21st century cities: D is for Disasters

This month, I’m writing a series: the ABC’s of 21st Century Cities. In previous entries, I explored Artificial Intelligence, Backward Futures  and Co-creation. Today is disasters.

and Brazil are suffering deadly disasters; I hope you recover rapidly and fully.


One year ago, Haiti was devastated by a 7.0 earthquake. Over 300,000 people were killed. The core of Port-Au-Prince was virtually leveled. One year later, less than 5% of the rubble has been removed. One million people remain homeless, living in tent cities.

The first disaster happened on January 12, 2010. The second one is ongoing. It’s a double crime – unsafe construction and terrible response.

For 21st century cities, disasters are a way of life

Do you have a nagging sense that there’s an uptick in disasters? It’s true. There are four times as many natural disasters as twenty years ago. The trend is still climbing.

No one is immune. Fifty poorer countries led by India will suffer the most deaths. A recent report estimates we will see one million deaths a year by 2030 . Industrialized countries will pay more in economic and infrastructure loss, estimated at $157 billion annually.

Disasters are reshaping our human geography.

  •     Over one billion people  in over 100 countries are at risk of becoming climate refugees; 98% live in developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Middle East (pictured Lilypad2 Refugee Floating Island).
  •     The current number of climate refugees is 50 million people, mostly displaced by flooding. By 2050, the UN estimates as many as 200 million climate refugees.
  •     People will migrate to places with food, water, security, education, health, and jobs, away from floods, disease, famine, drought, and conflict.
  •     In the US , the predicted hurricane damage on the gulf coast by 2030 is $350 billion , equal to a Hurricane Katrina every 7 years. New York and Miami  hold the highest risk for massive infrastructure damage.
  •     NBC news reporter Ann Curry’s tweet helped doctors and medicine land at a Haitian airstrip.  Is twitter a robust grassroots communication network ready to serve in disasters?

Have you been caught a disaster?

If so, were you ready? It’s more than just individual procrastination; we even vote to avoid fixing infrastructure.

  •     Elected officials get cheered and then re-elected when they respond to a disaster, as they should. But amazingly, when they beef up infrastructure, they lose elections. For every $1 spent in preparation, we save $15 in recovery.

“The benefits of prevention are not tangible; they are the disasters that did not happen.” Kofi Annan

  •     Nature or humans? Imagine if Haiti’s construction had been quake-resistant? In New Orleans, Katrina wasn’t the killer, a failed levee was. The two are so deeply intertwined, it’s always both.
  •     Mississippi and Alabama, each devastated by Katrina, refuse to enact building codes. Florida suffered 40-50% less damage and fewer deaths.
  •     Some recoveries take half a century, like Berlin. Others leap forward, like London. Still others take centuries and even millennia, like Rome.
  •     Flooding may steal the great coastal cities from future generations; there may not be future “Romes” to serve as historic markers of today.

Can we rebuild better than before?

Some cities revitalize and thrive after a catastrophic event. Others collapse, becoming a shadow of their most robust past. Jared Diamond believes collapse occurs when a society fails to adapt to new ecological or economic environments.

In other words, to recover, a city has to clearly imagine a revitalized future in a dramatically altered landscape and have the capacity and resources to act.

  •     The best time (if there is such a thing) to experience a major disaster is when your country or region is on a growth cycle. The worst is when your city’s in decline already.
  •     Will disasters become the reality tv of tomorrow?
Rotterdam is a miracle of resilience
After a catastrophic flood in 1953, Rotterdam leaders decided to rebuild beyond anyone’s imagination. Forty four years later, the Maeslant Barrier opened. It is an engineering marvel, designed to withstand a 10,000 year flood event.
  • Gumption. Building on Boyd’s OODA decision-making loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act),Vinay Gupta identifies Drive as the missing link between orientation and deciding to act, in other words, leadership and vision.
  • Wrong-mindedness. The most difficult problem is not inaction but wrong-minded action. Is New York rebuilding a 2050 future or a 1950 rehash?
  • Mindfulness. In contrast, after the 1989 earthquake destroyed the massive Embarcadero highway, San Francisco tore it down and re-established access to the bay from the adjacent neighborhoods. They chose a new, unique future.
  • A future of parity. For New Orleans to build a levee system for a 500 year flood event the estimate is $70 billion. The current repair to the levees is costing $15 billion for a 100 year flood. The entire city’s future remains unstable.

Images of the future

A number of organizations are fully mobilized such as the UN’s Resilient Cities program and Architecture for Humanity. Here’s a few still in the future.

  •     Communication networks include our mobile phones. Flying disaster relief robots support a local network.
  •     Video games can aid in preparation and emergency response training.
  •     Sensor networks provide real time data on locations of people and resources.
  •     Mobile hospitals will be flown into remote locations, such as solar airships.
  •    Temporary housing is being designed as prefab or created locally with salvaged materials.
  •     Future housing will be created on-site via 3d printers.
  •     Modular solar power enables off the grid energy.
  •     Geoengineering attempts to turn back atmospheric change to avoid the most extreme consequences of global warming.
  •     Sensors for emergency alert systems continue to improve

 Disaster-ready future cities

Several trends help: localism for food, distributed power especially the use of solar energy, walkable and biking neighborhoods w/ shops and services, DIY initiatives for making things, bartering/trading/sharing networks, communication networks such as twitter and other mobile devices, and so on.  A global push for city response plans, strengthening infrastructure, implementing building codes, and building higher and away from oceans is critical.

  • The 9/11 Report described New York as a failure of imagination. Can imagination help us?
  • The strongest efforts come from within a community. Someone steps up; some vision captures hearts and minds. People begin a million small actions towards recovery.
  • If a catastrophic event hits your city, are you ready? Is your neighborhood? Your family? How will you be safe? How resilient is your city?

Disasters destroy normal. Many cities and communities find their true mission, and rebuild even better. It can be a moment of deep reflection and learning, committing, and inspiring.

The next post, E is for Education. I am failing at my goal to post daily so I will try some new strategies. Thank you for reading, tweeting, commenting!

Images: Disaster historic statistics, Haiti tent city, Rotterdam Maeslantkering, Pakistani flood refugees, Lilypad2 floating city, flying disaster relief robots, video games.


Ten Ways to Build Strong Communities – Notes from Free State Social

Last week, three hundred people experienced an energy tornado at the Free State Social. Thanks to the hard working Ben Smith and Whitney Mathews, folks from Kansas, Missouri and points beyond spent a couple of days with social media geniuses.

These folks blew me away. Two days of cyclonic SM. If cities used this gale of ideas, our communities would be knit tighter than Mayberry. Here’s my top ten for cities.


Jeremiah, Ben, and Chris

1.       Brogan’s Be Nice Club. Shawna Coronado, green gardening guru and author, said that’s all the advice Chris Brogan, New Marketing Labs, gave her. Be nice. Not just a feel-good platitude; it’s the core belief of social. The seed in the center of the fruit. “Do Something.” Don’t wait for people to ask. Go find them. Then give them whatever they need, tools, ideas, words, to make it happen. Communities flourish with hyper-focused, big-hearted nice. Contagious.

2.       Blog early and often in multi-media. Make your posts short and fast (whoop, that’s advice I need!) Shawna says accessible words, shorter sentences and paragraphs, with personal touches. Then parlay one idea into two, three, even four posts, using texts, pictures, podcasts and videos. Mix it up. Ramsey Mohsen’s (Digital Evolution) video of the opening of the first downtown KC grocery story in recent memory attracted his most viewers and was picked up by the news media. Community videos tell the story of people and place.

3.      Live and die by your database. Chris says don’t just know their business address; know everything you can about who they are, what they like. Jeremiah Owyang, web strategist with Altimeter Group, says future growth is tied to CRM (Customer (for cities, say Citizen) Relations Management); his “New Rules” details strategies. Knowing people as individuals turns a city into a community. You can give them what they need. Connect people with common interests. That’s the magic of turning cities into highly engaged communities.

4.       I know the greatest (fill in the name). Promote other people’s stuff 12 times as much as you talk about yours. That’s Chris’s rule for stirring up a storm of connections. Twelve times! Here’s how it works every day. If we have two hours for social media, spend 30 minutes replying to others’ blogs, 30 minutes on twitter or another networks, and 60 minutes on your own blog. Half content, half networking. Communities who look after each other first forge long-term bonds.

5.      Propose boldly. PR expert Sarah Evans, Sevans Strategy, leverages would-be water cooler conversations into watershed promotions. Within two hours of Chicago’s rare earthquake in 2008, Sarah had tweeted and blogged a sensational story, “sounded like a train,” with fact links that landed her and her company on CNN and the front page of the New York Times. She of course sent her blog to folks she already knew from SM. Similar deal: Shawna sent a proposal to Mexico government for a green eco-tour and got a week’s vacation for her family. They were ready, at the right place, saw an idea, and submitted a proposal. Cities, communities, each of us can leverage our assets, be ready, engaged, and then ask. Miracles happen.


Sarah and Shawna, being good sports.

6.      Create something useful. Sarah invented #journchat that brings together experts on twitter for high speed conversations. Last March, she made a twitter follower list of Academy Award nominees that was picked up by news services globally. She is sourced regularly by big media. Jeremiah asks for people’s career changes and regularly publishes the list. Under his Freemium business model, he shares his major research as free reports. Zena Weist, H&R Block, co-founded the Social Media Club of Kansas City and generously introduces folks better than anyone I know. We connect to Sarah, Jeremiah, and Zena because they are unbelievably warm people who make friends readily and generously share knowledge. They create value that builds communities.

7.      New location rituals. Social media is rapidly invading our every move via rich touch screen mobile devices. Scott Raymond, Gowalla, saw a parallel in Samoa greetings. Not “how are you?” They ask, “Where are you coming from?” and “Where are you going?” Location is key. Ellyn Angelotti, Poynter Online, says Four Square helps folks track shorter ticket lines at stadiums. We have immediate local information from a trusted source. No longer are we traveling alone; we carry our entire network in our pocket, per Jeremiah. Every hungry traveler shares the same information as the native. Every city becomes our stomping grounds. We adopt new places; places would be smart to adopt us.

8.      The one-two punch: causes and money. The blog posts that say how to save money and also be green get far and away the most views, Shawna found. Good cause and frugal. For #beatcancer, Sarah helped raise $160,000 in three weeks! Ramsey hosts an annual Ugly Christmas Sweater Party that has raised thousands of dollars for KC charities. SM and causes are like peas and carrots. People grow enormously generous in strong social networks.

9.      Be the provocateur. Tony Botello’s contrarian views make his blog the highest read in Kansas City. Commenting on the Free State crowd versus the Hispanic community he writes for, “There’s a lot more laptops here than in my Westside meetings.” Shawna called her book “Gardening Nude” with a photo of her… yup, in her birthday suit. She catches our attention to sell books; I remembered her immediately on twitter, it works. Communities can distinguish themselves and attract others by creating a unique, memorable perspective.

10.     Where Do We Want This All To Go? Make It Simple. Chris’s last advice closes the deal. Figure out the GPS of your community, business, yourself. Can you say where your community is going? Do you know what you want out of your city? Where do you want it to be in 10 or 20 years? Is that where you will be? Give directions – make it simple.

Are you a community builder? How do you do it?


Free State Social has a blog, bios, and links.

Ben Smith @benasmith shared his pics.

Eric Melin at Spiral 16 posted an excellent recap.

Jeff Smith @jeffisageek gave insights and speakers videos.

John Kreicbergs @patchchord gave his excellent “firehose” synthesis.