Learning and adapting

Humans have always used innovation and ingenuity to overcome the obstacles of change, and today is no exception says AECOM’s Global Director of Resilience, Josh Sawislak.

Throughout our history, humans have created new approaches to adapting to our environment and changes in society. To take one example, researchers have found a strong correlation between climate change in the Middle Stone Age (ending about 40,000 years ago) and the development of human culture and technology such as the crafting and use of the first stone tools. In the broadest sense, we call this adaptation to threats we face “resilience.”

Resilience is a term in physics that describes the ability of a material to recover from compression or expansion. More commonly today, we talk about resilience of communities as a measure of how well those communities can absorb and quickly recover from acute shocks and chronic stresses. Flexibility and agility are keys to community resilience because in terms of adapting to a changing climate, we don’t always fully understand the specific threat we face, either in scope or in timeframe.

For example, our ability to predict weather has improved significantly in the past 50 years with a better understanding of the science, and with new tools and technology like satellites. However, even though we can estimate the number of annual Atlantic hurricanes we expect every year before the start of the season, we can’t predict if and where those storms will make landfall beyond about 72 hours ahead of the storm. Telling people on the U.S. Gulf Coast that 10 hurricanes are expected to form and three will hit land that year means nothing unless you can say that one will impact them. And in the case of some threats, such as earthquakes, we have made great technological advancements in the ability to assess seismic risk in the past few decades, but limited progress in our ability to predict accurately where, when, and how large the next big one will be.

What all of this means is that we need to use existing data and tools to design and build more resilient communities. While we can’t predict exactly when an earthquake will strike, we do know which areas are at greater risk, and we can establish and enforce stronger building codes. We know that hurricanes and typhoons will make landfall and that we must be ready to weather the storm. Innovation will drive the development of new materials and designs that allow us to lower the risk when these events do occur.

Like our Middle Stone Age ancestors, we see that our climate is changing and we know that we must find new ways to adapt. They may have created stone tools to access new food sources and build better shelter, but we have the ability to plan cities that better withstand more severe weather and drought, and that account for sea level rise and increased urban migration. Innovation is what we as humans do best, and it is what the future requires.