimensions also seem uncomfortably familiar to the RPA-convened team. Lindsay depicted a 2023 financial crisis triggered by a collapse in coastal housing values, leading to subsequent implosions in the mortgage, bond, and insurance markets, starting with the National Flood Insurance Program. Today, this same program is billions of dollars in debt and faces an uncertain future due to the looming end of its congressional authorization period — challenges that are compounded by an expected $9 billion in new claims. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico’s woes are compounded by the commonwealth’s debt crisis and resulting quasi-bankruptcy.
The perpetual push and pull between preemptive design projects and reactive recovery in the wake of real-time disasters is a resilience catch-22.
Whereas Hurricane Hermine catalyzed large-scale urban resilience efforts in Lindsay’s fictional future, it’s too soon to know what lasting impacts Harvey and Maria will have on the Gulf Coast and Caribbean. While there may be more and more voices calling out for measures like those described in the New York proposal, the reality is that large-scale, forward-thinking change will always be a challenge beyond the difficulty of pushing the kind of creative, out-of-the-box thinking that Lindsay and his team are advocating; there’s also the very real limitations imposed by existing circumstances. Resources that might be allocated to future resilience measures are too often, by necessity, diverted to address current rescue and redevelopment efforts. The perpetual push and pull between preemptive design projects and reactive recovery in the wake of real-time disasters is a resilience catch-22.
Which has left Lindsay wondering: What will it really take to make ambitious coastal resilience strategies possible? How can policymakers and designers better understand the risks cities face? How can artists and futurists create stories and visions that convey the urgency of the situation? And how can we get all the right people to the table to tackle the logistic challenges inherent in such a design revolution?
“It’s not just long-term thinking that’s needed, but more weird thinking,” he said. “How do we actually understand the massive disruptive consequences that will be weirder and more sudden than are really even slightly acceptable to discuss?”
The need to think more broadly and deeply is rooted in the multifaceted nature of the disasters that have battered cities around the world in recent years. “Harvey’s a perfect example of what my futurist friends call ‘Wexelblat Disasters,’ which refer to natural disasters triggering bigger man-made ones,” he said. “Katrina caused New Orleans’ levees to break; an earthquake triggered a tsunami that led to a meltdown at Fukushima, and so on.” The increasing likelihood of these kinds of domino events means that it is more crucial than ever to reconcile the creative push for resilient design with practical applications in the real world.
As that world becomes increasingly complex and interdependent, effecting meaningful change will require a new set of tools, Lindsay believes. “It’s one thing to calculate new floodplains from sea level rise,” he said. “We need to do a better job applying foresight and systems thinking to understand deep risks and imagine perverse failures. Otherwise we’re left with the spectacles of presidents throwing paper towels and tech companies rushing in to provide broadband before power or water.”
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