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Think Tank: Cities on the frontline and lessons for a resilient recovery

The lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic need to be learned and placed at the heart of resilience strategies.


Written by Lauren Sorkin, Executive Director, Resilient Cities Network and Francis Ghesquiere, Practice Manager, World Bank.


Dear Cities:


Thank you. You have been on the frontlines in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. You have played an essential role answering, embracing, and uplifting communities throughout the evolution of the ongoing global health crisis. You deserve a break. Hopefully, the ongoing vaccination campaign will bring the relief we are all waiting for.


Your role in stabilising communities and advancing recovery in response to the pandemic will be paramount. Yet, if we have all learnt one thing from this crisis, it is that we need to strengthen resilience and prepare for the next inevitable shock on the horizon. After all constituents are safe, vaccinated and supported, recovery efforts will have to ensure that communities emerge more resilient.


Over the past year, we’ve identified a number of themes, based on more than 32 conversations convened with over 6,000 municipal workers, city practitioners and private sector partners during our Cities on the Frontline Speaker Series. These themes have coalesced into five lessons for a resilient recovery:


Equity must be at the centre of all response and resilience efforts. The inequality that results from inequity is a principal driver of vulnerability;


Communication is key. Enhancing communication is essential to engage constituents, but also to receive consistent feedback;


Technology helps enhance action. As we embrace the use of new technologies, we must ensure that the benefits gained from technological advancement are fully shared and risks accounted;


Government still has a role to play. Where government works well, communities can thrive; where it does not, things tend to fall apart;


Addressing Systemic Risks and building networks that ensure resilience rather than interdependencies is a necessity.


Taken together these key lessons establish a framework for city practitioners to use going forward. These are the steps cities can take to not only integrate further resilience qualities into recovery activities now, but to build back better and improve human health and wellbeing outcomes in the long-term.


Prioritise equity


The Covid-19 pandemic has shined a bright light on the inequities and injustice in society, including in our global public health systems. Perhaps less anticipated though has been the reveal of other challenges deeply rooted in our societies – social, racial and economic disparity.


What is more, the main lesson from Covid-19 is that we are all in the same boat. Nobody is safe until everyone is safe. Months of analysis by Arup Group in the development of the City Resilience Index, a program funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, concluded that inclusion was the main indicator determining the impact of shocks on communities. Dr. Sam Stratton-Short summarised it during our Cities on the Frontline Series: “Without equity, resilience cannot be achieved.”


The way we recover from the pandemic will define the new normal. If we are to build resilient systems, we must build an equitable and inclusive society. Only then will we be able to effectively withstand future challenges – shocks and stresses to our cities, nations, and the world.


Strengthen communication


Communicating early and often in times of crisis is key. We have seen numerous cases where inadequate, inconsistent, and negative communication led to worsening outcomes. Honesty and feedback mechanisms are also essential. Some of the most successful leaders, as more was learnt about Covid-19, had to change the advice given to their community. They underscore the importance of trust and a capacity to listen and hear the concerns of their constituents to keep communities informed and at ease.


The City of Ramallah in Palestine successfully implemented several social media campaigns throughout 2020 to promote facts over fear. Storytelling tools were used to encourage collective action, inspire hope, and foster resilience. To ensure credibility, the city partnered with influencers to disseminate its messages. This information was packaged to be easily distributed across all communication platforms to ensure city-wide awareness. Ramallah experienced a decrease in violence and a stronger sense of community that helped it cope with the added stress of the pandemic.

Without equity, resilience cannot be achieved

Embrace Technology


Throughout the pandemic, technology has further solidified its position as critical to human interaction in the modern world. Technology can act as a levelling agent facilitating equitable access to information and services, but it can also increase existing inequality gaps, pushing the most marginalised groups further into vulnerability. And, of course, there are privacy and cyber security concerns that must be assessed and addressed. As we embrace technology and move towards building smart cities, we must place emphasis on equal access and technological literacy to prevent widening inequality and ensure the benefits gained from technological advancement are shared, as well as individual privacy protected.


Government still has a role to play


We all have a role to play in times of crisis. And it is precisely because everyone is needed that governments remain important. Governments at all levels are essential to mobilise, to give direction, to arbitrate, and help coordinate action. We are not arguing for authorities to replace action from communities and the private sector, but if there is something that a year living in a global pandemic has demonstrated, it is that well organised and trusted governments are essential to concerted and coherent action.


Bloomberg recently ranked New Zealand, Singapore, Australia and Taiwan among the best places to live under Covid-19. All have well organised governments that listen to their constituencies. All of them have effectively mobilised all levels of government, as well as the private sector, in their response to the crisis.

Address Systemic Risks


We live in an increasingly interconnected world. Depending on how they are built, networks can create fragility or resilience. As has been witnessed these past weeks in Texas, an unprecedented winter storm hit the state bringing record setting cold temperatures, rendering incredible pressure upon the state’s energy grid and power sources. These systems, not calibrated for such unusual demand began to fail, triggering major blackouts for millions of households and shelters across the state. What is more, heating systems require water to function and the icy conditions had frozen, and in some cases busted main water pipes, causing water shortages and emergency reservoirs to drain because of leaking pipes and overdemand.


In their drive for energy independence, the state of Texas had not calibrated the energy or water systems for such extreme emergency situations. The redundancies necessary to avoid the impact of one failure point rippling throughout an interconnected system was not built in. There are ways to harvest the benefits of networks, while avoiding these interdependencies, but these must be assessed, planned, and optimised ahead of time.


When Covid-19 was identified in Wuhan in January 2020, few could imagine the cascading effect a flu-like virus would have on communities around the globe and the world economy. Pandemics have come and gone since the advent of mankind. But today’s interconnected world has greatly accelerated the spread and impact of the virus. We need to rethink our global system as well as interdependencies at the local level to embed resilience at all levels, from our power grids and water distribution networks to our trade and financial systems. We must also reflect on systemic risks that result from the interdependencies between systems.


Cities on the Frontline


R-Cities and the WB-Cities Resilience Program partnered in early 2020, at the very outset of the global pandemic, to offer a weekly virtual Speaker Series. The series, Cities on the Frontline, offered a space for city practitioners to gather, share best practices, as well as reveal challenges facing communities around the world in dealing with Covid-19. Establishing this robust virtual network and safe space for sharing ideas and solutions continues to give urban professionals the opportunity to address challenges in an innovative way. The success of our series is proof that our solutions are more resilient when developed in collaboration. Humans are social beings – we solve things best together, through peer-to-peer learning and exchange. Our Speaker Series offers this space.


Acting for a resilient recovery now


Cities are the frontline workers of the modern world. Urban areas concentrate risks. They have experienced the most acute impact of the pandemic and are likely to be the epicentre of future crises. Yet, they also possess the services and capabilities to advance a resilient recovery. Cities have the greatest diversity, knowledge and innovation centres, professionals, and local connections required to mobilise new approaches to investment in the recovery from the pandemic. Cities must work around shared and multiple benefit solutions going forward. A resilient recovery is about achieving multiple goals together, leveraging talents and capacities towards common and interconnected goals.


R-Cities and the WB-Cities Resilience Program are working to amplify these lessons for a resilient recovery through partnerships and programs. The only way to build cities that are resilient is to do it together, as a NETWORK. Building strong COMMUNICATIONS platforms, aided by the advancement of TECHNOLOGY will be essential to recovery. Engaging with a diverse set of LOCAL PARTNERS, will bring us closer to building EQUITABLE societies.


So, Cities – city leaders, municipal workers, and urban dwellers – thank you. You have demonstrated that you are central to the fight against this global pandemic. Now’s the time to formalise our approach to resilience – embedding it in every system, every delivery instrument, every investment – in all that we do.



Resilient Cities Network is a global city-led non-profit organisation that brings together knowledge, practice, partnerships, and funding to empower cities to help them build a safe, equitable, and sustainable future for all. The Network integrates the combined effort of urban practitioners, city governments, and communities in a collective, comprehensive, and well-coordinated call-to-action to deliver urban impact-driven resilience solutions.


The Resilient Cities Network recently released a Toolkit for a Resilient Recovery. This guide was co-designed with city Chief Resilience Officers to help city practitioners guide discussions throughout the recovery period. This suite of tools enables cities to define their own path to recovery by considering four iterative activities assess, plan, optimise, and learn.

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