by Keketso Motjuwadi, Civil and Resilience Engineer, at Royal HaskoningDHV Southern Africa

Resilience is the ability to take a punch from Mohammed Ali and quickly recover to fighting strength – or close to it – before you took the hit. The shock of the punch might knock you off your feet, but it’s how quickly you get back up that matters.

When COVID-19 became part of our everyday lexicon, certain words and phrases took on buzzword status. ‘Resilience’ was one of them.

Before the pandemic, ‘resilience’ was a word best applied in the pharmaceutical and psychological fields. It wasn’t a word you’d often hear in business; even less so in an engineering practice. Now, it’s thrown around so much that the word ‘resilience’ risks being relegated to the annals of 2020, along with phrases like “new normal”, “challenging times”, and “unprecedented disruption”.

Buzzword it may be now, ‘resilience’ has become even more important and applicable to the engineering field than ever before. Let me explain. 

One-two punch

In engineering, the proverbial ‘Mohammed Ali punch’ comes in the form of floods, earthquakes, fires, terror attacks, and pandemics.

Societies like South Africa that struggle with chronic stresses, such as extreme poverty, violence, water shortages, and an inefficient public transport system, take these punches particularly hard and find it difficult to recover and get back in the ring.

Chronic stresses, exacerbated by unexpected shocks, pack a one-two punch, and slowly degrade the fabric of a city.

Rolling with the punches

Engineers don’t like to take punches – both literally (in high school) and figuratively (in our projects). So, we try to avoid them. We design buildings and structures that are higher, stronger, and bigger so that, when the punches come, they bounce right off.

The problem, however, is that it’s impossible to out-engineer nature or to completely shield society from the types of shocks and stresses for which humanity needs to be prepared. Because if there’s one thing we can learn from history, it’s that the shocks keep coming, and they’re becoming more frequent, more intense, and more severe.

Resilient design is the best method we have for dealing with these shocks while the world works to get greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions under control.

Resilient design in engineering

The first thing to understand is that resilience is a characteristic of a system, not a component of it. For example, a resilient wastewater treatment facility does not refer to a structure that will exist into perpetuity. Instead, it has to do with how the facility contributes to the resilience of the community it serves through waste treatment and reduction, water reuse, and energy and fertiliser production. 

Resilience in engineering focuses on maintaining functionality of the wastewater facility during an extreme event and not simply on mitigating potential losses during the event.

In essence, resilient design means asking: How can critical community services be maintained during times of shock and chronic stress?

Resilient by design

A resilient engineering design should include some or all of these principles:

  • Reflectiveness: Learning from the past to make better plans.
  • Resourcefulness: Identifying efficient or alternative resource use.
  • Inclusivity: Shared ownership and decision-making.
  • Integration: Bringing together various systems and institutions.
  • Robustness: Well-constructed and managed systems.
  • Redundancy: Purposefully created spare capacity for disruption.
  • Flexibility: Adaptable strategy to changing circumstances.

Climate planning by the city of Houston in the United States of America is an example of the incorporation of resilience characteristics. The city has worked to become more climate prepared as it has become increasingly vulnerable to flooding from extreme precipitation events and storms. A collaborative effort involving the Johnson Space Center, the United States Department of Agriculture, the Geological Survey, and the Army Corps of Engineers, as well as the use of several climate building tools, resulted in the creation of an online toolkit to be used as a model for strategic planning to help the city protect citizens from the effects of extreme weather and increase its ability to recover from damage. In its work, the city demonstrated reflectiveness, inclusivity, integration, robustness, and flexibility.

From Houston to Byblos, Jakarta to Chennai, Rotterdam to Cape Town, resilient design must be woven into a city’s operational fabric. Since the water crisis experienced in Cape Town, resilient management of water resources and sanitation services have been promoted by the city – an example of the reflectiveness principle in action.

But we can’t simply react to a changing climate. We have an opportunity to better prepare our cities and societies to withstand knocks; to anticipate what’s coming. Take Nelson Mandela Bay in the Eastern Cape, for example. Officially declared a drought disaster area, Day Zero looms as many areas in the province experience record-level water shortages. Some dams have run dry.

Serious sustainable work and interventions are needed. Applying the resilience principles to drought prevention, preparation, response, and recovery can help the province to better roll with nature’s punches. 

Ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all is a globally recognised human right. Listed as Sustainable Development Goal 6, it is up to engineering practitioners, working in collaboration with municipalities, communities, private industry, thought leaders, and other experts to strive to achieve this goal.

Our natural and urban environments are changing rapidly, and show no signs of slowing down. Resilient design accepts that change is the norm and that combining different types of knowledge is a precondition for innovative and resilient solutions under conditions of uncertainty.