A good deal of the reaction to the pandemic has characterised it as a ‘black swan event.’ That characterisation implies that there was no way to forecast or prepare for the pandemic. To the contrary, we were very much aware that there was the possibility, even the likelihood, of a global pandemic. We decided not to make the near-term investment to prepare, either in dollars, or in human resources, even though decision-makers had the tools they needed to do so. We are now paying the price and that price is far greater, probably by orders of magnitude, than it would have cost to simply be properly prepared.
There are lessons here in how we prepare for climate change. We know it is coming and, in many ways, we are deferring the cost to when it gets to crisis proportions. We know that this will only multiply the cost. Every company and every institution – international development institutions, Fortune 500 companies, even small and medium-sized businesses to some degree – needs to be doing a risk and opportunity assessment on the impacts climate change will impose, in the short, medium and long term. They then need to be putting in place mitigation plans that stretch back to their supply chains, because that’s where much of the risk occurs.
They need to understand that the resilience of the communities into which they sell, or service in the case of government agencies, is critical. You can have a business that is running but if your customers are sheltered-in-place, as we have seen in the pandemic, your business goes away. You can have stores and restaurants open, but if nobody is willing to leave their home, that does not work. You need to be assessing the risks to your consumers, the risk to your suppliers and the risk to your own business operations. The Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) provides an excellent framework to get started on that. WSP provides extensive support for risk and vulnerability assessments, as well as scenario analysis and disclosure aligned with TCFD.
Looking to the future
We have a ‘Future Ready’ programme, which identifies key trends in social demographics, technology, natural resources and climate change. The pandemic has created some new trends that we are going to need to adjust for. Examples include suburbanisation, as people continue to move towards the centres of cities but may not be comfortable in the densest locations; the increase in people working at home; and the change in transport and office environments.
We have also done substantial work around how healthcare systems can be more effective in the future, both in response to the pandemic but also in terms of existing challenges such as serving an aging population. We want to reduce costs by having more flexible healthcare facilities – not simply an emergency room or a local doctor’s office, but somewhere that can offer multiple services. This is not just an academic exercise. WSP project managers take the trends identified into consideration on each and every ‘Future Ready’ project they work on. It may turn out that none of the trends apply and that’s fine. But in many cases, they will.
When we think about a next-generation building that will be in place for years – will it have a port for unmanned aerial vehicles? It probably should, because of how commerce will be conducted in the future. When you design a highway, will it accommodate a future smart vehicle that enhances traffic flows and reduces the risk of accidents? By taking these factors into consideration we ensure that the economic utility of the project that we help design and build will be maintained and increased, not merely in 2025 but in 2040 and in 2060.
Working together offers resilience
We need cooperation and collaboration. They have been in surprisingly short supply in response to the pandemic. There’s often a barrier between commercial companies and the communities in which they operate. This barrier comes about largely because of the different metrics that governments and commercial entities use to assess risk and value to their customers. The reality is that most of the risks of businesses are associated with risks to communities, be it the availability of electricity infrastructure, the availability of water, the availability of fibre internet, the ability to get to and from the workplace by a road or tunnel or bridge or the use of airplanes.
Commercial entities are dependent on their communities. WSP is in a unique position, relative to the economy and even relative to our competitors, in that we provide resiliency services to municipalities and states and also to individual commercial entities at a large scale. We have the opportunity to inform those clients about what’s happening on the other side of the commercial-government divide and help build partnerships across that barrier. The knee-jerk response to climate-related risk is often to build capital infrastructure: put up a wall, a fence, a viaduct.
But often the cheapest and most effective mitigation measure is collaboration and process improvement. When commercial entities speak to their local utilities or local governments, and local governments speak to their most important commercial entities, they can provide improved resiliency services to the community. We see that collaboration can reduce costs dramatically.
The majority of WSP’s business is associated with design engineering. A much smaller proportion is related to vulnerability assessments, disclosure and adaptation planning for commercial enterprises. However, it turns out that the latter is increasingly informing the former. In fact, the distinction between the two areas is eroding over time as the staff and teams that provide resilience services to commercial enterprises increasingly bring their expertise to the municipal side of design engineering. Planning and execution of infrastructure projects have historically been sequential.
You start with planners and architects, you then check on environmental regulations and get permits, before turning it over to engineers, who turn it over to the builder. But something is lost along the way; so often the original planners at the front end of the project can barely recognise the project when it is done. That system often also fails communities, who have limited input until the process is almost complete. We have instituted a much more integrated planning development process that engages with the community about its risks and vulnerabilities right from the beginning of the project. If you want to ensure resiliency for communities, you need to get them involved.
Ensuring equity and social justice
When bad things happen, those who are already on the short end of society’s resources suffer the most. We have seen this so starkly during the pandemic. The top 10 percent of wealth owners increased their wealth while the bottom 10 percent have suffered the most dramatic effects from unemployment and poverty.
When it comes to climate change, or to technological shifts, the same patterns will dominate: many of the haves will either not feel the brunt of it, or even obtain some benefits. The have-nots will suffer most. It is often the case that under-resourced communities live on the other side of some sort of barrier. The clichéd metaphor is the wrong side of the railroad tracks, but it could just as easily be a geographical feature – a flood zone, for example. When we talk about ‘building back better,’ are we ensuring that the community’s resilience needs are taken into consideration? Do they have a place to go for food and shelter during a disaster?
Often the cheapest and most effective mitigation measure is collaboration and process improvement
It doesn’t even have to be a disaster, it could simply be changing weather norms – a regular summer heatwave that formerly lasted two days may now last two weeks. Under-resourced communities tend to have less access to air conditioning – are you building in community resources where folks can go and not feel further endangered during an extended heatwave? You need to involve the community at the front end of the system.
Under-resourced communities also often rely more on mass transit than private vehicles. It is one of the reasons why we have seen this incredible outbreak of coronavirus cases in under-resourced communities. Can you take that into consideration in your design of future transportation?
Building for tomorrow
The challenges around serving under-resourced communities are more intense still when it comes to the Global South because, in many cases, these are the communities that will bear the brunt of climate change. Future trends should be taken into account through rapid economic growth and industrialisation and it’s the responsibility of those designing the infrastructure; what we are building today must be ready to support those communities in 2040 and 2050 and 2060. If there are water shortages, what are we going to do to make sure that those communities are not disproportionately affected? How can we make sure that the infrastructure will hold up to the new demands made by technology and climate change?
We have seen a sea of change in the last five years. Sustainability was once a cost centre outside the core business model, now it’s integrated into the heart of profitability. When we talk to finance professionals, it turns out that resiliency and sustainability are good economics, good business, and good for reputations.