Rockefeller Foundation: Design Needs to Improve Resiliency

Judith Rodin, the innovative leader of the Rockefeller Foundation, said the design community needs to focus on improving the resiliency of our infrastructure at a conference hosted by The Economist. Resiliency is defined as the ability to adapt and rebound from crises, and then reach an improved “base level” at the end of the process. She said a systems approach, featuring a combination of centralized and decentralized models, was needed to address the chronic crisis of today: climate change.

A systems approach is a way of thinking. “The British call it ‘joined-up’ thinking.” Given a systems-based approach is needed to solve critical environmental, social, and economic issues, design skills may be needed more than MBAs. To illustrate this point, she highlighted the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition on how to adapt the New York City coastline to rising sea levels , which yielded a range of innovative design concepts created by landscape architects. Solutions involved “fingering the coastline, using porous materials, building man-made reefs, adding houses over the coastline, and including sensors” (see earlier post).

To spur the creation of more resilient infrastructure, Rodin called for an investment in data so urban planners, landscape architects, and architects — “activist designers” — can encourage transparency. This process can also enable the general public to be better involved in decision making on designs that impact the public realm. She said even the relatively stodgy World Bank Institute is now investing in data transparency. However, some communities in developing countries, like the Kibera slum in Kenya, aren’t waiting for assistance but are mapping themselves so they can show policymakers there is real unmet demand for services.

In terms of the race for resilient infrastructure, the United States is quickly become the “Japan of the 21st century,” meaning the country is falling behind. She says this is due to the fact that U.S. infrastructure suffers from a lack of “interoperability.” In contrast, in the cases of developing countries without “legacy infrastructure,” there’s an opportunity to leapfrog current decrepit infrastructure and create new opportunities. For example, “India could be the first mobile economy.”

If the U.S. is to save itself from decay, an investment needs to be made in cities, which are the “engineers of innovation.” However, urban policymakers need to chose which forms they are going to invest in carefully. “Innovation could backfire on some cities” if they chose poorly. To ensure this doesn’t happen, the Rockefeller Foundation is focusing on networks of learning so leaders “don’t go for dead ends.” She said “dead ends get calcified.” Furthermore, in the short-term, cities can put funds towards transit-oriented development and improving walkability and bikeability to improve their options. “We need choices in the U.S.”

Learn more about how to use a systems-based approach to design through an interview with Diane Dale, FASLA, William McDonough Associates.  

Image credit: Oyster-tecture. MOMA, SCAPE / Landscape Architecture PLLC

One thought on “Rockefeller Foundation: Design Needs to Improve Resiliency

  1. R. Gus Drum 02/23/2011 / 2:35 pm

    One of the foundations for this type of effort is reliable mapping of hazards (multiple types) through the efforts of FEMA, NOAA, USGS and other agencies so that planners and designers can assess the appropriate level of risk that supports resilient designs. The regional/site information gathered to support each state’s All-Hazards Mitigation Plan through FEMA is a potential good source to support design decisions.

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