Where Urgency Meets Opportunity

October 27, 2014 By Gary Lawrence

Gary Lawrence

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking at the SXSW Eco Conference in Austin, Texas. I must compliment the organizers. This is one of those meetings that gets better every year as the learnings of the prior year are incorporated into the innovations that will be necessary to see the improvement in human development over time. Unlike many such meetings, the SXSW participants seem to recognize that the topics, while serious, represent opportunities for solutions that need not be solemn. It was an optimism fix that did me much good.

The theme of the conference was “where urgency meets opportunity” and it was striking that over the course of three days I could count on one hand the number of times I heard conversations about blame. Although the media may suggest a different story (and that was certainly a recurring theme), the reality is that for many businesses and communities the debate is over — action is required. People and corporations have experienced firsthand how vulnerable they are in the face of unpredictable and extreme weather events and the contextual changes they create for societies around the world. The abstract notion of “being sustainable” has been replaced by the very real demands of adaptation and resilience in the face of unpredictable climate, global resource shortages and globalization. Concerned neighbors and smart corporations are not waiting for federal policy or government funding; they are acting within their own spheres of influence and truly remarkable things are happening. And, in the process, they are gaining competitive advantage.

I have long been interested in the scalability of solutions. We live in a connected world of global citizens, industry and commerce, but we all belong to smaller, more intimately networked communities. These may be the geographic neighborhoods where we live or the professional or personal interest groups we all belong to. Each individual has the ability to leverage the power of the networks they belong to and bring influence to bear in solving a set of common challenges.

Celeste Connors, Co-founder and Director of c.dots development, spoke about the urgency with which small island developing states are mobilizing investment for resilient projects and infrastructure. Small island nations have no time to lose. They are on the frontlines of sea level rise and their isolated geography means that they are the first to suffer when global distribution networks fail. Ms. Connors spoke specifically about a flood mitigation project she is working on in Honolulu, Hawaii, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The project is one of eight, partially funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, to match private investors with cities in need to find more sustainable, resilient solutions. It is one I am familiar with as my firm, AECOM, is also part of the extended team studying the challenge.

The islands of Hawaii are representative of many small island nations. Hawaii currently imports 90 percent of its food and energy. All the water is local. As Ms. Connors noted, “There is no Plan B for transporting water between islands.” Flooding is a serious threat to life, the economy (largely founded on tourism), and agricultural production. But flood mitigation is extremely costly and large-scale engineering solutions can only work up to a certain point before they too inevitably fail. So, the challenge was to mobilize investment for resilient projects and infrastructure by finding ways to turn the problems into opportunities. This, as the saying goes, takes a village. By bringing together partners from the private sector and government and engaging the community in identifying the real problems that needed to be solved, Celeste and her team were able to reframe the challenge as an opportunity to generate new revenue streams through innovative design, green infrastructure and ecological restoration.

One of the many interesting things about this project is that although the initial funding was to study water infrastructure and management, the solutions leverage the connections between water infrastructure and other critical city systems (natural, physical, social and economic) to create greater value for every dollar invested. Extending the value yet further is the fact that although the eventual solution will be site-specific to Honolulu, the problems it will solve are common to any coastal region or other island state. In this case, the island of Hawaii is serving as a lab for solutions that can be exported around the world.

The overriding message from SXSW is that the problems that are superficially easy to understand have all been solved. However, most of the easy problems are small attributes of much larger complex issues. These big, messy ones that are left require that we work together in new ways, broaden our constituencies and leverage the power of local networks to effect immediate change. Once we have examples of thriving communities living well in the face of adversity, others will be quick to follow.

We know that every dollar invested in smart planning for resilience saves anywhere from four to seven dollars over the cost of recovery. We cannot wait for federal policy, emissions standards and land use codes to catch up. Our communities are our best line of defense against disruptive events. Shocks and stresses, both natural and of our own devising, will always collide with budgetary and financial constraints. No one organization can solve a complex problem from its single perspective. When we broaden the conversation and engage our powerful community networks in creating a solution that works for all the stakeholders, we unleash the power of creativity and ingenuity that is unique to our species.

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