Urban Resilience: 'We Need To Decide How To Deal With Disruptions'
Protecting Asia's Megacities Against Slow-Moving Stresses
Asia is urbanizing at breathtaking speed. Of the 47 cities that are defined as ‘megacities’, meaning they have a population of more than 10 million people, two-thirds are in Asia.
This fast rate of urbanization puts cities in Asia under enormous pressure of so-called slow-moving stresses. Authorities need to expand infrastructure, provide housing, build schools and hospitals, find ways to discard the ever-growing amount of household waste, all while battling increased flooding.
In this event, the first of two in a series on Urban Resilience in Asia, experts weighed in on what the challenges are for Asia's cities. And where solutions can be found.
Here are our key takeaways from the event. Watch the full event in the video at the top.
The cascading effect of a single disruption
- While the cities offer enormous economic opportunities, which is their main pull factor, there is a disconnect between where food and water come from -rural areas- and where they are consumed -the city. The lack of food and water security in the cities is a challenge to their resilience. Growing cities cause very small pieces of land to hold enormous amounts of public and private assets. This makes cities vulnerable.
- Resilience is not a theory. It’s a concept, deciding how we respond to, recover and learn from, and deal with disruptions. To achieve resilience, we need to understand how a single disruption can have a cascading effect on other systems. For example, if a car crashes into an electricity box, this can lead to a power outage. That, in turn could lead to water pumps that stop working, which could cause flooding.
- These types of interdependencies are being researched in virtual cities now. The next step is to take this research to the field.
- There’s an enormous potential to connect information, to make use of available technologies to improve the ability to detect, predict, and manage ambiguous events and situations. And it’s necessary to develop foresight capabilities and resilience-oriented mindsets.
Two-hour commutes and flooded streets
- Population growth is putting a heavy toll on Bangkok. Six million people are registered as official residents, paying taxes. The local government, however, must fund infrastructure and other services for an estimated 12 million people who use Bangkok as place to work or live.
- That poses significant challenges, meaning Bangkok is faced with everyday stresses like bad air quality and unforgiving traffic jams with daily commutes taking 1.5 to 2 hours each way.
- The priority stress challenging Bangkok’s resilience now is ever-increasing flooding. Heavy rain is overrunning the drainage system, which had been built to deal with downpours of up to 60 millimeters an hour, but now must regularly process 120 millimeters an hour.
Lacking an alternative city
- Bangkok revises its city planning every five years, yet if nothing more fundamental changes, in fifty years the metropolis will be in more trouble than it is now. Especially since Thailand lacks a proper second city alternative. Everyone eventually wants to move to Bangkok for university, a better job, or one of the other main pull factors. This creates an additional slow-moving stress which weighs down on the city’s future resilience.
- Research of over a decade in and around Kolkata, India, has shown that much of the problems of urban planning come from forgetting history. For some centuries now, people have thought about how to build in the marshes of the Bengal Delta. This meant plotting the coastline, deciding where land ends and water begins. And dealing with a landscape that’s mobile: what’s dry in the morning, can be underwater in the afternoon.
- People used to know how to live with this, but that’s been forgotten. Airports are built on former wetlands. Office buildings rise on marshland, causing them to tilt so much that, like in Bangalore, elevators don’t work anymore.
Sudden shocks become chronic stresses
- Meanwhile, governments and organizations like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change continue to produce reports that get completely ignored. That’s why the water has become a threat to resilience.
- We have now come to a juncture, as typhoons occur so often and are so severe that they should no longer be seen as sudden shocks but as chronic stresses, that we cannot afford to forget the history of how to live along coastlines -where most cities are- anymore.
Start doing, instead of thinking
- The determination to solve all problems at once can be limiting. Thinking too big risks us being stuck in thinking instead of doing. To increase the resilience of megacities, it could be good to just start doing things on a small scale.
- Private party capital is very happy to invest, but shy of unwanted risks. That’s where the (re)insurance industry can step in. Once you find that a solution works on a small scale, you have a proof that can attract capital to start doing that same thing somewhere else.
Technology can help, but also adds risk
- Digital data can help cities do more with the infrastructure that is already there. Monitoring traffic flows, for example, can help to steer traffic better, allowing for the same road to be used by more vehicles.
- Tech itself will never change something. It has to be tech plus policy. However, technology is itself another layer of infrastructure that, just like a drainage system or roads, can fail. The more dependent systems become on technology, the more risk they run.
Jonas Jörin is the Co-Director of the Future Resilient Systems (FRS) programme hosted by the Singapore-ETH Centre and funded by the National Research Foundation of Singapore. FRS is an interdisciplinary research programme which focuses on understanding and designing resilience in the context of high-density urban systems.
Jonas holds a PhD from Kyoto University, master’s degree from the University of Manchester (UK) and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Zurich. His academic background is in geography, environmental management and disaster management. His research interests are in understanding human-environmental processes, with a particular focus on analysing the resilience of individuals in the context of hazards.
Jonas is active in contributing to the research fields of community and social resilience as well as food system resilience and has done extensive field work in several countries in Asia, Africa and Europe.
Supachai Tantikom is the former Chief Resilience Officer of Bangkok. He developed the first Bangkok Resilient Strategy, which was launched for implementation in February 2016. The Strategy, which offers over 70 initiatives, is composed of three strategic areas, which are: increasing quality of life, reducing risk and increasing adaptation, and driving a strong and competitive economy. Prior to taking the position of Bangkok Chief Resilience Officer, he joined Bangkok Metropolitan Administration as advisor to the governor for over 6 years. He was assigned to take responsibility and oversee the infrastructure developments, climate change, sustainability development and green growth. The position gave him the opportunity to take part as a speaker in various meetings and conferences in the world.
Dr. Supachai got his PhD in Civil Engineering from the University of Alabama. He is a professional and experienced civil engineer with ability in design and project management by practicing in structural, foundation, and civil engineering design and project management in private sectors for over 25 years.
He believes that with his background and all the experiences he gained from all his work he can develop Bangkok to be a livable and moreresilient city. To do so, he decided to race for Bangkok’s office. He was one of the candidates for Bangkok governor in the recent Bangkok governor election in May 2022.
Debjani Bhattacharyya holds the Chair for the History of the Anthropocene at the University of Zürich. Her work lies at the intersection of legal and environmental history. Her book, Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta: The Making of Calcutta (Cambridge University Press, 2018) won the 2019 honorable mention for the best book in Urban History. She is currently working on her second book Climate Futures Past: Law and Weather Knowledge in the Indian Ocean World. She is a non-resident fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.
The event was moderated by Nico Luchsinger, Executive Director at Asia Society Switzerland.
This event was organised together with Swiss Re Institute.