Transition time for chief resilience officers

Six of the more than 80 chief resilience officers working in cities around the world (clockwise from upper left): Atyia Martin (Boston); Daniel Zarrilli (New York); Lina Liakou (Thessaloniki); Antoine Faye (Dakar); Beck Dawson (Sydney); Mike Mendonca (Wellington).

NEW YORK — Just four years ago, it was a new and somewhat radical idea for cities to hire a “chief resilience officer” — a high-level local government official tasked with preparing the city for shocks like natural disasters or long-term stresses such as migration.

Now, there are more than 80 “CROs” around the world — and the number is growing.

Dozens of them gathered last week in New York for a meeting hosted by the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities programme. That initiative has almost single-handedly invented the CRO position. Hiring one is a requirement for cities to receive a multi-year cash grant and technical assistance to build planning capacity.

But as the CROs shared stories and ideas in a jazz theatre overlooking Central Park, and during learning visits across New York, it was clear that their roles are already changing in some cities even as they just begin taking root in others.

For the newest CROs, especially those just hired following the third and final round of Rockefeller’s grants to cities, the conversation is still about the basics. How to define “resilience” in a way that makes sense to local leaders, the business community, civil society and citizens? Who to turn to for input in writing the city’s “resilience strategy”, its blueprint for identifying vulnerabilities and ways to overcome them?

By contrast, for the CROs who have been in place for two or three years, the conversation has moved on to implementation. How to put pieces of the city’s resilience strategy into place — especially the parts that cost money? And how to sustain the CRO position now that the city’s Rockefeller grant has either ended or will do so soon?

Krishna Mohan Ramachandran, the newly appointed CRO for Chennai, India, spoke for the newest CROs when he compared his new job to his previous career in advertising. “The opportunity to really do something meaningful comes to us in advertising maybe five or six times in a lifetime,” he said. “But having been the CRO for Chennai now for just eight short weeks, I have discovered that the opportunity to do something really meaningful comes to you every day.”

Meanwhile, Mike Mendonca from Wellington, New Zealand, spoke with nearly two years of CRO service under his belt. Mendonca, whose background is in military operations, released Wellington’s new resilience strategy in March. “The challenge now is actually getting the stuff done,” Mendonca said in an interview with Citiscope. “It’s coming to terms with what implementation actually is.”

Coming of age

Michael Berkowitz, president of 100 Resilient Cities, acknowledged that the global movement his group has been pushing is reaching an inflection point.

In a speech to an audience of CROs, staff, and many other private-sector partners, Berkowitz said the period of rolling new cities into the programme — where “we’re standing up CROs, we’re building champions, we’re doing strategies” — is nearly over.

For the next era, he said, “We are proposing that we focus much more on implementation, actually executing and exploiting the enabling environment we spent the last four years and 100 million dollars creating.”

Michael Berkowitz, president of 100 Resilient Cities. (Christopher Swope)

Berkowitz outlined four goals for what comes next for cities and CROs in the 100 Resilient Cities network:

  • For cities to execute on the initiatives they’ve identified in their resilience strategies.
  • To boost investment for those initiatives by “crowding-in money” from investors, development banks, philanthropy and others.
  • For cities to take collective action to shape policy and markets — for example, by pooling their purchasing power to boost demand for new solutions such as distributed energy.
  • ​To more explicitly prioritize resilience initiatives that support the most poor, vulnerable and marginalized residents of cities.

The CROs will be crucial players in all of this. According to Berkowitz, nearly all of the cities that have seen their initial grant funding run out have decided to retain their chief resilience officers. What’s more, a small but growing number of cities have independently created CRO positions without Rockefeller funding.

“This is a more permanent change in the way governments and cities do business,” he said. “Our goal continues to be that you wouldn’t run a city without a CRO any more than you would without a chief of police.”

“And I’m not talking about the person,” Berkowitz continued. “What’s more important is the office, and the concept that it survives.”

Defining ‘resilience’

The first generation of CROs hail from many different backgrounds: Some are longtime City Hall insiders, while others come from the business community or with specializations in engineering or disaster-risk management. As a new class of city leaders, they sit in a unique position. Their role is defined by local politics and circumstances, yet they’re part of a pop-up global community that views itself as a movement.

For every CRO, one of the first jobs is to socialize the word “resilience” among local stakeholders. They gather views on what resilience means in a local context, and begin to define the key challenges and opportunities.

That’s not always easy.

“‘Resilience’ is such a large umbrella, it can almost be anything,” Timothy Burroughs, the CRO for the city of Berkeley, California, told me. “The challenge for a CRO is, how do you make that concept tangible for your city?”

CROS and staff workshopped strategies for their cities last week in New York. (Jessica Bal/100 Resilient Cities)

Burroughs said the way he did that was by talking to the mayor and other city leaders and stakeholders to get a sense of existing priorities. He wanted to be sure that any “resilience work” would line up with projects that already had support.

For example, Burroughs learned that the public works department wanted to increase access to backup power for city facilities — earthquakes are a big risk in Berkeley. Ultimately, the city’s resilience strategy embraced this goal, but aimed to push it to a new level. Instead of pursuing the usual solution — a diesel-powered generator for each building — the city is now pursuing a “microgrid” project that would enable multiple facilities to connect to backup power together, using renewable energy sources.

Language itself is an obstacle. The 100 Resilient Cities network spans 48 countries and 21 official languages. Bangkok’s CRO, Supachai Tantikom, found that the word “resilience” doesn’t translate easily in Thai. Rather than using the literal translation when talking with staff, Supachai said he speaks about the concepts — improving the ability of individuals and institutions in the city to endure a shock or stress and come back even better.

Navigating politics

There have been other challenges. In Sydney, CRO Beck Dawson faces a highly fragmented local governance structure. Australia’s largest metro area is made up of 34 city governments, and she works for just one of them. Much of Dawson’s work so far has been around creating a governance body that can speak for the region, including the six largest local governments, state government, business and civil society.

“This enabled the mayor of Sydney to show leadership in bringing together all the mayors,” Dawson told me. “That’s been an important part of it. [The mayor] said, ‘This is crazy, we have to do this across the whole city because it’s such a systems thinking approach’.” According to Dawson, resilience has been a good issue to test new ways of collaborating across the metro area. “It’s not something you can argue against,” she said.

[Read: What Surat learned from a preventable flood]

Political transitions represent a challenge in every city with a CRO. Several cities, such as New York and San Francisco, are onto their second person to hold the job. As with anything in local government, there’s a risk that resilience may fall off the radar when the next mayor is elected.

Patrick Brown took over as CRO in St. Louis just a year ago, and already has served under two mayors. He admitted the transition after April elections slowed the city’s timeline for delivering a resilience strategy, but said it’s important to build trust with a new administration.

“You need to take a little more time and care with [new] mayors in order to impress upon them how important this work is, and the fact that it needs to be integrated into whatever it is the mayor wants to accomplish,” Brown said. “We won’t be successful in this work if it’s seen as a project happening alongside a new transition.”

Making change happen

So far, about a third of the CROs have finished the process of engaging stakeholders around writing and releasing a resilience strategy. Berkowitz said 41 of those strategies are expected to be finished by the end of this year. For the CROs in these cities, the next step is turning ideas from those strategies into policy — and finding money in budgets to make projects happen.

“Not everything in the strategy comes with funding,” said Berkeley’s Burroughs. “Part of our job is to build connections and bring investment into the work we’re trying to accomplish.” In the case of Berkeley’s microgrid, for example, that meant partnering with a national energy lab located in the city to help design the project, and applying for a grant from the California Energy Commission.

CROs and staff went on ‘Learning Lab’ visits across New York last week.  (Jessica Bal/100 Resilient Cities)

In Wellington, Mendonca’s job implementing the city’s resilience strategy may be easier than others. That’s because an earthquake rattled Wellington in November, causing some damage. That has city leaders tightly focused on proactive measures such as retrofitting vulnerable buildings and improving hazard modeling. “Much as I’d like to think it was my charm,” Mendonca told me, “it was the earthquake that scared everybody.”

In New Zealand, local authorities plan on ten-year cycles, and Wellington is about to start the process for the next one. Mendonca says the city council has agreed to make resilience the number one priority for the next cycle. “So you will see this stuff in all of the city’s budgets over the next ten years,” he said.

That doesn’t mean Mendonca’s job as CRO is done. It’s just changing. Implementation “is actually a different skill,” he said. “Writing a strategy is a skill in itself. But programme management and getting stuff done is a different thing.”

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Christopher Swope is managing editor of Citiscope. Full bio

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