SDG 17: Partnerships SDG 4: Education Spotlight

Focus on the cascade, and don’t cancel that shift

How a small institute at a large university is changing the game by focusing on the cascading effect of climate disruption

It is impossible to tell at this point who that was walking toward the train during the Boston Snowmaggedon of 2014-15. Nor can we know the hurdles she faced to get there.

It’s a good guess, though, her story resembled Jess Woodbury’s blunt account in her Don’t Mind the Mess blog.

“It’s completely possible I won’t be able to find a parking space and that the piles of snow will be far too high for me to shovel into. Paid lots are packed full because street parking is virtually nonexistent on many of the city’s streets. I just checked Twitter and the train line I take to work has “limited service” today. Meaning they’re running less trains. Meaning every station will be full of people waiting. And I think I may just have to cancel that shift. We just can’t win. We are tired and beat down and every single day is a struggle to get to work and leave again, to drop off kids and pick them up, to do anything.”

It’s a story we see with every climate disruption everywhere on Earth: transport breakdowns that lead to worker downtime and citizen frustration, stormwater failures that create floods that destroy documents that ruin deals and derail lives, and speaking of lives: ambulances that can’t arrive on time and the spiral of consequences that creates.

At Northeastern University’s Global Resilience Institute, they refer to this as the cascading effect of extreme weather, and the Boston-based institute is moving swiftly to place this fundamental answer to climate change at the center of the global debate, in part by creating the world’s leading network of like-minded institutions.

We’ve become so connected and interdependent, as individuals and as systems, that it is now impossible, certainly unwise, to approach a climate event in isolation, resolved only with an emergency response during and immediately after the event, with, in the case of the U.S., a severely resource-stretched FEMA.

To reduce the burden on those disaster teams when the storm or forest fire or drought strikes, and for them to nip the cascade and restore functionality and normalcy to the community faster, GRI urges authorities and corporate leaders to look way beyond their own borders, connect with their counterparts in nearby communities, cities, counties and countries, and approach resilience systemically — during the whole year, every year, not focus on this when disaster happens.

‘The whole of societal resilience’

The Boston Snowmaggedon marked a certain coming of age for GRI, as recalled by Founding Director Stephen Flynn in this clip, where he provides an overview of the organization and the work it performed following a series of devastating snow storms that winter.

The magnitude of that challenge, and what Woodbury and every Boston resident faced at the time, was captured by the Boston Globe in this captivating pictorial.

Robin White
GRI Executive Director Robin White

“What we do at GRI embraces a wide range of resilience aspects on a global scale,” GRI Executive Director Robin White told The Resilience Journal, referring to what she elegantly scopes as “the whole of societal resilience.”

GRI, she continued, “is looking at promoting and stimulating interdisciplinary resilience research that yields practical solutions.”

According to the center’s website, that includes research and other initiatives to overcome five systemic barriers keeping the world from becoming more resilient:

  • Widespread risk illiteracy and a limited understanding of new dependencies and interdependencies
  • Inadequate designs for embedding resilience into systems, networks and infrastructure
  • Economic disincentives for investing in proven resilience measures
  • Inadequate governance frameworks & policy guidelines
  • Inadequate training & education for advancing resilience

At GRI, overcoming these and other challenges begins by bringing together all nine schools at Northeastern, creating interdisciplinary teams that tackle varying angles, and providing seed funding for really creative research projects, which have thus far run the gamut: reducing the risks of urban isolation with the development of a geosocial networking tool; the use of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles to assess environments damaged by extreme events; a network of indicators to measure the effectiveness of coastal adaptation measures; the connection between women-led activist networks and resilience; the list goes on.

GRI has also assembled a Disaster Response Team, a group of resilience and recovery super experts who become available to assist and generate further knowledge when a disaster strikes. The Institute’s extensive Resource Library is also publicly available to help folks anywhere enhance their resilience.

Next: global scale

As mission-critical as those contributions are, they would appear to be but a preamble to GRI’s greatest hit yet.

Flynn and White have paired with their counterparts at Germany’s Fraunhofer EMI center to assemble a star-studded ensemble of institutions around the world also working feverishly on resilience solutions, called the Global Resilience Research Network.

On March 29, GRI will host more than 20 of the members in GRRN’s first annual summit entitled Thriving, Not Just Surviving.


It is, White anticipates, one sure way resilience solutions will scale and mushroom to reach every corner of the planet, by creating an expanding web or joint projects across institutions, which will no doubt attract others to GRRN and metamorphose quickly into local application implementation everywhere on the planet.

Flynn nicely introduces GRRN at the 1:40 mark of this video, placing it in the context of what he calls amplified threat cycles and the challenge of turbulence.


“If there is one adjective we can apply to the 21st century, it’s turbulence. What used to be a localized threat, a localized hazard, cascades now. The source of the problem is connections and interdependencies. We have to create solutions that also harness connections and interdependencies.” Stephen Flynn

“Are the challenges great? Yes they are,” White concluded. “I would say that through organizations such as ours and other networks around the world, we are better positioned to pursue the interrelated solutions necessary for resilience than we’ve ever been before.”

Yes, the kind that will allow the Jess Woodburys of the world to “win” again, keep the shift, and face a lot less disruption next time a climate shock comes to town.

Long-time green-economy and business journalist, sustainability analyst and communications executive, including 14 years as reporter and editor of Caribbean Business in Puerto Rico, five years as Sustainability Director at two banks on the island, general manager of a green marketing agency, and since 2014 independent strategist, blogger, consultant, freelance writer, and now Editor-Publisher of The Resilience Journal and Founder-President of COMMON Future, a climate-adaptation studio scaling game-changing Next Resilience with communications, construction and culture. Alex is also communications adviser to the American Society of Adaptation Professionals and resilience lead at the Puerto Rico chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council.

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