Shifts in thinking in our unbalanced world

Author: Joyce Coffee

At the World Bank’s recent Financing Urban Resilience Workshop, I grasped three clear trends – indeed, shifts – occurring that are changing how adaptation leaders and others are managing an unbalanced world.

(The workshop was led by Stephen Hammer, Lead Specialist, Cities and Climate Change, Social, Urban, Rural and Resilience Global Practice World Bank and attended by the Rockefeller Foundation, IFC, IDB, Munich Re, cities such as New Orleans, Mexico City, Acclimitise, Arup, AECOM etc.)

The detected changes:

  1. A shift within the traditional sustainability community from natural hazards to other types of shocks such as economic crises, health epidemics, etc. This reflects an overall shift to a more multidisciplinary approach, and it includes a switch from managing risks from specific disaster hazards to handling climate adaptation, which acknowledges the challenge of multiple hazards.
  2. A change from striving to put the world into balance (the aim of much sustainability work) to seeking to manage in an unbalanced world. Among other things, this allows for “safe failures” for affected systems while, at the same time, requiring redundancy, robustness and diversity may differ from what previously was believed to be needed.
  3. A shifting time horizon (the biggie for me) that requires grasping with uncertainties. Development presumes that the pace of change of natural systems remains relatively constant. For instance, the pace of climate change means we cannot rely simply on a natural system’s typical temporal resilience (evolution, migration or other change to accommodate shifts in ecosystems). We must be aware of thresholds, the most common of which is the rise in seas. This is illustrated graphically by Florida in the United States and by Bangladesh and other countries. (See a few trusted visualizations of sea level rise:

While I consider my work well underway on the first two identified shifts, I’m grappling with the temporal change. The radical actions this requires will take courage from many – starting with an acknowledgement that more coastal development puts more lives at risk, unnecessarily.