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Building resilient cities together

For centuries, cities have been hubs of economic growth, culture and politics. But many of today’s cities are transforming and growing at rates never seen before, as population rises and people move out of rural areas to opportunities to find work. Over the next 40 years, it is expected that two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities.

This is creating an urgent need to invest in making our cities more resilient to create a better quality of life for the people living there.

Increasing populations in cities can lead to stresses on basic resources including energy, food and water – known as the “stress nexus”. As these stresses intensify, it is likely to change the way that we live in future. So what should be done?

A common approach

Shell brought together leading thinkers from academia, business and civil society to share ideas and experiences about making cities more resilient in managing the stress nexus. The Powering Progress Together event, hosted in Rotterdam and opened by Shell CEO Ben van Beurden, highlighted the innovation and collaboration that is already happening in and across cities around the world.  Communities, mayors, companies, NGOs and governments are already collaborating to create new systems and technologies today with a different future in mind.  

A resilient city is able to adapt to rapid change, to manage shocks – such as an earthquake or hurricane – and to respond to stresses that include climate change and other negative environmental impacts. The urgent need for effective government policy and innovation from business was emphasised by Fatih Barol, Director Global Energy Economics at the International Energy Agency. “Governments need to harmonise policies on the stress nexus. We need a major government push followed by the right investment from companies.”

Powering Progress Together 2014 in Rotterdam
Powering Progress Together 2014 in Rotterdam

Co-operation in communities

The need for co-operation and collaboration within cities to build resilience and also across cities was emphasised by many speakers and by the participating audience. Better collaboration at the grass-roots level can help to build resilient cities. For example, techniques used to prepare for disasters have been applied to manage traffic. Nature and technology can also mix to create more liveable cities in the future.

“Cities are eco-systems within a large eco-system – they are intricately connected systems. So we cannot just look at the city in isolation but the full landscape,” says Jane Madgwick, CEO of Wetlands Internationals, a global not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the conservation and restoration of wetlands, and an environment partner with Shell. Jane explained how water shortages in Jakarta are connected to over-extraction of ground water outside of the city.

“We can combine new solutions with natural solutions in areas like water technology. There is an opportunity in cities where there is no current fixed infrastructure to create clever solutions that combine social and economic resilience with environmental resilience.”

Mayors as leaders

Mayors within cities are central to bringing about a transformation in cities to become hubs of clean energy. “At the heart of the energy decisions are taken in cities and the mayor plays an important role,”

“Cities are naturally interdependent while states are independent. There is more mobility, more creativity and more possibility in cities,” said Benjamin Barber, author of If Mayors Ruled the World. “Mayors are pragmatists and problem solvers. So cities can co-operate, working across borders and solve problems globally, not just locally.  It is possible to create coalitions that work out common practices and solutions together.”

If cities are to transform and overcome the challenges presented by the stress nexus then co-operation between business, government, communities and NGOs must be enhanced now: “Cities are a beacon of hope,” said Professor Cameron Hepburn from the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics. “Cities bring humans together to share ideas and new technologies. We can create cleaner, safer, quieter, more enjoyable living spaces – but it is not happening fast enough.”

New York skyline

The 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge

The programme was set up by The Rockefeller Foundation in 2013 to help individuals, communities and systems to be better prepared to withstand catastrophic events. There are 32 cities from around the world selected for the first phase, including Rotterdam. The cities must create and implement a resilience plan and hire a Chief Resilience Officer to oversee the strategy. These cities may also become centres of innovation, testing technologies and collaboration.

“We need cities to be better co-ordinated so that they are no reinventing but, instead, locally customising to build resilience,” said Michael Berkowitz, Managing Director of the programme.

The Powering Progress Together conference was hosted alongside Shell Eco-Marathon and Shell Energy Lab.