Over a year and a half after Hurricane Sandy hit New York, thousands of people still aren’t back in their homes. Months after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, the city of Tacloban still doesn’t have electricity. What does it take for cities to have the capacity to bounce back quickly after disasters, especially at a time when climate change is making major disasters much more likely?
Part of the answer, perhaps, is a job that’s never existed before: Cities are beginning to hire chief resilience officers. The role comes as part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge, which is putting $100 million into helping build future-proof cities; for the selected cities, a salary for a chief resilience officer is part of the prize.
Why add a "CRO" when, in theory, existing city officials should already be preparing for future challenges?
"Cities tend to operate in silos," says Judith Rodin, Rockefeller’s president. "And resilience is very much about building a systems approach. The idea is having a single post that really is integrating across systems—both within city government, but also between city government and other elements of the fabric of the community."
The new CROs will think about how to prepare for natural disasters, but will also consider aspects of social and economic resilience. Rodin shares the example of New York after the recession; when Mayor Bloomberg realized the city was too reliant on the financial sector, he started working to bring in more tech companies. On the opposite coast, San Francisco is thinking about how to add more non-tech jobs so the city can try to stay strong if technology companies start to falter.
After running a global challenge last year, the Rockefeller Foundation narrowed down a list of 400 applicants to 100 winning cities across seven continents, and will start the program with a smaller group of 33. Some, like Ramallah, or Byblos, Lebanon, were very much at the beginning of their resilience planning, says Rodin. Others, like San Francisco and Rotterdam, have spent more time planning for disasters, and are well positioned to help create and test new technology that they can later share with other cities in the program.
Beyond the new chief resilience officer role, the program will fund a suite of other services for cities, such as experimental new insurance programs. The cities will also come together to share ideas.
"Each of these interventions individually might not solve all of the problems, but together people have this outsize leverage effect that is truly innovative," Rodin says.
The work cities do to prepare for future catastrophes will also help make them stronger in general. "As we’ve been doing this work we’ve seen that these kinds of investments build what we call a resilience dividend," Rodin says. "So that it isn’t only an investment that helps you withstand the bad stuff when it happens—the big earthquake, or tsunami, or wildfire—but as you’re building resilience you’re building both more economic opportunity and therefore more jobs and new kinds of jobs. People benefit in the good times, and then they’re stronger and can rebound more quickly in the bad times."
The program kicked off this month in the Bay Area, where San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and Alameda are all in the process of choosing their first chief resilience officers.