2015 Symposium in Review

As cities around the world continue to experience natural and man-made disasters, urban populations are finding that their infrastructure—roadways, mass transportation, emergency services, and electrical power grids—are aging and incapable of handling modern burdens. For our cities to thrive, we must prioritize resilience: the ability for infrastructure to function in the face of mounting stressors.

By 2050, the global population is expected to increase by another two billion. At its current rate, climate change is predicted to increase the occurrence of severe weather events such as flooding, drought, and wildfires. Sea level may rise by as much as two inches. With a deteriorating infrastructure that’s failing to meet even our current level of demand, we face many challenges on the road to infrastructural resilience.

On September 14 and 15, the annual International Symposium for Next Generation Infrastructure (ISNGI), hosted by Virginia Bioinformatics Institute and the Global Forum on Urban and Regional Resilience, convened to discuss these very challenges. Participants ranged from nonprofit leaders to researchers and policymakers from all over the world.

The central mission of this year’s symposium was developing a shared understanding of resilience to guide future infrastructure research, planning, and development. Charles Steger, president emeritus of Virginia Tech and executive director of the Global Forum on Urban and Regional Resilience, stated that, “One of the most important things we accomplished here was defining resilience and how we will move forward with that in mind.”

As Andrew Salkin, chief information officer of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Project said, “Resilience is the capacity of individuals, organizations, businesses, and governments to survive, adapt, and grow despite chronic stresses and shocks.”

Resilience research analyzes the chronic stresses and shocks of modern life, looking for opportunities to make our infrastructure more efficient in the face of current and future challenges. For example, 70% of the world’s population is projected to live in cities by 2050, but 65% of the necessary housing has yet to be built.  “The thing that makes resilience powerful is thinking about how preparing for the future will change what we do today,” said Salkin.

Christopher Barrett, executive director of Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, likened the human experience to that of a beehive. Just as bees must adapt to changes in their environment and hive conditions, humans must also adapt to change. But we must also realize that, “changing the structure of interactions changes everything, including and especially science.” We must remember that even as we transform technology, we ourselves are transformed by it.

We have long considered all aspects of infrastructure as separate entities. We can no longer afford do so. We must consider how stormwater management, electricity use, and transportation all affect one another and will be affected by climate change and population growth in the long term. According to James Hall, Director of the Environmental Change Institute and the Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium, an awareness of these relationships will allow us to identify critical assets which, if compromised, could cause catastrophic failures in dependent  sectors.

Using a systems analysis approach is one way the United Kingdom is striving to stay competitive, developing a comprehensive national infrastructure plan. But in the US, no such plan exists. As many speakers discussed, the infrastructure budget such as it is has repeatedly been stripped or put on hold to make way for other priorities. “Our infrastructure is at a comparative disadvantage with the rest of the world,” noted Senator Mark Warner in his keynote address. It became clear as the conference progressed that we ignore infrastructure at our own peril.

However, there is great reason for hope. Many speakers shared instructive examples of successful attempts to increase infrastructural resilience. In one example, Guy Dixon of Networked Infrastructure National Architecture of Australia discussed his design for a new access panel that makes use of curb space in roads to connect and protect electrical wires while capturing clean stormwater runoff. Using this type of access, we could save water, protect electrical cables, and cut down waste of valuable land space in urban centers.

From the local to the global scale, what is clear is that we must be willing to invest in change. Funding must be sought in more creative and diverse ways, as a result of public and private partnerships. We must not be afraid of change in how the results of our studies shape policy. “We must,” as Garry Bowditch of the SMART Infrastructure Facility at the University of Wollongong emphasized, “get out of the way and let people innovate.”

Presentations and videos of the conference will be available soon on the VBI homepage. For regular updates, follow VBI on Facebook and Twitter

The 2015 International Symposium for Next Generation Infrastructure was presented in conjunction with the Global Forumon Urban and Regional Resilience.