The Reflex: Resilience In The Age Of Pandemia

For the past few weeks we’ve been focusing on sustainable urbanisation as outlined in the World Cities Report 2020, launched by UN-Habitat at the end of October. The Citymaker spoke to one of the report’s early contributors, Think City’s Programme Director, Dr Matt Benson, about the urgent need for cities to be more reflexive and to cope with the pandemics and shocks that are expected in the future. 

Just as importantly in these turbulent times, we focus on tools and methodologies that are helping cities to succeed and we outline some of the reasons why Matt Benson thinks there’s reason to be optimistic about the future.

The Citymaker has a podcast called The Reflexive City where we discuss some of the issues that are facing cities and their inhabitants. What does the term reflexive city mean to you?

Matt Benson: The word ‘reflexive’ has a couple of meanings. It actually has a methodological and a philosophical meaning. The methodological meaning is this idea that when you do research, or think about an issue or do a policy or a plan, you kind of have this broad arc or roadmap. But you’re mindful that you don’t know everything that’s going to happen or you don’t have all the information at hand. So what you do is you have built-in pause moments where you stop and reflect and look at the data and then readjust. That’s sort of the reflexive bit, the sociological methodology component. 

Then there’s the sort of philosophical bit. Part of that is around this idea that you are dealing with uncertainty and risk. So how do you cope with the unknowns that are out there? Part of that is that we need to have structures and policies and economies and environmental systems that can function like that methodological approach: that they can stop and readjust and reorganise themselves around new realities and new information as it comes to hand.

The best example I can think of that’s sort of practical and tangible, is something like the informal sector where some 60% of the world’s city population generate their income. And a big portion of those are street vendors. They’re very agile; they’re able to flex and to move around and to respond to new information as it comes in. The street vendor moves depending on circumstance. That circumstance could be what the authorities are doing on that particular day, or it could be where the crowds are, or it could be what’s in season. It could be any range of factors that allows them to respond and flex to new information as it arises. They’re also very agile and have low setup costs so they can move about as the city evolves.

So that’s an example. If we applied that to the idea of a health crisis or a climate crisis, it would mean that we’d need to have systems in place that could readjust and reemerge as new realities become apparent. Examples of that would be buildings that are multipurpose. Buildings that can one day be an office and the next day be a hotel. Or it could be a planning regulation that allows for certain types of activities to evolve and change as the seasons change as well. It could be the seasons, it could be a crisis, it could be new economic reality that allows your buildings, your structures and your infrastructure to adapt and flex accordingly.

How are we seeing that reflexivity being reflected in this year’s World Cities Report 2020?

Matt Benson: The World Cities Report is very much about the value of urbanisation. They make this very important point here which is that urbanisation is probably what it is that’s going to drive the sustainable existence of humanity, but it needs to be a particular type of urbanisation. It can’t be urbanisation that leads to urban sprawl, to overcrowding, to unhealthy conditions. To increased poverty, to inequalities, to congestion. To pollution. It has to be an urbanisation that is green, equitable and inclusive. That’s all these good words that we use as urbanists, but the reality is that we’re still going to have crisis. [It could be] a flood, tsunami, earthquake, famine or drought. There are going to be crises in cities around the world. 

The resilient city, the sustainable city and the reflexive city, I think are three interrelated elements of the cities of the future. The sustainable city is something that can continue, that is not over-consuming, that is inclusive, that is delivering benefits for all, Whereas the resilient city is something that is able to deal with the shocks of the future, and is able to build back better when you have some sort of a crisis or unforeseen shock to the system, whether that be economic, social or environmental. The reflexive city is kind of related in the sense that it’s able to not just bounce back from shock, but actually able to absorb the shock, to work with the shock and be flexible and agile enough to move about, and flex as new circumstances arise. 

You mention sustainable cities and urbanisation, which is the focus of this year’s World Cities Report. Is this a marked shift in direction from previous reports?

Matt Benson: I did contribute some small editorial commentary to the report and participated in some early discussions on a pre-COVID version of the document. The first very obvious change is that it’s been delivered at the height of a pandemic. So it would be disingenuous to release a report on cities during a pandemic, when the majority of the world’s urban population are facing some sort of movement restriction, without talking about COVID-19. 

It very much has the COVID-19 commentary weaved through it and I would say they’ve done it quite cleverly, given the versions that I saw six to nine months ago. But how does it differ? I went back and I looked at 2016, I looked at the 2012 equivalents of the World Cities Report. The 2012 version’s opening line is ‘it’s a world in crisis’. That was at the time when we had various disruptions around the world with disenfranchised people in cities about a range of different issues.

So that first report was very much about thinking about cities in terms of other types of dividends: social dividends, economic dividends and environmental dividends. The 2016 version thought more about the same sort of elements, but we were very much thinking about how do we do this from an urban planning services point-of-view, so it was more focused on that. 

The 2020 document was very much about the urbanisation process itself and making sure that it is sustainable. It offers quite practical solutions around nature-based solutions. Around making sure that we harness the talents of migrants. That we invest in mobility, we invest in smart cities; these types of things. But I think the big shift here is just the reemphasis that cities are the future. This is a pause moment for us to be more sustainable. It really emphasises that we’re sustainable because we can’t continue to have an urbanisation that is leading to externalities, such as pollution and congestion. 

You mentioned those externalities. Of course, we have the example of zoonotic diseases. In terms of encouraging new forms of mobility and factors like harnessing the talents of migrants, what are some of the concrete steps that we can take to absorb those shocks and to build back better?

Matt Benson: The answer there is this word resilience, right? First, it means that you’re able to cope with [the circumstances] when we’re shocked. But there’s another meaning here, which is that you’re able to thrive with the shock, which means that you’re able to take stock, reflect on the situation, understand the circumstances and decide that you’re going to try a different path. 

That would be the sort of true definition of resilience, not just that ‘I’m resilient’ and that ‘I can cope with the crisis’. It’s: “I’m not going to cope with the crisis, but I can figure a way of turning that crisis into almost an opportunity.” We need to apply resilience across the social, the economic and the environmental dimensions. Maybe you can also add health dimensions there [when you] think about this kind of crisis.

In the social dimension, this is where the reflexivity comes in. They’re able to adjust as new information comes to light and they’re not sort of like continuing down the same path even though the circumstances have changed; that they have diversity of people in their organisations, that can shift and deal with new realities.

Presumably that also applies to business operators and economic diversity as well?

Matt Benson: If you’re an organisation that has only got one skillset, then suddenly that skillset is no longer needed in the future, then you’re not going to be all that resilient. The same probably applies for economies as well. You want to follow the cues of natural ecosystems and look at the diversity in an ecosystem.

You don’t want an economy that’s highly dependent on tourism and then suddenly, we have a lockdown, and guess what? Tourism has died and all those buildings that you handed over to the tourism industry no longer have value in that format. So what do they then become? 

How do you repurpose some of those buildings for this new reality? In places like George Town [in Penang], we’ve been saying for some time that over-tourism [in] certain parts of the city needs to be addressed, so that we can inject new types of economic activity. So that they’re more resilient to shocks; not so dependent on a single source of income.

In George Town, we’re starting to think about tech companies investing into Creative Economy activity in the city. New types of cultural activities that are geared more towards local and domestic tourism, rather than just international tourism. And then there’s of course your environmental resiliency components, which would be largely around dealing with, in the first instance, the extreme weather events. 

Nature-based solutions become a part of that. Your ability to mitigate sea level rise, invest in even things like mangroves that are suitable in Malaysia to absorb some of the potential extreme sea and ocean events. We should be thinking about making sure that we’re prepared for some of the potential health consequences of changing climate but also, some of the health consequences of new [zoonotic] diseases.

Another theme of the report concerns the people and the talent that live in cities. How do we make the most of the human capital in the places we live?

There are many types of human capital, right? That’s my first reaction. You know, there is the human capital that you think in the traditional sense about the creative industries or the creative sector, the creative class. 

Those people who are artisans; those people who have particular skills in graphic design etc. So they have a particular type of role in terms of incubating new content in your city, that is more diverse, has more meaning, is embedded into place, etc. So that’s one element.

Then we have the talents that are potential talents of the future. How do we think, for example, that the food industry is going to be dramatically transformed in the near-future? I would think, you know, as we move away from meat-based products to products that are manufactured but plant-based. That’s a whole industry that’s likely to thrive in the not-too-distant future. If you’re a city then you need to start nurturing [talent] ahead of the big wave of needs in that space. 

These are sort of the obvious talents or the obvious thing about STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] or STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics] type of programmes. Investing. Making sure you attract talent by being a liveable city. Then there’s what I call the hidden talent. And I sometimes use examples of leadership. Leadership is not necessarily the local politician or the local head chief or the local police officer. Often the leaders are actually the quiet leaders. It’s the old auntie at the end of the street type leader, who sets the benchmark. 

And likewise, I think there are hidden talents out there that form part of the mosaic of a sustainable, resilient and reflexive city. These would be people like the traditional artisan who’s weaving cane or something, or it could be somebody doing traditional dyes that we don’t know about; they just happen to be continuing along. These are some of the talents [and] skillsets I think we need to nurture and bring back into focus and also keep a lookout for those other hidden [and] quiet talents that could come to the fore if the city allows them to. To thrive, [cities have to create] the platforms and opportunities where new types of talent is fostered and is encouraged.

We keep hearing about all the lessons, all the things that we’re learning from COVID-19 and our experience of the pandemic. Conversely, history shows that humanity is great at forgetting its lessons. What are you concerned we might forget or become complacent about once the pandemic is brought under some kind of control?

Matt Benson: There’ll be some people who will never forget. Because they’ve lost their job. Because they lost somebody. So there’ll be lessons there that they’ll never forget but [in a general sense]… those images of the maps of pollution [nitrogen dioxide maps]? Think City did some across Malaysia and you saw them in China, you saw them in Europe as well, during the lockdown. That sort of imagery; the big shifts that could happen when we don’t consume as much, when we’re not as mobile, when we’re not flying around as much. [Those lessons] I feel will be forgotten quite fast. I do think that there’ll be some imagery that remains there, where we don’t forget that we’re all vulnerable. That will be one part of it. That might be some lesson for the future that may remain [with us] for some years. 

But I generally believe that we have entered an age of pandemia. We’ve always had pandemics, from bubonic plague to Spanish Flu; this is not necessarily that new. I think that the age of stability for the majority, particularly the West, the age of certainty is nearing an end and that we will be living increasingly in an uncertain and unpredictable world. This is why I think these concepts of resiliency and reflexivity, and in some way self-reliance, are also important elements of a city.

Picking up on that point about pandemia. What do you think some of the long-term changes to our social behaviour might be?

Matt Benson: There’s certainly a Western and an Eastern perspective on this. The West has been pretty lucky for the last 50 years. We were living in a stable world for some 50 odd years, I would say. But the developing world has been living with [constant] health crises for some time. I guess what it is, it’s about learning to live with risks, essentially. Learning to live with the risk of disease; the risk of losing a job; the risk of [only] having a daily income. One would hope that enter some period of enlightenment and everything could be rosier, but I suspect that we’re going through a period of transition to that end, where we need to learn to live with these levels of risk.

This is a fairly broad question: in light of those elements, how do we stay optimistic about the future and what it holds?

Matt Benson: There are a lot of good people doing a lot of good things, is the first thing. There’s a lot of noise out there at the moment. There’s also a lot of fake news in every quarter. I would say the optimism probably is going to come from seeing places like Paris do some amazing things or parts of Columbia that have invested in nature-based solutions. The second point I would probably make is that, just at a base level, there’s always people doing amazing things, whether that be in art or [acts] of charity. There are examples out there of people doing quite courageous things, so maybe optimism comes from there. 

The future is not determined fully today. There are always possibilities and paths forward. Yes sure there are some pessimistic views of the future out there and some of the signs not pointing to some good things. We will, most likely, be living with degrees of increased intensity of crises across all fronts but there will always be glimmers or pockets of hope. Pockets of prosperity. A whole range of breaks in the clouds. We need to have systems in place that give us the ability to live with uncertainty, and not to expect everything to be certain and rosy forever. I don’t think that’s possible. World Cities Report 2020. https://unhabitat.org/wcr/

Listen to Matt Benson on the Citymaker podcast. 

Further reading:

Reflexivity in the Age of Pandemia. Adaptive Policy Making and the Covid-19 Crisis. https://thinkcity.com.my/ups/issue-3-reflexivity-in-the-age-of-pandemia-adaptive-policy-making-and-the-covid-19-crisis/  

World Cities Report 2020. https://unhabitat.org/wcr/