Just add one extra dimension!

Rock and seaweedMaybe it’s not so hard to understand after all. We can think about our world as we always have except that we need to add in one extra dimension: baseline conditions are shifting.

And when baseline conditions are shifting it means that what was real yesterday may or may not be real tomorrow. So when we design roads or buildings to serve us well into the future we can no longer presume that knowing what the climate used to be like is enough. Now we have to assume that future conditions affecting that road or building could be significantly different.

Inherent in understanding that baseline conditions are shifting is to also understand that the shift may or may not be gradual. We like to think that scientific predictions of future conditions will emerge in some far off future day or many decades or centuries in the future. And perhaps they will. But they can also arrive all at once as self-reinforcing tipping points are exceeded.  They may change dramatically in a very short period of time. Or they may slowly shift over time.

That’s the third implication of a changing baseline: uncertainty. We can be certain that baseline conditions will be changing, but we cannot know when or necessarily how much until the change occurs. Yes, there are signals and symptoms of change and tipping points, but the certainty that has served us so well when we design and size infrastructure is now deeply uncertain.

Which raises the fourth implication: we have to shift our policies, processes, and expectations. It used to be that our goal was to design infrastructure that would resist events of a certain scale e.g., the 100-year drought or the 100-year flood. But now that we know that baseline conditions are changing, resisting an event of a certain size no longer provides assurances that we won’t have our systems break sooner or more often than we supposed when we thought that baseline conditions were stable. Now we must admit that our policies, processes and expectations can no longer deliver on the promise whether it is a potable water system sized to keep water flowing up to a 100-year drought or a levee system designed to keep people dry in a 100-year flood.

This puts our infrastructure design and policy community in a tough spot. It forces us to ask ‘How can we deliver on a promise based on an idea of stability that is no longer true?’ And the answer to that question is the purpose of Resilience2100.

Over the next year we will show you several concepts that can help us start to change our policies, processes and expectations. We will show you examples that facilitate resilience and a capacity to adapt to change in real time. And we will continue to participate in workshops, conferences, and publishing to help bring this concept into the foreground.

In many cases, the world can limp along just fixing things as they break. In Hawaii, Hurricane Lane caused landslides, flooding, and washouts. Those will be repaired and life will go on. Yet in Puerto Rico, Hurricanes Maria and Irma hit Puerto Rico with a one-two punch that still has her reeling. Puerto Rico will require 10-years of recovery yet each year a new hurricane season will emerge threatening a third or fourth punch. That’s when we start reaching tipping points. When the bull in the china shop starts breaking all the china, we can run after the bull and glue together the china. Yet if the bull returns while we’re still cleaning, up, we’re in much deeper trouble.

Next month in Tokyo I will be working with Paul Redvers Brown to facilitate a workshop with Young Water Professionals and Distinguished Fellows of the International Water Association World Water Congress. That 3-hour workshop will help young water professionals to see this extra dimension of our world and help them begin to create new policies, new processes, and new expectations for delivery of infrastructure in the 21st century.

Watch for the chapter titled Situating and Motivating Sustainability and Resilience by Steve Moddemeyer and Therese P. McAllister of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Resilience program in the forthcoming Handbook of Sustainable and Resilient Infrastructure edited by Paolo Gardoni.

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