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Q&A With The World’s First Chief Resilience Officer

A version of this post also appeared on 100 Resilient Cities.

Patrick Otellini - First CRO
Meet San Francisco’s Patrick Otellini, the world’s first Chief Resilience Officer.

Patrick Otellini has a background in public policy, but has spent the last decade in the private sector dealing with complex planning, building and fire code issues. After learning San Francisco from the inside out as a code consultant, he was appointed to the city’s forward-thinking Soft Story Task Force, a group convened by then Mayor Gavin Newsom with the goal of retrofitting approximately 3,500 dangerous soft story buildings. In 2012, Mayor Lee named Otellini the Director of Earthquake Safety—a vital position in a city seismologists forecast with a 67 percent probability of a major earthquake in the next 25 years.

But this month, San Francisco’s first earthquake czar has stepped up to an even greater challenge by taking on the mantel of the world’s first Chief Resilience Officer.

Less than two months on the job, and Otellini already has a firm understanding of the task in front of him.

Q: How would you describe urban resilience?

A: I would say, urban resiliency is defined by each community it effects.

San Francisco has tended to focus its understanding of resiliency around disaster. Our city has burned down several times. We’ve been the victim of earthquakes for the last 200 hundred plus years. Disaster has always been at the forefront of our minds because we can see the devastation it can cause.

We used to talk about shocks as just surviving them. Now, we think about thriving after a disaster.

We used to talk about shocks as just surviving them. Now, we think about recovering and thriving after a disaster. Other cities may consider urban resilience as it relates to chronic stresses, but San Francisco, as a community, has clearly defined urban resilience as being focused on the recovery from the shocks that threaten our city and our way of life.

Who should cities look to as a best in class example of urban resilience?

I am unapologetically pro-San Francisco. Four generations of my family currently live here and I love this city. San Francisco’s work regarding resilience has been substantial, This work has been developed by the community just as much as it has been by City Hall.

San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR) released a report called “Resilient Cities” a few years ago, which has become the roadmap for resiliency planning in San Francisco. You now have people understanding that it’s not just about making an earthquake kit, putting it in your garage and hoping everything works out. It’s about knowing your neighbors. When disaster happens, who do I know on my block? Who has children that I should be thinking about? There’s a neighbor helping neighbor mentality in our communities. The people of San Francisco truly think about resilience differently than anywhere else I’ve been.

How do you plan to further involved the people of San Francisco in resilience building?

For us, there’s already a groundswell of citizens clamoring to be involved. All of our policy work involves publicly noticed working group meetings so we can ensure an open and transparent process. We have a Neighborhood Emergency Response Teams (NERT), which are largely comprised of private citizens. Our Neighborhood Empowerment Network (NEN) is already working in communities and giving these citizens the tools they need to be prepared. We also have a concept we’re working on called Neighborhood Support Centers. We’re still figuring through how to normalize Support Centers and ensure they’ll be operational after a disaster event, as opposed to disappearing if a private citizen loses interest or moves. The fundamental concept of the Support Centers is neighbor helping neighbor, on a very macro level. Without the involvement of our citizens, we’d be hard pressed to keep many of our programs up and running in a reliable way.

What is your primary job as Chief Resilience Officer

In San Francisco, we have a number of efforts, similar in nature; I will continue to oversee the Earthquake Safety Implementation Program which largely focuses on hazard mitigation but I will also begin to coordinate all of the City’s resiliency efforts under the common goal of making San Francisco the most resilient city on the planet. We have a lot of irons in the fire and there are many efforts that can rally around this focal point, like AdapSF, a group working to address climate change; The Lifelines Council, which is truly a public-private effort that coordinates out private utility partners and the City to look at our infrastructure and making sure we are taking the steps necessary to ensure the continuity of operations in a post disaster environment. As CRO, I will become a central point of contact for these various efforts. The goal is to ensure shared learnings and coordinated efforts across departments, groups and sectors. It is the first step toward breaking down the silos that exist in our city and creating a more unified plan.

What do you hope to gain from the 100RC grant?

I currently oversee a small staff. Ostensibly, the grant allows me to remove my current salary from our existing budget, and use the small surplus to backfill with additional staff to support this new expanded role.

The grant pays for only one salary. If a city isn’t willing to support their CRO with the staff they need, they CRO will be conflicted between sitting at their desk and going into the community. Every city will be different, but we didn’t want our CRO to be an isolated person in an isolated office. I believe it’s important for me, as CRO, to get my hands dirty and be involved in policy creation, as well as coordinating bigger picture issues.

I believe it’s important for me, as CRO, to get my hands dirty and be involved in policy creation, as well as coordinating bigger picture issues.

The responsibilities of CRO are too much work for one person. We’re hoping our arrangement here in San Francisco is able to provide an example to other cities for how to give a CRO the support they need to set them up for success.

I’m also excited about the technology platforms. In the development sector, we’ve seen dozens of technology partners come and go. 100RC is addressing the issue by mainstreaming a select, few. We feel comfortable relying on these platforms because we’ve been assured every CRO in the 100RC network will be using them. I see that as a great way to get the network off the ground.

What are your hopes for collaborating with the other cities in the network?

When I was director of earthquake safety, we started a regional conversation with Berkeley, Oakland, and other Bay Area counties to talk about how we, as a region, were addressing seismic policy. We also have a pre-existing relationship with the City of Los Angeles that we’re excited to continue. LA is larger than San Francisco, and has a different dynamic. We’ve spent the last few years asking, how we can learn from each other to create effective policy with a consensus based approach. We’re excited to disseminate and receive information and learnings on a much broader scale thanks to the 100RC network. Even in the month and a half I’ve been a CRO, I’ve had access to tremendous people and tremendous new resources that can help guide our path forward.

What advice would you give a city interested in appointing a CRO?

To create and implement a position like this isn’t easy. There’s legislation required, negotiation of grant terms and agreements. It all sounds simple but it can become a rather byzantine process to actually get a CRO in place.

It’s vital that the mayor and senior government officials be involved. They need to provide political support for a ground breaking position like this.

During our workshop with the 100RC team, we talked about what it means for a city to become more resilient, but we didn’t talk about the nitty-gritty of how you get there. Sometimes, getting there means putting forth policy that’s controversial. Sometimes you’re going to have a political war on your hands. If a CRO doesn’t have policy experience, they’re going to need support from elected officials to navigate that process effectively. If they don’t have experience on the ground, they’re going to need help learning about the day-to-day bureaucracy of getting things done in a city.

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