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Remarks by Dr. Judith Rodin at Politics and Prose

Good evening, and thank you all so much for being here, and to Politics and Prose for providing this critical platform for ideas and exchange.

There is perhaps no more appropriate venue to discuss the topic of resilience than a thriving independent bookseller. The history of Politics and Prose is a model of resilience—surviving the rise of major books chains in the 1990s and online book retailers in the 2000s by innovating your offerings and providing a critical service to your community.

Not only have you survived the disruptions that have knocked other booksellers to their knees—you’re thriving because of those investments you’ve made in making Politics and Prose a cultural and community staple.

That’s what I mean by a resilience dividend.

This is a deeply personal book for me. As a social psychologist at Yale, I studied resilience from the perspective of the individual. When I led the University of Pennsylvania, I was able to practice resilience building at the community level as we worked to revitalize West Philadelphia. And now at The Rockefeller Foundation, we are applying that research and understanding to systems, businesses, and cities around the world.

We didn’t always call it resilience—or what we define as the capacity of any entity—an individual, a community, an organization, or a natural system—to prepare for disruptions, to recover from shocks and stresses, and to adapt and grow from a disruptive experience. In 2006, we worked with New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to develop a unified neighborhood plan. What we were really doing was helping the City use this moment of crisis to grow and adapt in the face of disaster, to forge a better way forward. That’s a key benefit of adopting a resilience framework.

Just last week, I was back in New Orleans for the first-ever conference of Chief Resilience Officers—a position in city government created and supported by The Rockefeller Foundation through our 100 Resilient Cities initiative. 100 Resilient Cities is helping 100 cities worldwide develop and implement resilience strategies.

Mitch Landrieu—the mayor of New Orleans—said it best when he noted that after Hurricane Katrina hit, every other US city was trying to distance itself from New Orleans. They thought they were different, that what had happened in New Orleans could never happen in their city.

They were wrong. As Mitch said, New Orleans was like a “canary in the coal mine.” They didn’t work hard to transform their city because it was a luxury to do so. They did it because they had no other choice.

Under Mayor Landrieu’s leadership, the City has transformed the public education system, diversified its economy, and rebuilt its neighborhoods—not back the way they were, but in ways that revitalized communities and brought people together.

The Rockefeller Foundation was proud to have assisted the City in these efforts, and it’s been the platform on which we’ve based our continuing resilience work.

When I started to write this book, the term resilience was just beginning to make its way into the American consciousness.

By the time I finished—it had blown up.

In fact, if you saw Tom Friedman’s New York Times column the day after the midterms, he argues that the elections were about all the wrong things, and rather should have been about building a more resilient America, and more resilient Americans.

Absolutely correct. But this is true everywhere in the world.

Because of the triple threats of globalization, urbanization, and climate change, disruption is coming faster and staying longer in every part of our lives. Not a week goes by that we don’t see some kind of disturbance to the normal flow of things—a cyber-attack, a new strain of virus, a structural failure, a violent storm, a civil conflict, an economic blow, a natural system threatened.

Crisis is the new normal. But not every disruption has to become a disaster.

What I try to show in this book is that the organizations, businesses, communities, cities that are planning and preparing for any crisis will rebound faster from every crisis.

And they won’t just bounce back better—they can jump forward. That’s what the Resilience Dividend is about.

Resilience itself is not an inherent trait. It can be learned, built, invested in, and practiced.

And we know what resilient entities share in times of crisis and times of calm.

Resilient entities are aware of their vulnerabilities and their strengths. They have both the willingness and the ability to constantly assess their situation in real time, take in new information, and adjust to changing circumstances by using monitoring mechanisms and feedback loops.

The second characteristic is that resilient entities are diverse, and have redundancies in critical elements. They possess different sources of capacity and capabilities so when one part of the system is challenge, the whole isn’t compromised. Being resilient means you can draw upon a range of ideas, information sources, technical elements, or groups to keep things running and restore normalcy faster.

Third, resilient entities are integrated. They coordinate functions and actions across all parts of the system, and are able to bring together disparate ideas and elements, work collaborative, and develop cohesive solutions. Information is shared and communications are transparent.

A fourth characteristic is the ability to self-regulate. To bend, rather than break. It’s the difference between failing safely, or failing catastrophically, knowing when to decouple or island a part of the system that’s in trouble to keep problems from cascading.

Finally, resilient entities are adaptive. They adjust, they take new actions in light of new information. They are flexible and can take on multiple functions or roles when needed.

That’s exactly what we need to do as a nation, as cities, as businesses and as individuals—adapt to the changing the world. We need to stop lurching from crisis to crisis and shift our paradigm from disaster relief and recovery to one of prevention and return.

According to the Center on American Progress, the federal government spent $136 billion total from fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2013 on disaster relief alone. This adds up to an average of nearly $400 per household per year. FEMA estimates that “a dollar spent on pre-disaster mitigation saves society an average of four dollars in lower damages.”

This is just one example of missed opportunities.

Another is evident in the way that we deal with water. We know that Washington D.C. faces a serious flood threat within the next 100 years—turning the entire national mall into one big reflecting pool.

Work is already in progress on a 10-foot levee at 17th street. The goal is to keep water out of the White House—which is more than the Secret Service has done lately.

But at the same time, we need to find more ways to live with water, rather than our current pave, pipe, and pump approach.

For example, in the Meadowlands area of New Jersey, a team of architects and engineers are building a park, integrated with transportation systems that will offer flood protection, expand meadowland restoration, and provide new opportunities for recreation and development. Rather than keeping the water out, this project embraces it—utilizing every dollar of federal investment to address a wide range of risks—storm surge, rainwater events, and heat islands; and cover a spectrum of vulnerabilities—economic, social, and environmental.

Changing the paradigm starts with smart and effective planning.

In the book I tell the story of the Boston marathon. For years the city had been convening a range of stakeholders, including state officials, health and safety experts, communications teams, transportation authorities, hospitals, and volunteer organizations. Together, they planned for different scenarios, including the detonation of an explosive device, but also hurricanes, civil unrest and a disease outbreak.

When the bombs went off at the finish line, everyone knew what to do.

And because of their speedy response, no one who made it to the hospital died.

Next, when disaster does happen, recovery must not be based on a “build-it back mentality.”

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, New York city is building an 8-mile buffer around the bottom of Manhattan to keep out storm surge. But they are not just building back a higher buffer. The project includes a series of designs that integrate with and enhance the communities—from markets to bring economic development to underserved areas to art installations and recreational opportunities.

Next week, I’ll be back in D.C. to help launch a federally funded competition with Secretary Castro, to bring this resilience approach to the 67 communities that have been designated federal disasters in the last three years.

How the recovery process unfolds dictates the next phase—revitalization.

I talked about New Orleans earlier, and I think it’s a good example of this. Recovery hasn’t meant building houses back where they stood before, or returning to status quo. Rather there has been a clear focus on economic growth—becoming a magnet for talent and start-ups to infuse new capital into the economy, but also a new spirit of determination. If another disaster strikes, they can come together and respond more effectively than what happened after Hurricane Katrina.

Returns on investment come from every phase in the process. That’s the “Resilience Dividend.”

It’s the idea that investing in resilience generates benefits in times of crisis and times of calm.

And this is what makes it such a compelling policy play for politicians—it’s not asking constituents to invest their tax money in events that may or may not happen in the future. It’s showing that those investments are going to pay off no matter what, whether it’s in the forms of jobs, better infrastructure, better social services and strong safety nets, or more community cohesion.

A great Mayor once said “There is no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage.”

Resilience is the same thing—it’s a long-term process with no ideology. The great shocks of our time do not discriminate. They destroy Republican and Democratic communities alike. And there are common sense solutions that lend common ground to work together.

This book is full of examples of how communities and businesses have reaped the resilience dividends. And I hope our leaders here in Washington, and governments, businesses, and people around the United States, will see it as a roadmap for what can be done to build a more resilient America and a more resilient American economy.