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In pursuit of a sustainable, resilient city

In pursuit of a sustainable, resilient city

Posting in Cities

A sustainable city isn't just an environmentally-friendly one. It's also resilient and adaptable, according to Rockefeller Foundation president Judith Rodin.

NEW YORK -- A sustainable city isn't just an environmentally-friendly one. It's also resilient and adaptable, said Rockefeller Foundation president Judith Rodin last week.

The former University of Pennsylvania president took to the stage at The Economist's Intelligent Infrastructure conference on Wednesday to offer her thoughts on what's essential for the metropolis of the future.

In an armchair interview with Economist global correspondent Vijay Vaitheeswaran, Rodin said the key question is how to create the infrastructure and environment to help cities better withstand chronic crises by allowing them to more easily rebuild from a higher "base level" than without such precautions.

"Climate change is slowly occurring. Every weather season now is showing us cataclysmic episodes," she said. "How do we build systems that are sufficiently redundant -- the ability to withstand, adapt, and rebound successfully from these kinds of shocks?"

Responding to a question from Vaitheeswaran about the decentralization of the power grid -- e.g. the use of an off-grid backup generator during a power outage -- Rodin said resilience can come from a centralized, "systems" approach.

"[These are] addressable questions through policy, frameworks and organizing at global, state and local level," she said.

Rodin said her foundation is spending "a lot of time" on "systems thinking and systems thinkers."

"It's not only the system, but how you get all the stakeholders together to figure out what the right solutions are," she said. "It isn't just the experts or the elected official."

"The 21st century is going to see how the beneficiaries and stakeholders become a part of this."

But what part does technology play in all this? It's the key to making a city function more it wants to, Rodin said.

"[It's about] developing the kinds of information, the kinds of data, that cities will be able to use -- the urban planner, activist -- and have access to," she said. "Technology is enabling a kind of transparency and urban activism that we are seeing increasingly in cities -- not because they're unhappy, but because they want to share and contribute to the data."

But there are risks. Namely, a lack of interoperability among systems -- from cities to healthcare -- that could be time-consuming and expensive to rectify later.

"We run the risk of being the Japan of the 21st century because of an investment in technology that has created a lack of interoperability," she said, adding that developing nations are "leapfrogging" developed nations thanks to a lack of legacy infrastructure.

Shifting gears, Vaitheeswaran asked Rodin about the role of cities as incubators of talent: should they be, and if so, how can it be better leveraged?

"We know already that in the U.S., 80 percent of the population, 70 percent of the economy is in mega-regions, the metro regions. It will increase in the developing world to an even greater extent," Rodin said. "How do we use these cities as an engine to drive the economy? When you look at the ideas coming out of mayors and other civic activists, you really are seeing much more innovation going on there."

Vaitheeswaran responded by saying that innovation is a loser's game by its very nature; you must fail to win. So how do cities manage failure necessary for true innovation without being "stuck with a dud" in terms of infrastructure or other heavy-duty systems?

How can a city rapidly iterate?

Rodin said the Rockefeller Foundation is building an Asian cities climate network for this reason, to save individual members from taking the brunt of learnings that will benefit the entire group.

"With networks, you're accelerating innovation and decreasing the change that dead ends are calcified," she said. "One of the benefits of globalization is that knowledge and learning skips quickly, and there's a lot of investment in open systems."

During a Q&A session, an audience member asked Rodin how cities would deal with vulnerabilities, since the biggest risk for a network is its weakest link.

She responded: "Resilience puts redundancy so that the weakest link isn't any longer the vulnerability."

Another audience member asked: at what point does redundancy become wasteful?

"Green buildings are one form of redundancy. You're using a new kind of energy efficient construction," Rodin said. Hopefully you're thinking about a green infrastructure that uses solar panels or grows food. Redundancy doesn't always mean doing the same thing twice; it also means doing more than one thing."

She added: "We are absolutely talking about the long-term situation."

Adding to that, Vaitheeswaran said redundant systems may have a greater initial cost but it should be thought of as "insurance."

But how long will it take to change the existing built environment? Most people will live and work in buildings that aren't green, one audience member said.

Rodin replied:

It is exciting to think about not only green cities being built from the ground up but the cities in Asia and Africa that know they're going to have double the population growth. They are going to have to build something. We will have to fix our infrastructure. Those choices are going to be here, even in the most built cities. These aren't things that we will be able to avoid. These are near-term solutions even for the most-built cities. This is well beyond thinking about green buildings. We don't do this at our peril.

Finally, SpechtHarpman partner and New York University professor Louise Harpman asked Rodin about the role that universities play in greening the built environment, particularly in cities.

"The best universities get reengaged with their urban environments and can be the leading edge in their cities," Rodin said. "It's incumbent on urban universities in particular to play that role and marry theory with practice. I hope we did that with Penn."

More from the Intelligent Infrastructure conference:

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure