How do we increase the resilience of our infrastructure to climate extremes?

Anyone following the coverage of Al Gore’s most recent visit to Australia will have no doubt heard about his marathon presentation – the majority of which focussed on the dire state of affairs resulting from impacts of climate change. “1.5 hours of horror” the Fifth Estate described it as – with its real footage of crumbling ice, rainbombs, graphs of rising emissions, images of human and ecological devastation, global health issues .. and so it went on. 

Now, more than ever, we are more educated and aware of what climate change is and the myriad of ways it impacts us. We know it has devastating impacts globally in cities and regional areas… because our world is one huge system. 

And infrastructure is no different.

Understanding how Australian infrastructure will respond to climate change and can be adapted to better respond to climate change, is about understanding infrastructure as a system and infrastructure’s place in a much broader system that is the urban or rural fabric of our world. 

It’s also about understanding resilience, what it is and what it means. When it comes to increasing the resilience of Australia’s infrastructure sector to climate extremes, the major challenge is that many people don’t understand what is meant by resilience …  The general pubic doesn’t fully understand it and politicians don’t fully understand it.

So what can be be done, what are the challenges and where are the opportunities?  

There is an education exercise that needs to be undertaken in order to help people understand what that topic is about. The Rockerfeller Foundation’s 100 resilient cities is all about working with cities around the world to encourage them to develop resilience plans. It has been very effective and it’s started to illustrate to many people in many cities what resilience might mean to them in their city, versus what resilience means to someone else in another city.

More insights on this topic were provided by the panel I was part of at the recent WCEAM 2017. Convened by Dr Fahim Tonmoy from the University of Sydney, here are some excerpts capturing the panellists’ views on this issue. (NB: My comments from the panel session are included in the article above).

Prof. Rodger Tomlinson (Griffith centre for coastal management)

From a coastal point of view, we don’t really understand what we’ve got, let alone how resilient it will be. The other key element – we challenged the community to talk about things we could implement. There was a complete disjoint between what we might think is a resilience approach from a technical point of view, and what the community think you can actually do ... so education is imperative.”

David Hood (QUT)

“It’s not just sustainability, climate change etc, that we need resilience to. Some big issues coming up are the massive technology changes we face. A recent article titled ’Caramgeddon’ wrote about the impact of three technologies that will blow transport apart – electric vehicles, artificial intelligence and apps ... We will see a massive change… this article says in three to five years we wont have transport as we know it now. The impacts on our cities will be huge. Cites are currently designed for cars and those changes will blow us apart and we have to think of those things as well when we think of resilience. Political situation will change drastically. Young people around the world are losing faith in democracy, so what are they thinking about? The changes are phenomenal in terms of what resilience means. Educating is not just about educating for climate change and sustainability issues ... it needs to be totally different and include all of the things that will impact us and that’s an incredible challenge for universities.”

Greg Fisk (Environment lead BMT WBM)

“For Universities, Resilience is just another item to add to the shopping cart ... there is already great trepidation to even engage in the issue. Ttransport authorities are very good at managing extreme weather events, climate change resilience, the resilience of assets to future climate can be a logical extension of how they are managing events now. So by looking at it like that, it doesn’t seem so hard. Rather than turn it into something that is too hard, start with something you are familiar with and that you are good at and ask how you can change / tweak it.  Build from your strengths and you can be afraid to take it on.”

Dr David Rissik (NCCARF)

“We need to display leadership and infrastructure gives us an opportunity to show leadership ... it connects people, it connects economy, it’s national security ... everything we do relies on infrastructure.  Currently the planning of roads is driving us to a carbon intensive future, whereas if government put that energy and funding into rail they can change the way that we are as a nation … and they can do that, but they don’t. I see we will be able to inject a lot of superannuation driven money onto developing new infrastructure ... but we shouldn’t be developing old stuff, we should be moving forward. Leadership is essential. I plead with engineers to grasp the leadership role. We have to start realising that we do have a crisis on our hands. Club of Rome forecast is right on track, which means in the next 10 years we could see societies economic systems collapsing. Leadership must tell the truth. It come s back to education, we must make people aware, give them to the tools to get out there and do it.”


Also discussed was the evolution of smart and the role it plays to increase our resilience - the integration of digital and physical infrastructure – smart cities, smart infra, AI, big data and so on. There is a danger that we will drown in data, so we need to have a clear framework to understand how to use the data. There is a lot of learning happening in this space, a lot of cooperation between councils and at a city level,  as opposed to the state and federal level. Here more of the panellists comments in this full recording here: