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Societal resilience

Societal resilience: Building cities that work for everyone 

The development of a society is often measured by its ability to bounce back from a catastrophic event—whether it’s a man-made terrorist attack, or a natural disaster such as an earthquake.

According to author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, each society falls somewhere along a continuum. At one end, ‘robust’ societies experience virtually no shock when disasters strike, while ‘fragile’ societies break apart. Between these two extremes are ‘anti-fragile’ societies, which are resilient in the face of stress and ultimately grow and improve as a result.

The connection to infrastructure

At KPMG, we believe infrastructure is central to creating a resilient society. Consider the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Japan. Both nations suffered tragic human and economic casualties, but Japan’s superior infrastructure helped mitigate the loss of life. While its earthquake was actually much stronger than Haiti’s, 16,000 people were killed in Japan, compared to 220,000 in the Caribbean nation. The initial impact of the Haitian earthquake was compounded by poor sanitation, and inadequate roads and transportation systems, both of which hampered recovery efforts.


Building cities—and building them well—is one of our greatest challenges. Londoners and Parisians may curse their lengthy commutes or the occasional power outage, but their lives do not hang in the balance. In countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America however, an unstoppable wave of urbanization is forcing governments and developers to design cities that can accommodate vast numbers of rural immigrants seeking what (they assume) will be a better life.


“The strength of any city is really measured by the strength of its weakest element,” says Daniel Hoornweg, Professor and Research Chair at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and former leader of the World Bank’s Sustainable Cities and Climate Change program. “In cities like Lagos or Mumbai, improving service delivery to citizens often becomes an issue of prioritization: the rich usually get the better municipal services and the poor are moved to the end of the line.”


Ideally, cities should accommodate all of their residents in a relatively homogeneous way—providing the physical and economic infrastructure they need in order to prosper, and mitigating the impact of a natural or man-made disaster.


“In these cities that are experiencing a large influx of migration, if you’re not careful as a city leader, you could have a really unstable situation,” says Hoornweg. “That instability comes from people living in slums who don’t feel that they—and especially their children—have the ability to get ahead.”

Societal resilience at work in Rio de Janeiro

For cities struggling to achieve this ideal, there is inspiration to be found in the improved resilience of Rio de Janeiro. In April 2010 torrential downpours shut down Rio for 36 hours, killing 250 people and leaving 10,000 homeless. The storm caught the city by surprise, leaving it unprepared and unable to manage the crisis.


For its young mayor, Eduardo Paes, the disaster was a wake-up call. He spearheaded an innovative project that today has some 70 government agencies—from civil defense to education to energy—working together in one control room that runs continuously year-round. They have access to real-time and predictive information about weather, maps of high-risk landslide zones, and heat maps of dengue fever outbreaks. Monitors track 10,000 GPS-equipped buses and ambulances, and video streams in from subways and major intersections.


The control room is a model for other cities dealing with potential calamities. When another big storm hit Rio in April 2011, they knew it was coming and were able to map its trajectory against neighborhoods susceptible to landslides. Alarms sounded in eleven communities and the city escaped with no fatalities.


“Rio is at the front of the pack,” says Hoornweg. “They have lots of challenges still, but they’ve turned the corner and are really rolling up their sleeves. It’s probably the fastest improving city in the world in terms of bringing along the most marginalized people and coping with the overall growth.”

Getting there from here

While the future is full of challenges, the rise in urbanization will have a net positive effect. Three billion more people will live in cities in the next 40 years—which will grow and disperse global wealth to a greater portion of the population. If enough of that new wealth is used to build resilience and lift up marginalized portions of the population, we all will benefit.


Governments will sow the seeds of that success or failure. All governments—but particularly those in emerging economies going through this wave of urbanization—should develop national programs that lay out a strategy for urban development. For example, cities expected to house 10 million people should be planned to accommodate 15 million—not five million. Local governments should be empowered to ensure that land use planning and permitting accommodates growth and drives prosperity for all residents, and private enterprise should be engaged wherever it can add value.


“The best way to become more resilient is to spend more effort on the ‘little things’,” says Mr. Hoornweg. “The majority of flash floods are exacerbated because garbage isn’t collected from drains. It isn’t just about hiring a software company to build a network and create algorithms on everything—you’ve got to start by making sure you do the smaller things well; for example, start with picking up the garbage.”


One thing is certain: no matter where we are on the economic spectrum, we are all in this together.  This is not a matter of rural versus urban, wealthy versus poor, or pro-development versus anti-development. Everyone is impacted by the health of our cities, and we should all come together to map their future.


By David O'Brien, KPMG in Canada

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INSIGHT: Resilience

INSIGHT: Resilience
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