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Expect the unexpected

Expect the unexpected: Building the capability to protect cities 

If we’ve learned anything as a global community over the past decade it’s that we should expect the unexpected. Unprecedented financial turmoil and sovereign debt crises; truly devastating hurricanes and terrible tsunamis; once-in-a-lifetime storms and once-a-century droughts; each seems to occur with more frequency and greater ferocity than ever before.

And with each event comes unanticipated or unpredictable consequences; social unrest, economic disruption, environmental degradation and other longer-term effects often arrive on the heels of change.

Capacity for recovery

Yet as we watch these events hit city after city around the world, we are struck by the fact that some cities seem much more capable of responding to, and recovering from, sudden disasters than others.


In the more developed markets (where cities often have a longer history of effective city planning), we tend to see fairly strong response capabilities and disaster preparation. But even the best can get better. Take, for example, the experience of two major cities hit by storms last year.


Hurricane Sandy, which hit the US Northeast in October 2012, brought a 13.88 foot storm surge to the shores of New York City. And while defenses held up reasonably well, large sections of the city – including seven subway tunnels – were inundated with water and the city (including the New York Stock Exchange) virtually shut down for almost two full days.


Just a few months before, Hong Kong had demonstrated exceptional resilience when it was hit by its worst storm since 1999. The storm brought down thousands of trees and delayed hundreds of flights, but the city itself was able to return to business as usual within just 12 hours of the storm passing. The Hong Kong stock exchange was closed for a matter of hours.


Clearly, it is unfair to compare two very different cities experiencing two very different circumstances. But what these examples show us is that even well-planned and sophisticated emergency response plans often underestimate the damage and disruption that unplanned events can bring.

An emerging risk

The challenge for cities in emerging markets is much more complicated. In many cases, rapid urbanization and a history of ineffective (or more often, non-existent) city planning has meant that emergency response planning is often spotty at best. Add to this a history of underinvestment in infrastructure resilience and maintenance and the situation becomes dire. One only need look at the impact that floods had on Bangkok in 2011 or the effects of the devastating earthquake on Port-au-Prince to witness the challenges faced by those unprepared to respond to a crisis.


The road to greater city resilience and disaster response will not be simple for many cities in emerging markets. Some will need to start with the very basics of creating and properly authorizing a central emergency planning function. This will require cooperation across not only government departments, but also with private sector owners, operators and suppliers.

A roadmap for emergency planners

For their part, emergency planning officials in emerging cities will need to focus on four main areas:


  1. Assess the risk: While some risks may be fairly well known and defined, the increasing frequency of events suggests that emergency response organizations should not underestimate the potential for 100-year-events to occur on a larger scale and much more often.
  2.  Map the interdependencies: As cities become more complex and infrastructure becomes more integrated within the urban setting, emergency planners will need to understand how failure in one service will impact other areas. Particular focus should be placed on the ‘softer’ interdependencies like social cohesion and unrest.
  3.  Know your resources: In many cases, emergency plans fail because resources were not available or not applied effectively. Emergency planners must develop a clear understanding of not only the available resources within the city, but also on a regional and national level if required.
  4.  Establish a chain of command: Both at a city-wide level and at a site level, it is critical that everyone involved in emergency planning and response understand exactly who is in charge. This will allow resources to be allocated more efficiently and responses to be better coordinated.

A multi-stakeholder opportunity

Much more can also be done by governments, investors and developers to help create more resilient cities. For example, municipal governments will need to develop more effective building codes and rethink their preference for ‘lowest-cost’ tender processes when procuring critical infrastructure. Political support will also be required to ensure that the emergency planning department has both the mandate and the authority to act where appropriate.


Infrastructure developers and designers can use their extensive experience and familiarity with global leading practices to help their clients understand the risks and advocate for more resilient developments. Designers and engineers will also need to rethink their current assumptions regarding the frequency and ferocity with which sudden events may impact on their projects.


Investors – private, public or multi-national – can also play a part by demanding that assets demonstrate the highest safety and resilience standards and ensuring that their projects only use suppliers with the right experience, good quality products and a strong reputation for building. Investors will also need to ensure their contracts incentivize quality over cost.

Building a community of experience

As a community, we also have a role to play. We need to get better at sharing our experiences, challenges and successes with each other. We need to learn from those that have faced these challenges and – whether the recovery was a success or a failure – take away what we can to improve our response in other centers. And we need to bring together a wide range of stakeholders with important experiences to share, including NGOs and civil society groups.


But most importantly, we need to stop thinking about our future risks in terms of our past experiences. If we can take one thing from the last decade it’s that we should be expecting the unexpected.

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INSIGHT: Resilience

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