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Global Development Institute

Understanding Urban Climate Change and Digital Infrastructure Interventions from a Resilience Perspective

Richard Heeks and Angelica V Ospina


Climate change is posing unprecedented challenges to low-income urban communities that are on the front line of its effects.  More frequent and intense storms, heat waves, drought, and floods/sea level rise directly damage lives, livelihoods and infrastructure, and have knock-on impacts on existing vulnerability dimensions.  In response to those challenges, the concept of resilience is gaining significant momentum in both the climate change and urban development fields.  Yet, to date resilience  – the capacity of low-income urban communities to cope with, adjust to and potentially transform amidst change and uncertainty – has often been well-understood but poorly-applied or, when applied, has been poorly-understood.

The purpose of this paper is therefore to develop a well-conceptualised model of resilience that can be used in both research and practice to understand and evaluate climate change and other interventions in urban settlements.  That model bases itself on systems theory and sees urban communities as systems.  The sustainable livelihoods approach and Sen’s capability approach are used to explain the structures and functions of communities-as-adaptive-systems which are responding to climate change and other stressors.  But resilience is something different – a system property – which literature synthesis explains as a set of dynamic foundational and enabling sub-properties.

This model of resilience is then used to analyse two types of urban intervention: first adaptive interventions responding directly to climate change, and then urban digital infrastructure interventions which are increasingly used not just to underpin climate change but urban capacity more generally.  These analyses show both types of intervention to largely strengthen community resilience, but also to weaken some aspects.

The paper demonstrates the viability of the developed resilience model to both understand and evaluate urban community interventions, and it offers some evidence that this provides a broader and deeper understanding of those interventions than other perspectives can offer.  Future developments should involve greater engagement with practice, including use in planning and evaluation, and the potential to develop some form of resilience index or benchmark.

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Educators’ guide

Synopsis questions

  1. What different perspectives are used to view the issue of climate change and cities?  What knowledge gap is argued to exist within these perspectives?   [Section A]
  2. What are the key components of the systemic model presented?  How, specifically, does it conceptualise resilience?  [Section B]
  3. In what ways, typically, do urban climate change interventions strengthen and weaken community resilience?  [Section C]
  4. In what ways, typically, do urban digital infrastructure interventions strengthen and weaken community resilience?  [Section D]
  5. What are the argued values of a resilience approach?  How might it be used in practice?  [Section E]

Development questions

  1. Is the notion of resilience just a passing fad, or does it represent an important long-term shift in the focus of development?
  2. How would you persuade donor organisations that resilience worth including in their development funding?
  3. The model offered is shown to be used in assessing the impact of ICT systems on community resilience.  But could it also be used to assess the resilience of ICT systems themselves?
  4. In the long-term, are ICTs more likely to increase or decrease global resilience?
  5. What alternatives could be used to assess the value and impact of climate change and digital infrastructure interventions?