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)

Four reasons to look at universities and urbanism in Ghana

Universities meet education and skills needs, but are also local development actors in their own right. In Ghana they can play an important role in both

Ghana faces a set of challenges similar to many emerging nations…

Ghana is an ‘African Lion’: a fast-growing economy, falling levels of vulnerable employment and rising productive employment led to Ghana becoming a lower-middle income country in 2007. However, there are skills gaps in the areas of medicine and health, engineering and technical skills, limited job opportunities in the formal sector for those leaving university, and the proportion of the labour force leaving tertiary education rose just 2 percent to 5.4 percent from 1992 to 2013.

…including the transition to a ‘knowledge economy’

In a paper submitted to the African Center for Economic Transformation, Baah-Boateng and Baffour-Awuah lament the gap that opened in per capita income between Ghana and South Korea from 1950 – when incomes were broadly similar – to today, when South Korea’s output is six times higher. They cite a World Bank paper that suggests ‘at least half of the difference is due to South Korea’s success in acquiring and using knowledge’. Their paper finishes with a strong set of policy recommendations (that are applicable nearly anywhere in the world), including the participation of industry in curriculum design, more internships during courses, placing university staff in industry, and government intervention to subside expensive technical courses at public universities.1

As I’ve noted before, creating better jobs requires making difficult decisions in education policy to match labour market demand.

Ghana

Ghana is a case study of global urbanisation…

In 2015 51.9 percent of Ghana’s population lived in urban areas, broadly similar to 54 percent globally in 2014. Ghana’s urban population will reach 72.3 percent by 2050, in line with 70 percent globally. Urbanisation is moving much faster than planning.

…which will bring challenges universities can help solve

UN Habitat recommends government collaboration with universities in Ghana to improve planning and to address sustainable urban planning principles. Accra, for example, is at risk of flooding and – as Rotterdam has demonstrated – universities can help city planners to simultaneously prepare against disasters and create a better place to live and work.

In the Greater Accra region, 40 kilometres from the capital, the new urban area of Ningo-Prampram is rapidly growing. Urban strategies stress the ‘very limited timeframe to avoid unplanned sprawl and transform Ningo-Prampram into a thriving and prosperous compact, connected, socially inclusive and resilient city, which would be a sustainable development example for the country of Ghana and for the region as a whole’. A ‘university city’ in the northeast would offer ‘residential areas and services for students, professors and researchers, developing innovative agriculture and forestry processes that are tested in the fertile central park and the northern irrigation lands, improving crop production and fostering food security’. This is an excellent example of the campus working with the city to test new ideas before rolling them out further – seen elsewhere in the form of smart campuses.

Photos: Cape Coast and Ghana on Flickr


  1. Although there are objections from within Ghana’s universities to relying on the taxpayer for funding. 

The future is local (and so are global challenges): the example of Rotterdam

Mayors are on the rise globally, but they need to be backed by a wide partnership inside and beyond their city

A recurring theme of this blog is how cities, rather than nations, will be on the front line tackling global challenges in the future.

I was fortunate to attend the European Social Services Conference in The Hague last week. The headline was ‘The future is local!’ and the event explored how public services can collaborate more effectively with local communities and their citizens in combatting poverty and social exclusion.

One of the headline speakers was Ahmed Aboutaleb, Mayor of Rotterdam. Across the world mayors are on the rise, not least in the UK with a recent raft of devolution deals including directly elected mayors for cities and regions, and likely to provide an alternate route to power for ambitious politicians.

Universities and colleges are included as partners for delivery, sources of expertise, and opportunities for sharing knowledge

Mayor Aboutaleb talked of the need to strengthen regional government, and of the opportunities higher education could provide for lifting the next generation out of poverty. I took the opportunity to visit Rotterdam, and it provides a good example of a city on the front line, gearing up to tackle large-scale problems. With 80% of the city below sea level and one of the largest ports in the world, Rotterdam is especially susceptible to climate change and has an ambition to become 100% climate-proof by 2025. The city’s adaptation strategy presents climate change as an opportunity for growth through developing smart solutions and making the city a more attractive place to live and work – and I found Rotterdam to already be an exceptionally well-designed city. Universities and further education colleges are included as partners for delivery, sources of expertise, and opportunities for sharing knowledge to other areas. Unsurprisingly, Rotterdam is also one of the 100 resilient cities (see my earlier post on resilience).

Rotterdam is a good example of a city with an effective mayor, backed by a wide range of partners, tackling international challenges. The self-styled Global Parliament of Mayors will have its inaugural meeting in The Hague (which is clearly the place to be) in September 2016, bringing together 125 cities – ‘large and small, from North and South, developed and emerging’. The group has the explicit purpose of crafting solutions to challenges, although, as a semi-critical Guardian writer notes, ‘what they might really be interested in is a global parliament of cities, rather than mayors, and that idea – a networked, global assembly of citydwellers, sharing hard-won insights into what works and what generally does not – strikes me as a far better plan’. Mayors are on the rise, but an effective mayor will need to be backed by a wide partnership inside and beyond the city.

Photo: Jurriaan Snikkers on Unsplash

Resilient cities, resilient sectors

“How do you keep partnering with cities over an entire generation? Not just to 2020 but 2030, because that’s when we’ll see the kinds of change we’re really looking for.”

Whilst working for UNESCO in Vietnam we hosted a training programme for senior Ministry of Education and Training staff on disaster risk reduction, looking at the role of policy makers in times of crisis. 35 officials were joined by two vice ministers, a crate of imported vodka and the excellent facilitation skills of Moustafa Osman in a countryside resort 50km from Hanoi.

We argued that the education sector should be placed at the centre of national disaster risk reduction initiatives – not only is the maintenance of education during disasters a form of preserving ‘normality’ in times of crisis, but even small lapses in primary education can have long-term detrimental effects on individuals and society. And education itself can reduce a community’s vulnerability to disaster.

Resilience in the education sector meant bringing the right people together, and ensuring they knew their roles and the roles of others in times of emergency. Specifically, that they would know what to do internally within the Ministry and externally with Departments of Education and Training at the local level in the area of disaster preparedness, response and recovery.

Saigon2

Resilient cities

I’ve been following with interest the 100 resilient cities programme, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and ‘dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century’.

Each of the 100 cities appoints a Chief Resilience Officer as part of the programme. Just as the emphasis in the education sector in Vietnam was effective communication and liaison, one of the key tasks of the Chief Resilience Officer will be to work across government departments to help a city improve internal communications, and to bring together a wide array of stakeholders to learn about the city’s challenges.

Universities should be active partners in the work of each of the 100 resilient cities. They often already have a good understanding of the complex systems that make up a city, already work with communities, businesses and other parts of the education system, and provide evidence and analysis on city assets and needs.

Perhaps the greatest reason for universities contributing to resilience planning would be their long-term presence in cities – in some cases universities were founded hundreds of years ago, and they often plan decades ahead. As Michael Berkowitz, the president of the programme, said in an interview with the Guardian:

The ultimate change we’re trying to see in cities – more cohesive communities, better infrastructure, more integrated planning, better mobility – these are things that happen over a generation, not just a couple of years. So one of the questions we’re asking now is how do you keep partnering with cities over an entire generation? Not just to 2020 but 2030, because that’s when we’ll see the kinds of change we’re really looking for.

Photos: ‘Vietnam // Việt Nam’ by lab604