Building Resilience

Why Resilience Matters to Society

Social, economic and environmental resilience of individuals, communities, cities, nations, regions and the global community has been brought into sharp focus again.  This time by a pandemic.  Last time by a global financial crisis.  All the time by accelerating climate change and an emerging biodiversity crisis.

Along the way, hazards that impact at less than global scale, have tested the resilience of individuals and communities:  we all recall recent interstate conflict, extreme weather, food crises, wildfires and terrorist attacks. 

For over a decade the World Economic Forum has published “The Global Risks Report” [1].  It groups hazards under five categories – economic, environmental, geopolitical, social and technological.   Thirty specific hazards are identified. Respondents to a survey, rate these in terms of their likelihood and impact.  The 2020 report (2019 survey) identified extreme weather as the most likely hazard and the fourth highest impact; and climate action failure as the second most likely but with the biggest impact. In fact, the five most likely hazards identified were all environmental issues.  The perception of respondents was that infectious diseases was the tenth most impactful and only the twenty-seventh most likely hazard. Perhaps this alone stresses the importance of resilience given the unpredictability of some hazards.

Understanding the hazards we face and their potential impact is important, but what matters most are the measures we then take to protect communities and property.  Resilience against hazards matters because at the individual level it ensures that our basic needs can be met, safety, shelter, food, clean water and sanitation, and that employment and livelihoods are supported.  At a community and intra-national level, resilience supports continuation of security, justice, public health services, communications, mobility and other critical services and fosters economic prosperity [2].  And at a global level, resilience may even matter to our very survival. 

Before going further, it is useful to define resilience.  The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction defines it as:

“The ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate, adapt to, transform and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions through risk management.” [3]

This definition makes it clear that resilience is more than robustness, although this will help the system to “resist”.  Resilience also takes account of managing during the hazard – “absorb, accommodate and adapt to” – and the potential that recovery is in a transformed state.  Having said this, for a hazard that is likely to occur the best option is, wherever possible, to be prepared to resist it.

The hazard of the pandemic has tested the resilience of many aspects of our society beyond health services, such as education, food supply and national economies themselves. In many cases these have had to adapt and transform.  And the same is true at the smaller community and even individual scale where resilience of individuals to function in changed circumstances has been tested. There is (was) an assumption that in a developed society in the 21st century a level of service (food, medical, transport etc) will always be available. There is (was) also an assumption that choice will be available, leisure activities can be pursued, and global travel is easily possible.

Multiple interrelationships, complex connections and long supply chains to provide the basics of life, unless they have built-in redundancy, can mean that developed societies lack resilience.   Emerging economies with rapid urbanisation also face challenges with respect to resilience with uneven development of necessary infrastructure.

In pure economic terms, there is a case for investment to improve a society’s “resilience capacity”, and this investment is in both “risk mitigation” and “adaptive capacity” [4].  “Risk mitigation” requires investment in the ability to resist, absorb and accommodate hazardous events [3], whilst investment in “adaptive capacity” is about building the ability to adapt, transform and recover [3]. 

In the context of risk mitigation, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have investigated the cost and payback of mitigation in the US context for many years.  One example from their studies in buildings is that payback for investment in mitigation in New Orleans is only 2 years. [5]. At a larger infrastructure scale, The World Bank also thinks there is a case for investment: “targeted investments to build resilience in infrastructure yield $4 in benefits for every $1 invested.” [6].

Resilience and the Built Environment

The built environment – homes, buildings and infrastructure – are exposed to a wide range of natural and man-made hazards (see Figure 1). Many of these hazards are exacerbated by climate change. Some are accidental, while others are due to malicious acts.

Whilst a resilient built environment alone does not give resilience to a society, it is a vital component as can be seen by considering the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Four of the 17 UN SDGs explicitly include resilience.  The goals of “Sustainable cities and communities” and “Climate action” identify the need for resilience, particularly in relation to natural disasters and the built environment plays a key role in delivering this resilience.  Another SDG “Industry, innovation and infrastructure” also specifically targets the need for “resilient infrastructure”. The “No poverty” goal, includes the need for resilience to reduce impact of climate related events on the vulnerable and whilst this is not always contingent on the built environment, there are clearly examples such as flood defences where the built environment can protect the vulnerable and help alleviate poverty.

National governments and local authorities have important responsibilities with respect to the built environment and resilience. Firstly, they are responsible for ensuring projects and users are not unduly exposed to some of the hazards such as river floods, coastal flooding and wildfire risk.  This applies to both publicly delivered infrastructure and to private development, as for the latter, governments are responsible for the planning conditions and their enforcement.

Secondly, national governments and local authorities are also responsible for the provision of design and construction codes, standards and regulations that define resilience requirements appropriate to international, national and local hazards. These should aim to result in projects being able to resist, absorb and accommodate hazards.   For hazards that are exacerbated by emerging threats like climate change a reasonable question is: “Are codes, standards and regulations being amended sufficiently quickly to take this into account?”.  At this point it is worth noting that the insurance industry can have a role in driving higher standards or prescribing additional measures to increase the ability to resist a hazard because arguably they can respond more quickly to take into account increasing levels of risk.   

Thirdly, national governments and local authorities are responsible for enforcement of building regulations and standards.  One consequence of a recent failure in terms of resilience, the Grenfell fire tragedy in London in 2017, is that the UK is overhauling their approach to enforcement of fire resilience requirements during design, construction, operation and end of life stages of buildings.    

Clients and individuals also have a role to play with respect to resilience of the built environment.  They can choose to take further measures beyond minimum requirements. For example, some homeowners in tornado prone areas choose to construct strong (“Safe”) rooms and others in flood prone areas choose to install flood barriers on doorways.  This shows how owners place different value on resilience, and/or have different financial capability to invest, when faced with the same risk from a hazard.

More broadly, what level of resilience does society expect of the built environment?  Are standards keeping pace with what society expects?  In the case of fire, current codes and regulations for buildings aim at providing safety to people, but not protection of the property nor prevention of collapse.  This means that as long as a safe evacuation time has elapsed, and neighbouring buildings are not at risk, regulations are complied with even if this means that a large building subjected to fire collapses!  In reality, a higher level of resilience is often provided for free if construction is of stone, brick or concrete as these materials are inherently resilient and provide heightened structural integrity.  This higher level of resilience might be assumed or even expected, but it is not required by current regulations. If materials that are not inherently resilient are chosen, actual resilience levels are likely to be reduced and will not meet what society expects.

Whilst the built environment often has the purpose of protecting society and usually fulfils this, if projects are designed, constructed or operated badly, they themselves may be a hazard creator. This could be at the urban scale, such as development causing heightened flood risk, or at the building scale where poor design negatively impacts health and well-being.  Governments, clients, the construction industry and built environment asset operators must avoid these adverse exceptions.

A different aspect of resilience and the built environment is the capability/capacity of a society to respond to a threat through rapid authorised and controlled construction.  The fact that China could build extensive new hospital infrastructure in a matter of days to help address a pandemic is an indicator of the resilience of the society, and an example of when an element of the built environment is a response following a hazard rather than preparation in case of one.

Looking forward, a driver for all industries will be circular thinking and the circular economy.  In the case of the built environment, this thinking is beginning to impact design, specifically in minimising use of materials which will result in there being less spare structural capacity and structural redundancy in structures. This spare capacity and redundancy have provided, up until now, enhanced resilience. Material efficiency could erode this where not properly designed.  This does not make material efficiency bad – it is more nuanced than this.  What needs to be emphasised in circular economy thinking (of which material efficiency is a subset) is to ensure adverse unforeseen consequences, like reduction in resilience, are avoided?

Resilience and Concrete 

There are a range of construction materials, and the choice can impact on whole project resilience in a manner that is not always recognised or understood.

The most used man-made substance is concrete and one of the reasons for this is its inherent resilience against many hazards.   It can resist fire, wind and water. It won’t rot, warp or be eaten. Engineered structures built using concrete perform well when subjected to impact, blast and extreme weather events such as hurricanes, typhoons, cyclones and tsunamis. It is also the most durable of major structural materials, although as all engineers know the necessary protection of the concrete reinforcement must be in place, or non-ferrous bars should be used, to avoid reinforcement corrosion.  Concrete’s durability results in reduced ongoing maintenance and lower replacement rates compared with other materials.

Concrete’s inherent resilience as a material, means projects designed and built in concrete are less likely to be compromised by design and construction errors.  This is another form of resilience – concrete structures are more forgiving.  For example, other materials are reliant on fire protection and this necessitates complex detailing in the design office and careful workmanship on site.  This means errors are more likely to be made when using other materials, and the consequences of any error is more significant when the structural material itself is combustible like timber or loses strength when heated, like steel.        

Concrete also offers resilience to society by helping it to recover from a disaster event. This is because the concrete supply chain is relatively short, both in terms of distance and number of actors. This is a possibility because the raw materials are widely available and simply processed. It is a reality because the raw materials, and concrete itself, are relatively low-cost compared with their transport costs.  In terms of resilient short supply chains, concrete compares well with other construction materials and other sectors.   Furthermore, the skills to design and build with concrete are common, widespread and transferable.  Therefore, post disaster, it will be possible to commence reconstruction quickly with concrete solutions.

These aspects of supply chain also support readiness ahead of an event.  This has been borne out by the recent pandemic. For example, whilst construction continued in some countries, material and component supply, being imported from other countries, became very patchy and this heavily impacted progress.  Designers are considering specification of more local products for the future to provide an increased level of business continuity resilience. Concrete solutions are examples of such local products.


The cement and concrete industry recognises that the positive contribution of resilience that its product delivers, needs to be in the context of minimising the impacts of production.  To this end, GCCA members have committed to a Climate Ambition Statement and developing a 2050 Roadmap to carbon neutral concrete as well as a goal of Biodiversity Net Positive.  In this way the industry can deliver sustainable products that can be used to construct a resilient built environment which in turn ensures a more resilient society.

Resilience matters at the individual level, the global level, and all scales between.  It is increasing in prominence as an issue because hazards are being exacerbated by climate change and countries are seeking to deliver the resilience aspects of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Society needs to consider what value it places on resilience. The design and construction industry in general and the concrete industry specifically has the skills and products to deliver a more resilient built environment that will help society resist, absorb and adapt to many hazards to which it will be subjected.   


1. World Economic Forum, “The Global Risks Report”, 2020

2. List developed from City Resilience Framework by 100 Resilient Cities on their legacy website accessed May 2020

3. United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction , Terminology webpage accessed August 2020.  Published version   UNISDR “Terminology Disaster Risk Reduction” 2009 . (Note, web definition includes ”through risk management” at end of definition)

4. C. Field L. Pascoe and E. Kotrotsou, “Structural Engineering for the Future”, submitted for publication 2020

5.  CSHub MIT, “Life cycle costs of hazard resistant buildings”, 2017

6. World Bank, Bank Website accessed May 2020