Smart Urban Resilience: Enabling Citizen Action in Disaster Risk Reduction and Emergency Response

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Geography


Natural hazards in Mexico are a significant source of human suffering and economic loss. With earthquakes, hurricanes and floods, amongst others, generating estimated annual average losses of $2.9b USD, identifying novel, integrated and shared forms of disaster risk reduction (DRR) and emergency response is a national priority. Such need is particularly salient for medium-sized cities, which are home to the majority of the world's urban population yet poorly understood. Previous studies have identified that Mexican cities, given their broad diversity of geomorphological and hydro-meteorological conditions as well as the current changing climate, are likely to experience more frequent and extreme weather events. Out of the 87.7 million Mexicans living in areas exposed to various natural hazards, 70% live in urban and 10% in peri-urban areas.

Responding directly to these challenges, this project focuses on the intersection between smart/digital urbanism practices, disaster risk reduction (DRR) and emergency response to determine how the smart city (and associated technologies) can enable (or disable) citizen action in planning for and responding to disasters and emergencies. It draws on the objectives established by the New Urban Agenda (UN Habitat 2017) and the 'Urban Sustainable Development Goal' (United Nations 2015), including the need to adopt and implement DRR practices and foster participatory approaches in the making of cities, thus examining the possibility of digital technologies contributing to urban resilience in Mexico. Resilience studies and literature have shown that building resilience requires not only hard effective and efficient infrastructure and technological advances, but also capable and functioning 'soft infrastructure' including social networks and institutional capacity and coordination (Susskind 2010). Our project recognizes, seeks to capitalize on, and find ways to strengthen the already significant role that civil society has historically played in DRR and emergency response in Mexico, through examining pathways for smart city approaches towards DRR and emergency response.

While smart city narratives and digital urban technologies are undoubtedly having a profound impact on the contemporary configuration of the city, their potential for transforming the governance of DRR and emergencies in cities remains largely unexplored. This project's main aim is to understand how smart city and urban digital technologies play a role in building urban resilience through changing the ways in which citizens prepare and respond to natural disasters and emergencies, thereby empirically testing whether and how citizen engagement is important for realising the potential of smart urban technologies in DRR. The project looks at existing practice of and future potential for a range of smart city interventions (such as open data platforms, civic hacking, smart urban planning and others) altering the role of different social actors in DRR and emergency response. Geographically, the project focuses on medium-sized cities, given the potential of exacerbated future risks in these locations resulting from rapid and unplanned growth, urban sprawl and poverty. Globally, most urban residents live in small- or medium-sized cities, yet research concentrates on large- and mega-cities. Medium-sized cities bring their own challenges in governance, resource and capacity, and these challenges directly affect their ways of engaging with DRR and emergency response. The project has selected the cities of Queretaro, Puebla and Acapulco as the main locations for its case study, given the diversity of hazards and ecosystems represented within these 3 cities.

Planned Impact

The project seeks to develop a pathway to impact that explicitly seeks to support three distinct communities:

Smart Cities and DRR practitioner communities-with a specific focus on civil society actors. Up until now, smart city initiatives and civil society actors working on DRR in Mexico have operated separately and independently, with little opportunity for interaction. The project will encourage and enable these two communities to better interact by developing spaces for dialogue and interaction, knowledge sharing, innovation and the co-production of knowledge. This will contribute towards greater awareness of the possibilities and constraints involved in mobilising smart and digital urban technologies within DRR, and of the challenges and political implications of doing so for different groups and in different geographical contexts.

The cities of Queretro, Puebla and Acapulco. The research will support these cities (their populations and municipal/state governments) to develop greater urban resilience to disasters associated to natural hazards through the use of digital and smart technologies. These cities illustrate the increasing environmental risks experienced by medium-sized cities, and are urgently in need of strengthening DRR responses, capacities and resources. Specifically, the research will benefit the three cities directly by:
- Increasing the co-ordination and integration of networks of actors working on DRR
- Facilitating exploration of the potential for digital and smart technologies within DRR and sharing learning experiences
- Generating a forum for learning and comparison across cities, and sharing problems, risks, resources and potential solutions between city actors.
- Identifying joint strategies (by users of this research) for enrolling digital approaches in ways that serve wider social goals such as social equality and environmental risk mitigation.

The proposed methodology, which interrogates three cross-cutting themes (disasters and emergencies, smart city technologies, and civil society actors) both in isolation and in their relation, opens up possibilities for identifying current gaps in alliances (among civic organizations, municipalities and local governments, smart city initiatives and technologies) and potential to incorporate digital technologies in DRR. The research outputs will generate a series of policy briefs and a substantial policy document titled 'Roadmap for engaging civil society actors in DRR and emergency response via smart city interventions'. This roadmap will include an element of co-production via a multi-stakeholder integration workshop, and will provide a process as well as an output through which stakeholders can share experiences, knowledge and identify potential joint strategies.

The project has identified five actions aimed at promoting pathways to impact, as follows:
1. Engagement of local stakeholders. Strong links have already been developed with local/state governments in Puebla, Queretaro and Acapulco (letters of support have been included as an appendix). Working in partnership, the project will identify and connect with relevant civil society actors in each city. This early engagement with stakeholders will allow to re-frame project objectives according to local needs, thus incorporating research user knowledge from the outset.
2. Dissemination of research findings via policy outcomes and press conferences.
3. Ensuring responsivity to stakeholder needs and extra support for barrier to uptake. The project will devise strategies to maximise the ability for knowledge and learning to be utilised by identifying and addressing barriers to research uptake.
4. Being prepared for unexpected opportunities for knowledge uptake.
5. Recording and monitoring impact potential.

Also see Appendix 'Pathways to Impact' for a detailed identification and analysis of impact beneficiaries and methodologies.


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