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‘You’d no sooner run a city without a Chief Resilience Officer than without a Chief of Police’

More and more cities are employing CROs to cope with both everyday hustle and unexpected shock

‘In ten years, I think you’d no sooner run a city without a Chief Resilience Officer than without a Chief of Police’, says Andrew Salkin, Chief Operating Officer of 100 Resilient Cities, a programme funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

In the USA, seven cities are now the beneficiaries of the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities programme, which taps cities into a global network of decision-makers and resources, and funds the position of a Chief Resilience Officer (CRO). The figurehead’s role is to help cities face the challenges of how to become economically, environmentally and socially resilient in the 21st century. The first CRO, Patrick Otellini, was appointed in April 2014.

The term ‘resilience’ is fast becoming a buzzword under which designers, urbanists, economists and healthcare providers gather. The challenges defined by 100 Resilient Cities are similarly broad, encompassing health and well-being; leadership and strategy; infrastructure and environment; economy and society. But in each city, the resilience teams focus on one element as part of its ‘pitch’. Chicago focuses on the flooding that threatens its poor communities; Boulder, USA faces forest fires; and Jacksonville, USA concentrates on rising sea levels.

Salkin is the man leading the operation of the 100 Resilient Cities programme. He knows a thing or two about planning for and coping with both everyday hustle and unexpected shock. He worked for New York City for decades and has first-hand experience of large-scale disasters, having worked on the clean up of 9/11 and of Hurricane Sandy.

Capital expenditure on resilience largely goes toward the large threats to cities infrastructure, rather than the chronic stresses, says Salkin, speaking out of 100 Resilient Cities network’s New York City headquarters. But failure to adapt to slow-moving macro trends can be devastating, he says. Just look at Detroit: ‘In 1950 it had the highest income per capita in the United States, by 2010 it was devastated. It didn’t have a flood, or heatwave, drought or catastrophe. It just couldn’t adjust to macro economic changes. The CRO needs to be vigilant to similar shifts.’

In an ideal world, CROs will make connections between services and departments to create initiatives that wouldn’t normally happen. ‘In my view, there’s lots of room in city governments for more to happen, better. The CROs can find these areas and capitalise on them,’ he says. In this way, the they can play a role in helping weave together public service provision cheaply and without damaging quality at a time when public spending is under pressure.

Salkin makes the point that you can’t bring change to cities in the blink of an eye. Budgets and systems are entrenched, and 100 Resilient Cities does not bring with it huge capital investment. ‘What you can do though, is leverage what is already happening,’ says Salkin. He gives the example of New York City’s street repair programme. Every year the streets are re-tarmacked. By asking which streets still needed to be paved, there was an opportunity revealed to build a series of small parks. At minimal expense, a new amenity was added, that could help improve life for senior citizens, encourage them to take some exercise, and in turn perhaps decrease the strain they put on the health department.

The Chief Resilience Officer can be seen as recognition that we now live in  ‘risk societies’, the term coined in the early 1990s by the sociologist Ulrich Beck to denote,‘a phase of development of modern society in which the social, political, ecological and individual risks created by the momentum of innovation increasingly elude the control and protective institutions of modernity’.

For Salkin, any prospective CROs need to be comfortable with this kind of modern ambiguity, as well as have technical nous. What does he think are the characteristics of a potential CRO? ‘They need to be able to embrace a sense of leadership’, says Salkin. ‘They need to have a deep sense of technical expertise that they can carry over into related but different fields.’

‘We ask them to be a silo-buster. We want them to be able to bring good ideas forward and work across the different silos with a city administration. And it’s also important that they can reach out to the other sectors: private sector, civic society, academia, citizens, and create coalitions and represent.’

‘They need to be able to communicate at a technical level and understand people and the tasks of people who have hard jobs. With that, they also need to be able to have a really good ear to the ground and to have the ability to understand people who have hard lives,’ says Salkin. As he points out, when bad things happen in cities, they happen ‘harder and longer’ for the poorest.

Salkin invokes the T-shaped personality, that can function at boardroom and street level, giving an example from his career: Salkin was the ‘Downtown Construction Czar’, where he led the City’s efforts to balance the needs of residents, employees and tourists of Lower Manhattan amid the clean-up, construction and rebuilding post-September 11.

‘I was responsible for handing out the building permits for the clean up. So I was in lots of board meetings and high-level discussions and then had to give out permits to people who dig holes and talk to those guys and make sure they went about it in the right way, that the hole was in the right place, and that if they were digging a hole next to a house that had a woman with a baby in it that they did it in such a way that it didn’t ruin that woman’s life!’

Traits common to the CRO are comfort ‘functioning in an environment where they can’t see the outcome, where they walk through a chaotic process and bring people with them. That’s different to what you’d ask of a traditional civil servant.’

How the individual relates to the existing power structure is critical, says Salkin: ‘We don’t want CROs to become part of the status quo, but they do need access to political power. It will take guts for the city to let this smart person get close to power.’ Could the CRO grow into a mayoral role? Yes, says Salkin, though the position should not be held by the mayor – there’s too much to do.

‘The fact is that there are so many different types of people who have been appointed in very different cities,’ continues Salkin. ‘I think you will begin to see lots of successes, but I think how those successes will have been achieved will be very different. You need someone who can build bridges, literally,’ referring to the logistical and infrastructural demands of the post, ‘but also hold people’s hands. And that’s difficult.’

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