Our world is facing increased severity and frequency of hazards, posing technological challenges from a multi-vector suite of threats. These events impact the well-being of individuals and communities directly and indirectly, with quantifiable short-term implications and more complex long-term effects, yet to be fully understood. 

The impact of rising sea levels, land subsidence, severe climate events, higher baseline temperatures, droughts and wildfires, and increased urban development, have amplified the risk and consequences of natural and technological hazards across the United States, and especially the Commonwealth of Virginia. As of 2019, US Federal declarations of disasters increased by more than 250 percent.  

Scientific forecasts indicate a worsening trend, with more dramatic impact from hazards as our urban sprawls develop and our systems grow ever more complex.  Recently the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underscored that the world likely will experience dramatic increases in severe weather events.  

Equally as concerning is the increased scale and diversity of cyber threats that hemorrhage and stranglehold critical infrastructure and assets nationwide.  In a complex and interwoven network of communications and vital data, cyber hazards pose existential threats to the welfare of communities and individuals.  Of course, more invasively is the unchecked influence of social media platforms and forums to our social fabrics.

In this spirit, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam issued his Executive Order 24 to address such urgent resilience issues concerning the Commonwealth of Virginia.  In his EO, the Governor pointed out that “…studies show that water levels in the Hampton Roads region are now 18 inches higher than they were a century ago, and that they are expected to gain up to five more feet, while the land sinks as much as 7.5 inches, by the year 2100. That combined rise is faster than anywhere else on the East Coast. The most recent National Climate Assessment reported that the intensity, frequency, and duration of North Atlantic hurricanes, as well as the frequency of the strongest hurricanes, have all increased.”

This continued trajectory of episodic and systemic disasters will continue to have a profound impact on the Commonwealth of Virginia, threatening its “public health and safety, environment and natural resources, and the economic wellbeing of the Commonwealth, including our ports, military installations, transportation infrastructure, tourism assets, farms, and forests. We must act now to protect lives and property from multiple threats and reduce taxpayer exposure through fiscally responsible planning,” the Governor underscored.

Why is ‘Resilience’ a Matter of Good Design?

While we cannot design for all unforeseeable threats and events, we can ensure that our communities and residents are better able to prepare and respond to these disruptions.

The word ‘resilience’ has become a catch-all term for the increasing number of ecological events impacting our communities worldwide, and the phrase attempts to capture our response to such occurrences.   

While it is difficult to anticipate and prepare for such a complex spectrum of threats, resilience does intone a heroic and aspirational approach to our response.  However, there is a dynamic and structural aspect to the word; one more powerful than the word “sustainable.” It connotes an ability to react and pro-act, and ultimately employ scalable and generative strategies to contend with the shifting nature of both current and future challenges. 

Resilience warrants the development of our abilities to withstand the gradual pressures and spike shocks of climate change, challenges to our resources, and a myriad of other growing hazards adversely impacting human wellbeing.  More than ever, we need resilient design as a critical and adaptive posture to safeguard our existence and achieve a transformation necessary to crest the waves. 

So how do we determine what is truly resilient design?  Is there a systemic approach to design that is more resilient and responsive – a departure to reductionist and hierarchical models that have shaped our current cities and infrastructure?  In our response to crises, are there models in nature itself that can inform us in becoming resilient?

Rigid and Resilient Systems 

We live in a complex network of ecosystems that are growing exponentially. While in many cases these systems are internally resilient to a certain degree, they often fail dramatically when external stressors and multiple variables are factored in.

Japan’s Fukushima reactors stand as a stark example of an intricate, internally resilient system that failed when unpredictable natural hazards impacted an over-centralized system. Hurricane Katrina is another example of a trifecta of unpredictable conditions disrupting the equilibrium of communities lined along the Eastern Seaboard of the US and the Caribbean, to devastating effect.

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Natural Systems

Are there lessons to be learned from natural systems? Certainly, nature presents us with diverse and complex ecosystems that are highly adaptive and resilient. Rainforests throughout the world are complex structures that generate resilient relationships between billions of organisms and subsystems. Remarkably, despite systemic shock disruptions, these complex structures remain stable and maintain fluid stasis over millennia. 

These lessons require us to apply systems thinking and approach the solutions through a holistic attitude, rather than a reductionist methodology that often isolates and fragments components into stove-piped and discordant matrices.

Key examples distilled from biological systems that are distributed and non-centralized:

1. Rich inter-connected network structures. 

2. Diverse components with robust redundancy, which stand diametrically opposed to hierarchical efficiency models. 

3. Broad distribution of structures across scales, displaying a healthy fractalized model. 

4. Capacity to self-adapt and self-organize, which translates into empowered individual members of the larger structure of community. 

Biological systems have inter-connected networks of redundant structures. Damaged tissue can regenerate, and brains are often able to re-learn lost knowledge and data by developing new neural patterns. 

On the opposing hand, an agricultural monoculture is highly fragile and vulnerable to trauma: efficient while conditions are perfect, but inherently exposed to catastrophic failure in the long term. In many ways our cities and communities employ “monoculture” systems which are efficiently non-resilient. 

Self-organization and adaptation are innate aspects of natural systems, and a testament to their inherent resilience. While diverse and distributed structures with a broad range of scales is essential, the continuity of information is equally significant. Nature’s ability to retain data and build upon an existing and fundamental framework, is remarkable in how it conveys critical code across multi-tiered structures. RNA and DNA are prime examples of adaptive resilience, which may provide a roadmap as to how we could one day define resilient communities. This requires deep listening to the lessons of nature.

Mechanics of Non-Resilience

As we emerge from the legacy of Industrial Revolution and the age of the machine, we still smart from the mechanistic legacy of efficient systems that have greatly shaped our cities and infrastructure as rigid and brittle ecosystems that are resistant to transformation. While human cities are ultimately byproducts of natural sentience, they have become highly abstracted and woefully lacking in lessons of ecological systems that prevail all around us.

1. Cities are frequently “top-down” hierarchical structures – from their network of roads to their distribution of resources and functions. The highly inefficient network of roads ringing Washington DC, for example, are not only a drain on human capital and resources, but painfully inadequate in the face of disaster.

2. Efficiency demands the elimination of redundancy. Diversity challenges efficient and clean ideals of form with orderly divisions and unified groupings, providing advantages over the large scale as opposed to more granular components of the community.

3. Machine defines form. Legacy thinkers that shaped our current cities advocated that machine aesthetics define form; ornamentation is a crime, the most important buildings are large-scale, sculptural expressions, dwarfing the fine grain scale of the individual in lieu of top-down organization.

4. New is better mindset. Our cities bear the markings of a culture of novelty and neophilia, where the machine-age is construed as panacea and its prerogatives are to be elevated above all other considerations.

These are ingredients for generating non-resilient communities, inspired by design and policies championed via resource-dependent mechanization, during a time when we had strayed farthest from our deep connection to nature’s resilient genetic code.

Resilient City Designs Founded on Natural Geometries and Structures

The Internet is a prime example of resilient design with its inter-connected network structure, developed specifically to provide communication for critical infrastructure. In many ways its technology mimics structures found in nature, such as the human brain or mycelium; incorporating redundancies and perpetually self-healing.

Adapting these lessons from nature through leveraging technology and data, alfa8 has led the way in developing resilient projects and communities throughout the world.  By listening to timeless patterns coded in human survival and adaptive imperatives, we may follow suit in employing advanced parametric design processes that capture a broad swath of data. Through this we are able to derive innovative options that support resilience initiatives in our communities and identify critical margins that are beyond sustainable, and in fact, generative.

Through the utilization of sophisticated data-driven analytics and design processes we can identify opportunities and develop solutions that have highly resilient qualities: 

1. Inter-connected networks of patterns and relationships, which are not vulnerable by being segregated into isolated units, thus exposing them to catastrophic failure. 

2. Diverse and redundant systems comprised of different communities and demographics, each possessing independent resources and skills that are key to surviving unpredictable shocks.

3. Broad-scale of structure; from small granular and local assets to vast regional resources, a bottom-up structure with a healthy, multi-nodal distribution allows systems to recover from trauma with agility 

4. Scalable systems that can organize and respond to dynamic threats and can form adaptable, fluid patterns to increase communal resilience. 

Resilient cities retain and build upon existing patterns that have withstood and survived a previous spectrum of threats – adapting to new disruption by adding novel elements.  An element formed of pure novelty is highly dysfunctional, as it disregards established structures and systems.  The laws of natural selection apply to the development of resilient structures, much like the adaptation of any living organism in context to its environment.  Resilient structures preserve and conserve data, even as they innovate, and a complex resilient system coordinates its multi-scaled response to a disturbance applied on any level.

We envision such adaptive opportunities for growth for the cities of tomorrow, thriving with a rich diversity of fine-grained scales, where individuals and communities are empowered to self-heal and collaborate within larger institutional systems and structures.  alfa8’s design innovation and technology affords us robust tools and the skills to capture complex streams of data from diverse sources, proactively developing structures and scenarios that anticipate and respond to unpredictable natural hazards.

Governor Northam’s initiative to lead the Commonwealth to be more resilient comes with apt timing. Amid the escalating impact of climate change and numerous technological disruptions, the region deserves a vanguard team of experts with capabilities nuanced enough to support its growth into the future.  It is, indeed, much more resilient to be proactive than reactive to threat.

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