Engineering for Resilience in Urban Environments

Engineering for Resilience in Urban Environments

In the summer of 2022, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil spoke with the University of Birminghams Professor Chris Rogers, a geotechnical engineer, about his work on engineering for resilience in urban environments.

How did you end up working in this area? 

I came to resilience because it neatly features as one of the dimensions of sustainability. If I stripped back the activities with which we engage as a civilized community and we wish to survive, there are certain key elements that become vital – food production, safety, and shelter, an economic framework, and providing societal value. All of that happens within our natural environment and requires that we understand that we have one planet and if we cause irreparable harm, we will have nothing else to use. So, the three pillars of sustainability impinge upon everything else.  

I am a civil engineer by training – I engineer for society, within the environment, while keeping a close eye on the economic cost. So, I naturally deal with all three elements of sustainability, and I have had a portfolio of grants over the years which have allowed me to think holistically about sustainability and systems interventions. As someone who is concerned with large scale infrastructure, the future that I must grapple with as I try to make my work sustainable is far longer than that of say, someone designing a mobile phone. I have a responsibility to look to the far future, because the things I build should have a long lifespan.  

The things I build may last decades or hundreds of years. In sustainability terms, it all comes down to how to use resources wisely while avoiding planetary damage. Within this, resilience in engineering terms is about creating things and processes which will continue to function in the future in the face of contextual change, including but not limited to shocks.  Climate change is one example of a relevant contextual change, but other relevant factors include urbanisation, technological change, demographic changes, and migration. Ultimately, I want to create things which will continue to deliver their intended outcomes far into the future even if the context changes – resilience and sustainability work together as two of the three basic criteria for design. The third, is liveability – ultimately what we create is for people and society.  

What types of questions did your resilience through innovation project explore? 

We wanted to explore the different dimensions and interpretations of resilience within infrastructure systems. We brought together a highly multidisciplinary group to work out what resilience meant to each of them. I have learned in previous work that different disciplines understand the idea of ‘stress’ very differently, and I know that resilience can likewise be understood in all sorts of different ways – so I wanted to see how some of those other disciplinary understandings might help engineering.  

What did you find? 

We found that if we are to cover all the dimensions of sustainability and resilience, we need to combine all the relevant disciplinary dimensions to fully understand the problems in cities and the solutions for our city infrastructure and systems. This project alerted the engineering community to different understandings of resilience, including understandings which come from nature and the social sciences, but which are relevant to the operational and infrastructure systems which make urban spaces work.  

How does preparedness for shocks and emergencies fit within this? 

Resilience involves understanding a whole host of potential contextual changes – some of which are much more difficult to anticipate than others. This includes preparedness for shocks to the system – whether from war, or from natural hazards. There are radical things which can happen within the earth – volcanoes, tsunamis, and landslides for example, which we should acknowledge and prepare ourselves for where relevant. But societal preparedness is also important – which is why our work in a subsequent project explored the limits of extreme, but plausible, directions of travel for the future of our political systems and social world, to understand how those changes could influence the way our infrastructure and urban systems operate.  

What does that look like in practice? 

Our society exists somewhere in the middle of a wall, with that wall containing all the plausible futures for our society. The far corners of that wall are extremes – in one corner market forces dominate while social and environmental concerns are totally overlooked, while in another corner we might have a fortress world in which gated communities of ‘haves’ control resources while the majority of ‘have nots’ are impoverished and live outside of the protection of social systems. In another corner, you have communism, or an extremely strong central governance system. In yet another extreme, you might have a world where the protection of the planet comes before all else in our society, and where a sustainability paradigm dominates all other policies. Those are each extreme forms of societies which we might not like to live in, or which might not be comfortable, but which we recognize and are capable of envisioning. So if we test our engineering designs under each of those extremes and they still work, then we can know that whichever way society works in the future, the infrastructure we have designed will continue to have value. If our systems break under any of these modelled extreme futures, then we can explore and better understand the vulnerabilities within these systems and adjust our system – or at the very least ensure that the designers and caretakers of that system are aware of the potential circumstances under which that design could become vulnerable. This approach can help us to futureproof our designs and make them more resilient to social change. 

How do these themes resonate with your work today? 

I still use those dimensions of resilience when I analyse system interventions – I still use those extremes to test things out, though more of my current work focuses on liveability. I am interested in how we could change the way we govern our cities, for example I am presently writing a paper on how Birmingham City Council has embedded the natural environment in all its decision making. We need holistic thinking embedded in the processes and the minds of the people who make decisions and shape our cities. Separately, I’m also working on a technical programme which is looking at creating swarms of miniature robots to live in our pipe system and be able to deepen our understanding of how those systems are performing, and which could enable intervention at the point of incipient failure. In this summer’s drought we saw a lot of pipe network leakage because ground shrinkage can cause cracks to open, allowing pipes to leak. That is the consequences of contextual change – climate change. If we can develop the technology to live in the pipes and survey them on a routine basis, we can change our asset management processes to avoid future failures, instead of dealing with failures as they occur through emergency repairs.  

Photo by Erik Eastman on Unsplash