Sustainability and resilience: a tale of two buzzwords?
It wasn’t the best of times or the worst of times—just an ordinary day a few years ago when an article caught my eye. It asserted that sustainability was “old news,” and resilience was the new hot hashtag. The headline turned out to be nothing more than an attention-grabber (which apparently worked since I still reflect on it years later), but the concept was interesting. Because of this idea, I was inspired to do a deeper dive into the relationship between the two principles.
Sustainability and resilience are often interchanged, but have distinct definitions within the A/E industry.
Sustainability – Balancing the needs of the present with the needs of the future. Striving for equilibrium between environmental, social, and financial resources and impacts.
Resilience – The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness. The ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.
According to these definitions, sustainability is primarily focused on balance while resilience denotes toughness or elasticity…related, but very different physical properties. These concepts are not mutually exclusive. When it comes to infrastructure, we need to consider both.
If we’re looking at how to make infrastructure sustainable, we consider ways to maintain balance in our resource use and impact: things like construction material sources, energy use, and socioeconomic equity.
These factors don’t need a hurricane or rising sea levels to put them to the test, but what happens when unanticipated change does occur? Now the system needs to be tough, elastic, and adaptable to new conditions to remain sustainable.
To make infrastructure resilient, we use climate science to predict what kind of future conditions are anticipated. We may also project or model changes in financial or social conditions. We can then adopt a target design condition and adaptation strategy. This adaptation strategy requires that we continuously monitor actual conditions and maintain the necessary elasticity to make needed adjustments to our path, thereby restoring balance between predicted and actual environmental conditions.
Resilience will never (nor should it strive to) replace sustainability. Though each has had opportunity to spend time in the buzzword limelight, they will always be complimentary concepts. We must focus equally on resilience and sustainability if we want to pass enduring infrastructure and a healthy earth along to future generations.
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