Building Urban Resilience by Igniting Innovation

Recently I was invited by the Asia-Pacific Alliance for Disaster Management (APAD) to deliver remarks at their annual regional forum, held in Colombo. I focussed on the economic imperatives of disaster resilience in cities, and possible initiatives and systems that can be fostered to strengthen urban resilience through innovation and a private sector approach.


Good morning ladies and gentlemen. It is a real pleasure to be with you this morning, and share some thoughts with you.

I am so glad that Hush and his team at APAD chose to go with this theme of urban resilience and cities. I am a member of the Global Shapers community of the World Economic Forum, and one of our key focus areas is the role of cities – in spurring innovation, in building resilience, in fostering community and sustainability, and of course, in driving economic growth.

Resilience in Cities

There is a growing body of evidence that cities are the new future of competitiveness of countries. They are the new centres of growth and globalization, the centres of enterprise and dynamism.

But in many ways, cities are also our greatest risk. The challenges presented by climate change, rural-urban migration, and disasters – both man-made and natural – most acutely affect cities.

Then, its a no brainer that we need to make our cities stronger and more resilient. This is where the urban resilience discussion comes in.

I am sure by now many speakers before me have nicely articulate what this means. In my own mind, urban resilience is the capacity of individuals, communities and cities to survive, adapt and grow as a means of countering the vulnerabilities that strain progress.

In this, I believe that innovation has a great role to play.

We often tend to associate innovation with cutting edge technologies – with robots in factories, with driverless cars zipping us around, with nanotech, biotech, etc.

Yet, innovation comes in many many forms. And we must harness it for urban resilience.

I will provide a few suggestions of how we can do this. Its a bit of a listing of sorts, and I hope that subsequent discussions can take this further.

Fostering Innovation

Firstly, for innovation in urban resilience to really happen we need innovative knowledge systems. And at the heart of this, is the hottest new commodity on the market (no, not gold or oil) – Data!

Does anyone remember the movie “Moneyball”? The Oakland A’s are struggling, financially and on the baseball field. Then they introduce an innovative system for figuring out which players will improve team performance. Moving away from observations by scouts, the A’s begin to use advanced statistics to value players. With their new insights, the A’s acquire high-impact players for relatively little money. Within a season, they’re at the top of the game and so successful that within a few years the rest of the league has reorganized how they value players, too.

“Moneyball” highlights the power of innovative knowledge systems: creative new sets of tools and practices for collecting, analyzing and applying data to solving problems. All organizations depend on knowledge systems, but it’s not uncommon, over time, for the knowledge they generate to become stale and poorly adapted to changing contexts[1].

Discussions around improving resilience and adaptation to extreme events often focus on building stuff – upgrading infrastructure or building new infrastructure. But cities also need new ways of knowing, evaluating and anticipating risk by updating their information systems.

This needs to become a key focus of urban resilience – better data capture, and better use of that data for decision making. We have so much data already – on rainfall patterns, timelapse satellite imagery on how flood waters spread in the Kelani river basin, all these can be harnessed for decision making. Sensors and other connected devices now are so affordable, we can generate a ton of new data and then analyze that in real time.

Just the data isn’t enough – we need to expand the folks who use it. And government authorities cannot do this alone. We should open out this data for anyone who wants to build solutions.

And this brings me to my next points, about collaboration.


In corporations today, ‘Open Innovation’ is all the rage. The thinking behind it is that, there is recognition that no one entity can do all the innovation in-house. There are startups with more ability than you, with more nimble solutions. There could be a university researcher who has done work on this. So, through Open Innovation, we bring them together . Open up our spaces, our data, our resources, all towards finding common solutions.

This model can be used in finding solutions for urban resilience too. I would suggest that APAD collaborates with new platforms like the Social Innovation Lab of UNDP (opened just a few months ago) to launch an ‘Open Innovation Challenge for Urban Resilience’ – where researchers, startups, corporates, aid agencies, will all collaborate together to find practical and affordable technology solutions to build urban silence. The government of course must be the catalyst for it.

In the US, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD, in short) has an Office of Economic Resilience. They wanted to see how government can be proactive about encouraging innovation rather than responding to it.

In 2014, HUD launched a National Disaster Resilience Competition[2], which awarded a total of 1 billion US dollars in funds to tackle urban resilience, responding to climate change. Rather than simply soliciting “here’s-how-we’ll-use-the-money” type project plans, HUD first required participants to suggest NGOs, local aid agencies, scientific organizations, and other partners who might help them in the quest to steer their cities against future natural disasters. It was really innovative, and brought out unique and long-standing partnerships, to collaborate .

Leadership and Institutional Capacity

My final point is about creating institutional capacity in cities to provide the leadership and direction for innovation on urban resilience. I believe that its time cities like Colombo, and regions like the Western Province build this capacity very quickly and directly. Companies have Chief Risk Officers, to assess risk and be fully in charge of risk management strategies, getting the rest of the company ready. Similarly, we need City Resilience Officer for Colombo, or a Chief Resilience Officer of the Western Province.

In the City of Toronto, they have hired a Chief Resilience Officer, and also set up a Civic Innovation Office to spur new thinking on urban resilience there and introduce digital technology into the functions and culture there.

Lets not look as far as Toronto, lets look at Jakarta, Indonesia, in our own region.

Jakarta recognized that the city needed to change the way it planned in order to address disaster related shocks and stresses.  Jakarta joined the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, which is a network of likeminded cities across the globe working become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges of the 21st century[3].

They also formed the ‘Resilient Jakarta’ Secretariat, to spearhead the initiatives introducing urban resilience to the city.

I’ll quote from a report by Lauren Sorkin of 100 Cities:

“Resilient Jakarta has convened a broad range of stakeholders and conducted a series of assessment exercises mapping a pathway for Jakarta’s resilience. By working with such a diverse stakeholder set, the Resilient Jakarta Secretariat is effectively opening the governance process to citizens and including the city’s many voices in setting resilience priorities.”

So these are my thoughts ladies and gentlemen. Firstly, on getting better data and using it effectively for decision-making. Now more than ever we have the capabilities to collect more data and to analyze large datasets instantly and meaningfully. Secondly, on spurring collaborative innovation to generate new thinking on urban resilience – bringing together different groups who have different skill sets to add, all towards finding practical solutions. In this, I suggest launching an Open Innovation Challenge for Urban Resilience. And thirdly, building institutional capacity, and leadership for urban resilience – where cities would increasingly need Chief Resilience Officers, or City Resilience Officers, who’s entire task is to constantly look at how to build resilience, and working with stakeholders, and driving forward the agenda.

Thank you.



[2] ‘HUD Launches $1 Billion National Disaster Resilience Competition’

[3] Building a more resilient Jakarta


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