Lessons from the demise of 100 Resilient Cities

Thoughts from Toronto’s former Chief Resilience Officer on how the 100 Resilient Cities initiative went from ascent to demise in just two years

100 Resilient Cities closed its doors at the start of August. Although principally aimed at local governments and city administrations, the organisation’s focus on solving locally-identified challenges made it, in my opinion, highly relevant for universities.

The three African cities in my doctoral research – Accra, Addis Ababa and Kigali – are all resilient cities. Several posts on this site focus on resilience (examples here and here). And I have interviewed the Chief Resilience Officers in Toronto and Milan for several research projects that have stressed the role of universities in tackling urban problems.

There’s good coverage on CityLab and The Conversation on what the closure of 100 Resilient Cities means and some of the reasons for it being shuttered. Over on LinkedIn, Elliott Cappell, the former Chief Resilience Officer for the City of Toronto, posted an excellent analysis of the ascent and demise of 100 Resilient Cities, asking what can we learn. Elliott kindly gave permission for me to republish his post here – it’s well worth a read for considering what we can learn for similar future initiatives. Over to Elliott…

As of August 1st, 2019, 100 Resilient Cities is winding down.

Yes, you read that correctly: the $160m, Rockefeller-backed, global organization with offices from Mexico City to Singapore, and Chief Resilience Officers in 80 cities, has shuttered its windows.  This is a truly acute shock for anyone working on urban development, climate change, or international development.

I remember the first day I walked into 100RC’s offices in Manhattan, because that was the day I met Otis Rolley (who was then an executive of 100RC).  If you have met Otis, you will also recall your first time. Otis is so charismatic, so honest, and so intelligent that it defies description. It is hard not to like Otis.

On that April day in 2017, Otis cited scripture to describe the ascent of 100RC and its network of CROs: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another”.  The passage, in this context, meant that 100RC was growing, drawing in the best people, the greatest cities, and the brightest ideas – and so drawing in even better people, more partners, and better ideas.  Otis was right, too.

Yet, just 28 months later, 100RC is finished. Wow.

How did this happen?  If you are working in cities or climate change or development, it is worth trying to understand how 100RC went from ascent to demise in just two years.  From my perspective, there are three lessons:

In public policy, simple ideas become complex very quickly.

In public policy, simple ideas become complex very quickly.  100RC started with a great idea: making cities around the world resilient to shocks, like Hurricane Katrina. They made it a bit more complex, by introducing the concept of ‘stresses’ that make those shocks worse, like poor land use planning or institutional racism.  Tackling ‘shocks and stresses’ was a huge, audacious idea, literally with the potential to change the world.

But then 100RC made it much more complex.  They promised resilience wouldn’t just be focused on the pending doom of climate change, but would actually solve ‘any challenges cities faced’.  They would create a ‘marketplace for resilience’, and ‘innovative finance for resilience’.  100RC’s approach was documented in a ‘guidance manual’ of hundreds of pages, in which ‘meetings’ became ‘bootcamps’; ‘consultants’ became ‘strategy partners’; and ‘discovery areas’ would feed into cities’ ‘opportunity assessments’.  Even the press releases are complex enough that it is really hard to understand what 100RC is doing or why.

Cities are complex systems, so it’s hard to simplify and still create meaningful change.  But the 100RC strategy should have been simpler; because simple becomes complex, and in this case, complex became unachievable.

If you get the local political economy wrong, your project will fail.

100RC’s second challenge was to apply their model, which was based on American cities’ governance, to cities around the world.  But cities are governed differently around the world. For example, as CRO in Toronto, I reported to the City Manager, who is like the CEO of the city, whereas our Mayor is like the Chairperson of the Board.  But in New York, the CRO reports to the Mayor, who is CEO and Chairperson both.

In international development, we refer to these subtle but very important differences as ‘the local political economy’.  If you get the local political economy wrong, your project will fail.

From my perspective on the ground, 100RC was not able to internalize the differences between New York and Toronto – which are only an hour away by plane.  Those differences created massive barriers to implementing 100RC’s model in our context. Now multiply that problem by 100 cities across dozens of countries, and you have a second reason 100RC is shut today: local political economy matters.

The third reason is money. 100RC spent lots and lots of money.  Annually, 100RC flew dozens of tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to Italy, where they were served meals literally topped with edible gold leaves (or gold leafs, in Toronto’s political economy).  They held a ‘resilience track’ at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas (Vegas was not a 100RC city). They held ‘learning labs’ around the world on a range of topics such as a ‘city currency’, and they spent lots doing so.

What do Las Vegas, a city currency, or consumer electronics have to do with protecting cities from climate change?  Didn’t we start this whole thing because of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy? Where was climate change in all this spending?  One can draw a connection from venture capital to city resilience (100RC tried), but it certainly isn’t straightforward.

If you’re working on public policy or using public resources, you need to keep tightly accountable to linking your budget with your outcomes.  It isn’t easy to explain why using philanthropic funds for ‘living labs’ and ‘platform partners’ (100RC parlance for site visits and for short term consulting advice) leads to improved resilience.  So the third lesson here is that monitoring and evaluation is crucial: tracking to clear metrics help us demonstrate that money is leading to change.

100RC was successful and continues to be relevant, as climate change causes problems faster than cities are coming up with solutions.

100RC was not a failure.  In a short time there has been a substantial change in how cities act and think, and it’s very impressive how much was achieved.  With most people living in cities and the climate causing problems faster than we come up with solutions, 100RC is actually still relevant.  That 100RC was successful and is relevant makes today feel like a brutal, bruising failure.

I hope many other people in our industry share their thoughts on how we got here.  100RC was a very important organization, and it is important that we, as urban development, climate change, and international development professionals, own and understand this as a collective failure.  If, by the grace of the Rockefeller Foundation, we get another shot at helping cities combat climate change, we need to identify and learn the lessons from 100RC’s demise.

Elliott

Read the original post on LinkedIn here.

(Image credit)

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