Spreading the word about the need to get ahead of climate change and disasters, linking people and organisations so they can tackle problems better together, discovering new knowledge and resources to build resilience - apart from that, 'what have networks ever done for us?' we might ask, to steal the famous Monty Python line.
It's a question we set out to answer at a panel discussion I moderated at last week's RES/CON gathering in New Orleans. With Zilient, we are aiming to build an online "network of networks" - and so understanding the value of networks and the challenges of creating effective ones will be key to what we do.
At the conference, a diverse line-up of panelists - from the non-profit, private and public sectors – gave their insights. Here are some of the key ideas that emerged:
1. New forms of collaboration: The huge challenges posed to societies and economies by global problems like climate change require an "all hands on deck" approach. The Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN), set up in 2008 by The Rockefeller Foundation, now helps some 50 cities in the region devise and implement strategies to help urban communities address climate change. Shannon Alexander, a senior director at development agency Mercy Corps, which has also supported the network, said ACCCRN had enabled civil society to have a voice, and work with local governments and business to figure out what the problems are, and how best to solve them.
2. Business opportunities and innovation: As more city governments seek to make their systems resilient to shocks and stresses - from floods to food price spikes - they are looking to business to provide the services they need. Peter Hall, who works on climate resilience with energy services and engineering giant Amec Foster Wheeler, said the company’s involvement in the 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) partnership had led to it team up with four other firms to offer an end-to-end service to help cities roll out resilience projects.
In New York City, the 100RC connection has resulted in an efficient way of managing clean, surplus soil from construction and other works by storing it on vacant lots until it can be re-used, he added. "Cities are trying to get the most value out of every dollar they spend, so the more problems we can address through networks, the better off cities will be," said Hall.
3. Cross-sector buy-in: If you don't get a wide range of people on board with resilience projects from the start, they simply might not work. The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, for example, consulted extensively with experts in industry, business, healthcare and education when putting together its "Community Resilience Planning Guide for Buildings and Infrastructure Systems", said Steve Cauffman, a research engineer coordinating the process. The institute has now set up a panel of 300 people to keep the six-step tool up to date and help fill in any gaps in knowledge and guidance. "If you don't have that stakeholder network in place right away - and strongly in place - then it's very hard to convince people of the value of resilience," said Cauffman.
4. Building trust: Spending the time to forge strong ties is crucial for networks to function well, said panelists. Shared dialogue, workshops and other joint activities can help achieve that. For example, the ACCCRN network decided not to use climate change as an entry point with new partners, but to put the relationship first, said Mercy Corp's Alexander. "It's really hard work - you need people to be able to open themselves to new ideas, to think out of the box, and that takes trust, especially in relationships where you're coming from different perspectives and different sectors," she said.
5. Good leadership: Having active leaders in a network who are capable of rising to the challenge can make or break resilience work, said Kelly Pepper who heads the Louisiana Association of Non-Profit Organisations (LANO), which unites 650 groups covering some 14,000 members. If those in charge of a particular effort or process are not getting the job done, they should be moved out or given different tasks, Pepper argued. "We have a lot of work to do, and we want the right people in the positions," she said.
6. Organic development: The organisations that are the core players in a network should refrain from always trying to set the course and micro-manage what members are doing. "You have to be comfortable giving up control and giving people responsibility, and finding out who are going to be the change makers," said Alexander. One approach is to bring people together, give them access to information and then let regions and communities take the lead, as has happened with ACCCRN, she explained.
7. Varied perspectives: How to include everyone who should be involved to make a resilience project successful? While there's no simple way of doing it, getting different points of view around the table really does matter, said panelists. When launching an effort to assess water sources in drought-prone Niger, Mercy Corps brought together local government officials, scientists from NASA and the private sector, said Alexander.
And thinking about gender balance is essential too. LANO's Pepper advised changing meeting times to avoid bias in who can attend, or doing a telephone or web-based call so more people can participate in any given network. Inclusion is "an issue that you're going to have to address all the time, and I don't think there is an easy answer," said Alexander.
We'll be bearing the wise words of our panel in mind as we grow Zilient - and of course we'd be happy to hear the thoughts of our readers on how to make the most of networks for resilience. Please add your comments in the box below!