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IS Thought Leader: Samantha Hayes | Resilience

IS Thought Leadership: Resilience 

By Samantha Hayes

This is a unique time to think about resilience.

With the global spread of COVID19, we see a plethora of reactions and approaches to managing its transmission and impacts.

We have seen the importance of agility and flexibility, and of rapid adaptation in the face of vulnerability. We are reminded of the importance of taking early action, practising the precautionary principle, and of ‘not letting perfection be the enemy of good’.

These lessons apply not only to COVID19 but to the way we consider resilience both in living and built systems. We must make decisions based on the best available information and seek to deliver solutions that can rapidly adapt to new and unexpected circumstances.

In the past, engineering approaches to resilience have largely focused on building rigidity and robustness, aimed at remaining impenetrable in the face of disturbance. These approaches often assume predictability and stationarity, with historical circumstances used as a proxy for future risk. Responses typically include minor design changes to optimise individual components of a system in response to quite specific projected risks. These responses are important, though they often result in infrastructure and systems that stand up well against a small subset of risks, yet are not resilient in the face of complexity and uncertainty. This is a risk in itself.

How can we learn from resilience in living systems to support adaptive infrastructure?

In living systems, resilience emerges in spite of – and because of - unpredictability and change. We see attributes such as real-time internal sensing of vulnerability, instant feedback loops and self-repair, as well as multi-functionality and adaptability to changing local conditions. While our engineering focus has been on avoiding disruption, by contrast in living systems we see that disruption presents opportunities for renewal and innovation. Table 1 summarises interesting differences between resilience in engineering relative to social and ecological systems:

Table 1. Understanding of engineering and socio-ecological concepts of resilience (Hayes et al, 2019) 


How can these ideas be incorporated into our infrastructure design, construction and operation? Below are some considerations that can help to guide our resilience thinking.

  1. Remembering that infrastructure is part of complex socio-eco-technological systems.
Built environments and living social and ecological systems are intrinsically interlinked. Still too often, our infrastructure resilience efforts focus on physical risks to individual assets, as though those assets are standalone technical entities. We rightly explore the engineering and design challenges that might result from disturbance or disaster, but often overlook the interconnected impacts of disaster on communities and social structures, or ecological systems and natural resources. This can cause us to underappreciate the flow-on impacts across systems, and can result in the optimisation of individual components at the expense of the broader system.
  1. Moving beyond rigidity, to consider agility and sustained adaptability
To date, our infrastructure resilience efforts have focused almost exclusively on avoiding or resisting disturbances, with a focus on rigidity and robustness. The approach is often to design our infrastructure to be stronger, wider, higher, and more impenetrable to impact. Resilience in this context is often equated with the ability to withstand or hold back expected disturbances. In some cases, such adaptation efforts can actually make our assets and networks less adaptable, by focusing solely on rigidity at the expense of flexibility. This makes assets strong in the face of specific projected disturbances, but often limits adaptability and agility to respond to other disturbances.

Looking forward – how can we approach adaptation and resilience efforts so that they stand up when hit by an unexpected disturbance? Do we want to be especially prepared for a small subset of ‘likely’ risks, or adaptable enough to handle uncertainty? Or both? There are now calls for infrastructure resilience thinking to move beyond rigidity and robustness, and towards more agile and flexible approaches that support adaptive responses to disturbances. Here, the goal is for infrastructure networks that can adapt and evolve over time in response to changing conditions, vulnerabilities and opportunities.
  1. Focusing on multifunctionality, real-time sensing and adaptation – early examples
Designers have begun to develop solutions that are ‘safe-to-fail’ – where disruption is expected and accounted for. Such emerging approaches still cater for of pre-defined projected risks, however they do so in a way that encourages multi-functionality and greater flexibility and adaptability. The Stormwater Management and Road Tunnel (SMART) in Kuala Lumpur was designed to divert stormwater from the CBD during major flood events. Such events in the past had shut down the city and had significant financial and social impacts. In designing the tunnel, a decision was made to pursue multifunctionality and systems optimisation, recognising several interrelated social needs and risk factors. Instead of designing solely for stormwater management, the tunnel acts as a stormwater tunnel in flood events, but as a multi-level roadway tunnel for the rest of the year. Cavities below the roadway fill with water in mild to moderate flood events. When major flood events hit, one or both levels of the tunnel are closed and used as stormwater infrastructure, before being reopened as transit tunnels. The road tolls provide income and the asset is optimised both in daily operation and in the face of ‘disturbance’. More common examples include locating public green spaces such as parklands, golf courses and playing fields in low-lying flood zones to minimise damage and allow for ‘safe’ failure during flood events.

Moving forward, we can look even more comprehensively at how we can design for flexibility and agility, with a view to responding not only to known and expected events, but to designing for adaptability to unexpected events. The field of biomimicry, for example, is drawing on living systems techniques such as real-time sensing and self-repairing materials, including early applications in concrete and asphalt. Other advances include modular and adaptable components that can be readily adjusted and disassembled in response to disruption or changing demand. Indeed, many of the emerging advances in ‘smart cities’, Internet-of-Things, and nanotechnology are likely to support this shift from thinking of infrastructure as rigid, permanent and impenetrable, towards design and construction methods that cater for complex and rapidly changing demands and stressors.

Questions to consider
Just as we seek to support this agile resilience in our social systems, it is time-critical to foster it within our built systems. We can get started by asking the following questions:
  • Have we meaningfully explored and considered interrelationships between the infrastructure asset and the communities that rely on it?
  • Is our infrastructure adaptable (in both design and operation)?
  • Will the adaptation and/or resilience approaches proposed be helpful even if the disaster or disturbance is different to the specific one(s) we are planning for? ( the face of uncertainty and complexity)
  • Have we considered concepts such as multifunctionality, opportunities for easy retrofit, and ‘safe to fail’ approaches to support sustained adaptability?

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