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Urban Resilience Implementation & Consulting: how to do it?

By February 6, 2020December 14th, 2021Learnings

After looking into theory and going through different classes respect to infrastructures resilience, we had the pleasure to meet Sebastiaan van Herk, Partner & Director at Bax & Company (a European innovation consulting firm), Advocate for UN-DRR in Resilience, Expert for UN Environment in Sustainable procurement, and Lead Expert for URBACT Healthy Cities program. This is but a jump into the practices: into high profile international consulting for new urbanization projects, climate policies, international research and implementation projects and.. knowing how to deal with both private clients and governments. He spent with us a day, sharing his personal and professional knowledge about how to work, through resilience, in a consulting firm involved in many international projects among which the framing of the Global Centre of Adaptation in Rotterdam.

One of the main messages he shared with us, is that if you need to work on resilience, you will probably need to be “an advocate”. You’re not going to make decisions. You constantly need to convince the ones making them, you need to speak their language and make clear to them what resilience is, in practice. And the best way of doing it is through narratives. You’re constantly in the position of having to adapt narratives, to explain and persuade people about all the many different things that are much needed to be built, in order to be able to enhance urban present and futures, and all of these have to do with resilience.


“How can you effectively deliver Resilient and more Liveable Cities? As an advocate, be empathic, flexible and savvy. Understand others, and adjust your pitch accordingly. Promote learning and collaboration, avoiding to take yourself decisions”

– Dr. Sebastiaan van Herk

For example, one of the main success factors for the Paris agreement was to put adaptation and mitigation together, due to the existence of a huge financial gap on financing Adaptation measures (which are related to development). The budget needed for adaptation increases by 438% – respect to the money spent nowadays – or at least committed to adaptation (26 B), and since the needs for adaptation funding for developing countries are expected to double or even triple (WRI, 2015), adaptation finance will need to increase by 1020% by 2050.

Sebastian point is on the implementation gap: “Local climate action plans are being developed all over the world. But what about their implementation? Climate resilience projects are struggling to find investors. We should ask ourselves “how to facilitate and improve the access to climate finance? How do we design robust, transformative and bankable projects, through resilience?” Selling points for resilience should work by linking safety, short term goals appealing for policy makers, and quality of life, for example, as in the case of a recent 2 billion Euro project Bax & Co took part, supporting the development of a flooding resilience infrastructure in The Netherlands (Dordrecht).

Discussing what success means and how to ensure results, Sebastiaan stresses that “you cannot work on the solution only! The key is not having the solution to the problem, but rather having the political commitment supporting that solution. Only when you have the political commitment, and a solution, you can stay within the time and budget”. There are indeed tons of solutions, from the planning, governance and tech perspective. But still, innovation is not happening because of how good a solution can be, rather, because there is an urgent need of acting, the willingness of moving forward, which is independent by the availability of potential solutions. Regarding that, Sebastiaan further elaborates on this, explaining how networks were trying to get cities engaged into action, and how innovation use(d) to happen. For example, time ago the UNISDR was proposing a new virtual platform for matching cities and companies, hoping to boost collaborations, partnership and business opportunities for building resilience, and thus addressing the adaptation implementation and financing gaps. A preliminary study on city resilience networks and city to city learning (you can read all about it here) was observing how cities are actually tired of (too many) networks and platforms, and that the main use policy makers do of those is mere self-promotion (as further detailed in a more recent paper from Haupt et al. 2019). This last scientific article co-authored by Sebastiaan and published in an international leading journal, explains where you can see city-to-city learning mechanisms happens and lead to governance implementation or projects, and where not. Usually, most of the effective knowledge sharing and thus partnership and projects collaborations do not happen through these kinds of networks, but either informally among city practitioners or through specific consultancy contracts. Investing in innovation for building resilience in practice, in this case, is not to invest in a new platform, but actually to avoid it, and work as a consultant with a city or policy maker.


Metro Station in Bangkok, Sebastiaan van Herk Credit

Another way of tackling innovation implementation is through a “quick scan” of critical infrastructures. While we navigate among dozens of technologically driven smart-city solutions for critical infrastructures, and looking for complex and costly implementation mechanisms, a quick scan about the weaknesses of infrastructures can reveal, for example, that there are easy-fix and high impact solutions, as in the case of this picture below in Bangkok. A solution for building urban resilience to flooding could be, as a first step toward a more complex strategy, as easy as building few stairs at the subway station, and guarantee with low budget, short time delivery, high impact in term of flooding exposure.

Of course there are useful, and complex, assessment tools to run simulations that help guiding toward better solutions, as in the case of the Waste Water Tracing Algorithm. And most of the time, a good assessment for supporting decision makers on which path to follow, supported by which solution(s) is exploring the co-benefits.


Sebastiaan explained that in Dordrecht “by assessing the different strategies potential co-benefits you can calculate the return of investment, which in the case of Dordrecht was between 5 and 10 times the invested money, and most of the benefits obtained were in the health and quality of life dimensions of the co-benefit assessment”. This aspect actually brought them to link Nature Based Solution framework with Healthy and Livable Cities! Why? Because 75% of the people’s health depends on the space and environment developed (built environment, natural surroundings, social relationships). Promoting health requires cross-sectional and cross-sectorial approach, beyond the assistance needed. This correlates more deeply than ever urban planning with health generation potential.

However, not all the green is good, nor the blue drinkable. The co-benefits assessment tries to answer some of the following challenges related to the implementation of blue-green infrastructures, which are:

  • Higher upfront costs than traditional grey infrastructure.
  • Multiple benefits are rarely considered in political decision-making.
  • How do you monetise mental health benefits, increased biodiversity and recreational space?
  • Increased maintenance costs and long term buy-in.
  • Benefits usually do not belong to cost bearer.
  • Departments (e.g. city planners, flood risk managers) often work in silos and cannot see the potential benefits in their sum and across sectors

Finally, Sebastiaan surprised us bringing a fresh experience he just reported from China, the Yanghe New District, where after a summer school for understanding flooding resilience through nature based solutions, he saw these solutions implemented few months later, and the school scratches and projects inspiring a program with various timings and multiple funders, but with resilience integrated into each action. How was that possible? At the end of the day, his secret is that “it is all about coming up with the right narratives to convince decision makers, and make them understand resilience. A “Healing strategy” is better than fuzzy concepts as “resilience building”. How can you succeed and inspire the building of a large-scale resilience project? You need to think about the “drivers” of the investment. The story telling is the key to integrating resilience, without mentioning it, if necessary”.

To learn more, follow Sebastiaan and Bax & Company works on Twitter!


Images: Sebastiaan van Herk