As Hurricane Sandy hit New York and neighboring states in the fall of 2012, Airbnb hosts in local communities began to offer their spare rooms to house affected individuals. Airbnb engineers worked overnight to enable those connections on its website and removed booking fees for the charitable hosting.
These and other actions propelled the company - often seen as emblematic of the new “sharing economy” - into the public sphere of disaster preparedness, which it has embraced with enthusiasm, Kellie Bentz, Airbnb's head of global disaster response and relief, told a Zilient webinar this week.
In the years since, the company has built its emergency response muscle by connecting with experts, helping organise training sessions for its hosts with emergency management agencies, and widening information access to members in places that face natural disasters on a seasonal basis, like hurricanes or wildfires.
“When we work with emergency management agencies, we’re typically saying these are the people in our communities… not only do they want to be more prepared, they actually want to help in the response,” said Bentz.
For example, information produced by emergency officials can be transmitted via the Airbnb platform to community members, reaching groups that may not otherwise see it, she explained.
It is important for governments to cultivate robust partnerships with the private sector, said Michael Berkowitz, president of 100 Resilient Cities, an initiative backed by The Rockefeller Foundation,
“If it’s like, ‘you stay over there, we’ll call you when we need you’ - that is almost never the recipe for success,” said Berkowitz, who previously served as deputy commissioner with New York City’s Office of Emergency Management.
Cities preparing resilience plans must develop private enterprises as “full-fledged” partners for better outcomes, he said. And that engagement cannot be an afterthought but should begin in the planning stages of a city’s resilience work, he added.
This approach can help maximize possibilities rather than the relationship being viewed as a funding mechanism or a means to solve narrow problems, he said.
Different-sized governments are engaging with Airbnb - from municipalities to regional and national governments, Bentz said. In some areas, relationships with larger cities can influence and set the tone for partnerships with smaller, neighboring communities.
By contrast, coordination and partnerships start at the cabinet level in Britain and flow down from there, Bentz added. (Read about Airbnb’s response to the Grenfell Tower fire in London in June.)
SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL?
In Seattle, city officials have activated Airbnb’s assistance to help with its homelessness problem, Bentz said. The platform has also secured short-term housing for three families who were displaced by a building fire but had specific requirements that couldn’t be met in a shelter.
Berkowitz described the Seattle situation as an example of something 100 Resilient Cities has been trying to foster with local leaders, as a way to increase the “resilience value” of interventions.
While big cities tend to grab the limelight, smaller cities may be able to manage some of their public-private partnerships more effectively because they are more nimble, Berkowitz noted.
Where layers of bureaucracy might slow down action in major metropolitan areas, mayors in smaller communities can have direct interaction with businesses and marshal the city’s resources more quickly.
And while private partnerships exist in big cities, they may be more transactional compared to similar connections in smaller communities, he said.
Some communities say they are satisfied with their own approach and don’t want to engage with the private sector, Bentz said.
“My answer to that is ‘You haven’t been through something big enough to actually realize you need the entire community’,” she continued.
Berkowitz agreed that not all cities - whatever their size - are yet on board in terms of working with the private sector to improve their resilience to natural disasters and longer-term stresses such as water shortages or an influx of refugees.
“The reality is around the world, some cities are interested in that and others don’t necessarily get it,” he said.