18. 08. 2017


BY Graham Colclough, Urban DNA

Top down matters – leaders offer a vision; and convene

In the corporate world, it’s extraordinary what gets done when there’s a bit of leadership attention. It saves oodles of effort for staff in the bowels of the organisation by focusing resources in a particular direction.

Is the same true in the world of cities? They have wholly more complex governance structures, and their purpose is very different – indeed a city exists for the people. Not perhaps the stakeholder community that corporate leaders are primarily motived to serve.

However, city leaders – political in particular – can play an extraordinarily important role to convene their communities: public servants, residents, businesses (from small local, to big foreign), and visitors. That is very evident when it is done effectively. Alas, without that leadership the absence is less obvious, yet much needed.

Bottom up surprises – ultimately, people count

You don’t have to look far to see that the will of the people can have a rather marked and at times truly shocking impact on direction and progress. The digital world we live in emphasises and accelerates this. So, in developing a vision, and in the act of convening, successful city leaders are the ones that are far more in tune with those they seek to influence – and serve. And particularly for city resilience, it can only be achieved effectively with the active participation of society.

Middle out defines – it’s where the resource is spent most effectively…or not

And if we get both top-down and bottom-up right, is that enough? Alas not. The complexity of actors that influence city resilience – both those that are recognised, and those that are not (yet) – and how they work in unison, is profoundly hard to align. The challenge is that the interconnections between the various actors is insufficiently understood. In other words, how the various city systems interconnect and interoperate. And without that clarity, the multiple resources available within a city that potentially could help make it more resilient, are unlikely to be pointing in the same direction; acting in unison.


Meaning Matters, however it is Actions that Count

A rather fundamental challenge is that the term city resilience is poorly, or at least very differently, understood. A generally-accepted meaning is “the ability to absorb and adapt in a changing environment”. 

Thinking very practically, humans focus in times of adversity, and so have (broadly speaking) got better at dealing with adverse circumstances once they occur: post-event action. And these tend to be for challenges that are pretty obvious – a flood, a fire, or other catastrophes. We are less alive to the issues that creep up on us – like climate impacts, or health risks.

Our (urban) response systems have been built accordingly. And involve specific resources that are expertly trained to deal with specific circumstances – fire, ambulance, police, army.  Although this is good, it is no longer enough.

We now need to be far more subtle, informed, proactive, and efficient – notably as we struggle with complex interdependent and chronic challenges; a burgeoning worldwide population; and dreadfully stretched public budgets. We need our attention to “s h i f t   l e f t”. We need also to have the ability to assess, anticipate, predict, as well as prevent and prepare – all far better than presently; for both the obvious and very visible events, and for the less-obvious chronic stresses our cities increasingly face.

This is a collective responsibility. Leaders, society, and an increasing number and types of paid employees.

Frameworks that help make things clearer; tools that support better evaluation; and principles and practices that support practical on-the-ground actions are dreadfully missing.  

This is where RESCCUE helps. Our involvement in the development of a “Leadership Guide” and “Management Framework” as a collaborator with Standards Organisations (BSI: British Standards Institute) will help develop targeted materials to inform and support specifically the leadership community. And our practical demonstrations on the ground, in our cities, will help build confidence that there are innovative new ways of tackling increasingly concerning challenges in a smarter manner.

So, can a city truly become resilient without political leadership? Given the context, probably not. Such support is essential, though not sufficient. It’s you and me that will ultimately make the difference.