We’ve detected that you are using an outdated browser. This will prevent you from accessing certain features. Update browser

Podcast interview

The Safety Pioneers Episode 3: The Resilience Shift

Discover why making things safe to fail is just as important as making things safe. In this episode of The Safety Pioneers, we interview Dr Juliet Mian, technical director of The Resilience Shift, a Lloyd's Register Foundation programme.

Episode transcript

Dr Juliet Mian:

Our starting point is really the transport, the water, the energy and the communication systems that underpin everything that we rely on as a modern society.

Narrator:

In this episode we talk to someone who deals with uncertainty on a daily basis.

Dr Juliet Mian:

The systems that we’re talking about they are technical systems, they are social systems they’re ecological systems they’re all very highly interconnected.

Narrator:

Dr Juliet Mian is a civil engineer and works for Arup, an independent organisation involved in every aspect of today’s built environment. Juliet is the Technical Director for The Resilience Shift initiative, which is supported by Arup and Lloyd’s Register Foundation.  We caught up with Juliet at a networking event.  She started by explaining that the initiative aims to make our world safer by helping to ensure that our critical infrastructure has the ability to deal with times of uncertainty.

Dr Juliet Mian:

In our context we’re talking about critical infrastructure being the transport, the energy, the water and the communications systems, because essentially they underpin everything else. So, whether it’s food or healthcare or government or education, they need those basics, you know you need transportation, you need food, you need water and you need communications for those other systems to function.

The engineering of infrastructure is the starting point. Because of the challenges and the uncertainty that our infrastructure faces in the future, designing it to be safe has to actually consider the future shocks and stresses. It has to recognise uncertainty. So, we’re not just designing for the things we know about. So, traditionally as a civil engineer, for example, we might design to a certain water level or a certain wind load but that’s changing. So, we’re talking much more about resilience to say ‘what if we’re wrong, what if something fails, if one part of our system fails how do we make sure that the world is safe and that the communities who rely on these systems are safe? One of the changes we talk about is instead of saying fail-safe, so to design something that won’t fail, we can’t assume that that will happen. We should recognise that we’ll always be surprised. So, we consider things that are safe to fail, so that you can take out one component of a system but people can still get their water, because those are the sort of qualities in those systems, or a part of a transport infrastructure fails that doesn’t mean that people can’t get to work, get to their jobs, get the goods and services that we need to be safe in the long term, in the bigger holistic context.

Narrator:

An important aspect of The Resilience Shift approach is recognising the importance of learning from the past.

Dr Juliet Mian:

To my mind there’s a balance needed. We have data now that we never had before, there’s a huge amount of data that’s helping us make decisions, but if we don’t learn from the past and if we don’t recognise that our data is actually from a very short period of time then we’re at risk. I think we’re at risk of making mistakes, of locking in problems to our systems because we’re only designing them based on a very short record of time, whereas actually you know there’s a huge amount of information from history from people and that’s another really important thing about the critical infrastructure systems that we’re looking at in The Resilience Shift is that they are physical systems, technical systems there’s a lot of digital overlay, but fundamentally they’re operated by people, they’re planned by people and they’re used by people. So you can’t separate the people from the systems because that’s why they’re there. They’re there ultimately to serve communities.

Narrator:

During a presentation on The Resilience Shift initiative, Juliet elaborated on the importance of learning from the past and how it can help us with the challenges we are all facing.

Dr Juliet Mian:

So actually looking at these challenges; globalisation, urbanisation, population growth – they’re not new – the rate at which they’re happening now is significantly faster. Climate change, planetary boundaries are new and emerging challenges but there’s a lot that we can learn from that, learn from what we didn’t know, learn that we should be ready for the unexpected in terms of climate change. Just to put that in context; infrastructure since Roman Times has been developed to deal with to  reflect urbanisation, globalisation. The Roman Roads, the Roman aqueducts were built exactly because of that, because cities were growing, because there was a need for global trade. (Then there’s)  Victorian infrastructure, which certainly in the UK underpins a lot of what we still have today our railways our sewers our aqueducts, were all built because of increasing urbanisation and increasing global trade.

But what’s very important for resilience is recognising that failures can happen, our systems can get stressed, we don’t want them to collapse , we don’t want them to fail, but when they do what’s really important is the reflecting, learning, adapting,  so that’s really where the learning from history is really important.

Narrator:

Just as many of the infrastructure decisions that the Romans and the Victorians made in the past remain with us today. Likewise the things that we build along with the policies we approve will leave their own legacy.

Dr Juliet Mian:

So, it’s really important that we use all the knowledge we have now to make the right decisions for the future generations, so that my children aren’t saying ‘why did you do this?’  At the moment it’s climate change but we don’t want to make mistakes now with the future, with the technology that will have my children or my grandchildren wondering why we did that, as we now realise the mistakes or you know things we weren’t aware of with climate change and with some of the other sort of challenges that we as engineers now have to deal with.

Narrator:

Another aspect of The Resilience Shift Initiative is seeing if urban challenges being addressed in one part of the world can provide inspiration for towns and cities in other parts of the globe. One example is The City Water Resilience Approach. This research looked at Mexico City’s Water system, which faces many ongoing shocks and stresses from water scarcity and extreme weather to variable water quality. Other cities that could benefit from this research include Hull in the UK. 

Dr Juliet Mian:

We’ve been doing work around the resilience of urban water systems and this is really to reflect the importance of not just the written down history but also the community, so in a city like Mexico City the different communities, in fact the history of the water system in Mexico City is a lesson on its own, but in this context we’ve been engaging with community groups, taking a holistic approach to everyone who both manages the water, but really importantly, those who use the water and who are affected by water shortages and then employing a peer to peer learning between cities. So, whilst the city of Hull in the UK faces a very different set of challenges to Mexico, again there’s a huge amount of lessons that can be learned if we do our best to capture these lessons, capture the experience and share them across cities.

Narrator:

Sometimes lessons we learn from the past don’t have to go back very far in time.  In the initial weeks and months of the Coronavirus pandemic the world was observing first China and then Italy and Spain to see how events were unfolding. We were all watching and learning as the situation developed.

Dr Juliet Mian:

Looking back is really important to understand how we got to where we are today but then recognising that we need to look forward and we need to not be complacent, we need to recognise uncertainty and use the ‘what if’ type questions to make sure that we’re really learning from the past and designing to look forward.

Narrator:

So a key aspect of creating a safer world isn’t about having a set of definitive answers to every potential problem we will encounter in years to come, it is very much about building-in ways of being resilient so that when we are taken by surprise we will be able to cope and adapt to unexpected situations as they develop.

Dr Juliet Mian:

The infrastructure that we have to design, deliver, provide has to recognise these challenges. So, globalisation, the fact that we’re designing infrastructure systems in a highly interconnected global world, where a failure on one part of the world can very quickly cascade through to other sectors and other regions. Urbanisation, with more and more people living in cities, already 55 percent of the global population live in cities and that trend is only going to increase. Population growth, and finally the sort of emerging challenges of climate change and also the other planetary boundaries within which we need to operate.

The context that we’re working in – we’re very much focused on practice and what practitioners need, so equipping them with tools, approaches, technology, education that are going to help them deliver resilient infrastructure systems, both now and in the future. And we’re working across the entire value chain of critical infrastructures so from government to investment to those who are designing, planning, delivering, operating and maintaining critical infrastructures.

I wanted to just finish with a quote from Voltaire which is that whilst ‘uncertainty is an uncomfortable proposition certainty is (an) absurb (one)’ so to use the lessons that we’ve had, if we learn nothing else we should always expect to be surprised.

Hit enter or the arrow to search Hit enter to search

Search icon

Are you looking for?