Last Friday the NYS 2100 Commission released its report: Recommendations to Improve the Strength and Resilience of the Empire State’s Infrastructure. It is a helpful contribution and provides a very constructive level of detail.
The report also offers a meaningful framing for investing in resilience in New York and well beyond. The following long quote is from the c0-chairs’ foreword:
While the response to Sandy continues, work needs to begin now on how we build back better – in a way that increases New York’s agility when responding to future storms and other shocks. Building back better demands a focus on increased resilience: the ability of individuals, organizations, systems, and communities to bounce back more strongly from stresses and shocks. Resilience means creating diversity and redundancy in our systems and rewiring their interconnections, which enables their functioning even when individual parts fail.
There is no doubt that building resilience will require investment, but it will also reduce the economic damage and costs of responding to future storms and events, while improving the everyday operations of our critical systems. In a time of fiscal constraints, the positive sign is that inexpensive policy changes will be as critical as the financial investments we make. Hard infrastructure improvements must be complemented by soft infrastructure and other resilience measures, for example, improving our institutional coordination, public communication, and rapid decision making abilities will make us better able to recover from the catastrophic effects of natural disasters. In many respects, New York is ahead of the game in this regard. In recent storms, including Irene and Sandy, we have successfully embraced the notion of “failing safely,” accepting the inevitability of widespread disruptions and tucking in to protect our assets to the extent possible.
We cannot prevent all future disasters from occurring, but we can prevent failing catastrophically by embracing, practicing, and improving a comprehensive resilience strategy. As New York and our neighboring states continue to recover from the devastating impacts of Superstorm Sandy, we have a narrow but distinct window of opportunity to leverage the groundswell of consciousness.
I have delayed and hesitated to post on this report because, with all its strengths, it fails to sufficiently address a fundamental aspect of resilience. The co-chairs foreshadow this issue in writing, “Hard infrastructure improvements must be complemented by soft infrastructure…”
Achieving resilience involves a different way of thinking, choosing, and behaving. There are a whole host of trade-offs. I agree with the report’s authors that the trade-off’s are worthwhile. But this will not be obvious to everyone. Resilience emerges — or not — from families, neighborhoods, and communities. It unfolds from dialogue and relationships, or not at all.
The NYS 2100 Commission report does a great job identifying and seeding the hard infrastructure topics that need to be discussed and engaged. But how will the dialogue be started and sustained? How will a soft infrastructure be cultivated that is sufficient to enable hard infrastructure decisions?
The current report reads as a set of recommendations to be implemented by the widely-respected and honored philosopher-kings of a latter day Kallipolis (Plato’s “Beautiful City” in The Republic). New York is, for me, a beautiful place, but last time I looked its politics were more complicated than this.