What does climate adaptation look like in resilient cities? How can systems change and futures approaches be used as tools for transformative adaptation, and build resilience in ways that are equitable and inclusive? Forum’s Principal Sustainability Strategist Yamini Srivastava and Ashali Bhandari, Senior Urban Planner, Transitions Research, share key reflections.

Visions of resilient cities play an important role in shaping adaptation decisions. Currently, the discourse around resilient cities has been largely top-down and technocratic, with prioritisation of adaptation actions representing the worldviews of decision makers. However, the sixth IPCC report’s summary for policymakers noted that current climate adaptation approaches are fragmented, small in scale, incremental, sector-specific, designed to respond to current impacts or near-term risks, and focused more on planning rather than implementation’. It also highlighted that many adaptation strategies run the risk of maladaptive responses, creating lock-ins of vulnerability and exacerbating inequalities.

For climate adaptation to happen in a way that incorporates plural perspectives and deals with the complex, interrelated and cascading nature of climate and social risks, we need to think about the future in systemic ways. For example, building infrastructure to reduce flood impacts is insufficient if it does not consider why flooding happens and questions of who benefits and loses from such infrastructure. Working towards ‘transformational adaptation’ i.e. ‘adaptation that changes the fundamental attributes of a social-ecological system in anticipation of climate change and its impacts’ as noted in the IPCC report, is essential.   

Systems change approaches—including futures tools—that are designed to be participative and inclusive can be useful in enabling more transformative adaptation: they can help to identify types of responses and related assumptions and narratives, understand impacts and their drivers from multiple perspectives, identify intended and unintended consequences, and design for learning and iteration.

Forum for the Future and organised a workshop at the Global Gobeshona Conference in March 2022 to explore how scenarios of different climate adaptation strategies could transpire, and deconstruct how underlying mindsets might inform patterns and actions related to climate adaptation and resilience in the future.

At Gobeshona, we used the Trajectories of how the world responds post-COVID and the Iceberg Model to start to identify and unpack what needs to happen for a systemic approach to climate adaptation.

Possible trajectories for the post COVID-19 world

Only 10 percent of an iceberg’s total mass can be seen above water – the remaining 90 percent exists below the waterline. As a society, the majority tends to see and respond to events above the waterline.  The Iceberg Model is a framework that brings us deeper, examining the patterns, structures and beliefs that enable events.

Scenarios of resilient future cities

Our explorations uncovered several important considerations for adaptation planning and action; on power and influence dynamics, on whether all needs or only the needs of the few can be met in different scenarios, and on the significance of what knowledge is deemed valuable.

The first scenario we explored in the workshop was Climate proofing the city, where infrastructure and technology-based responses are the predominant adaptation strategy. The Discipline mindset drives this approach relying on greater centralised control to maintain safety and security.

It became clear through discussions that this scenario was already emerging as a strategy for resilience in South Asia: policies and prioritised funding for smart cities and data-driven solutions have resulted in hard infrastructure interventions to tackle climate risks, often at the expense of liveability and equity – beautiful building facades or ‘smarter’ cities do not always cater to the basic needs of the majority of the population and can risk reinforcing inequity.

Two key consequences of this scenario becoming the predominant adaptation response emerged. First, participants cautioned that the blind acceptance of technocracy would skew decision making towards particular types of experts (such as engineers) despite the wealth of knowledge and potential solutions from other knowledge domains.

Second, the discipline mindset provides a false sense of security: that control can create stability. Participants expressed concern over decision makers in India and Bangladesh attempting to limit climate-induced and lockdown-driven migration to relieve pressure and address security in already overcrowded cities. In reality migration cannot so easily be controlled as people move for multifarious reasons. Greater control only limits autonomy while not actually addressing the rationale and challenges spurring migration.

The second scenario, Ground up shifts, imagined a reflexive world where adaptation responses are contextualised and decentralised. Such cities would be flexible and open in their responses to climate risks, manifesting in features such as urban farms, community currencies, more open spaces, and municipalities and community groups working closely to anticipate and respond to impacts as well as what people need. The underlying mindset here is Unsettled, with a realisation that there may not ever be a ‘new normal’, and recognition that previous ways of thinking will not work.

There are already examples that show what decentralised, community-led approaches can look like in South Asia. The Community Development Council model introduced in the 1980s in Sri Lanka for low income communities enshrined community participation at the heart of planning and decision making on critical urban issues such as access to grid infrastructure, with communities working at the same level as planners and experts.

Participants in the session came with rich experiences and shared that community-led approaches can be successful when there is sufficient political will, shifts in access and contribution to information flows, and where communities had previously engaged in participative governance. Moving deeper through the Iceberg model, we saw how patterns and habits of power fundamentally impacted what knowledge is counted as valid, whose perspectives are considered or not, how information is processed, and how decisions are taken.

One example shared was an initiative on groundwater management where many non-governmental organisations initially focused on water storage and desilting solutions. However, by unpacking surface mental models and building dialogue among different system actors, there was increased recognition of farmers and communities as experts. This resulted in greater value of their knowledge, and ownership among communities to understand the issue holistically and take action. The need to map systems of power emerged as an important way to identify whether an approach is truly representative and participatory or not.

The group recognised, however, that ground-up approaches can be limited by numerous challenges including a lack of consensus around how to adapt, feeling overwhelmed with processes and decisions, and even risks of long standing power dynamics being compounded in locally led initiatives.

Below the surface, into inclusive and equitable models of resilience

Beyond identifying the events that are happening or could happen, using the Iceberg model to explore two scenarios of different climate adaptation responses gave insights on deeper, subtler but pervasive factors for how change does or does not happen. Power structures and the mental models behind them, for instance, can either create or perpetuate limits to adaptation or create unlocks towards truly transformative adaptation. It also enables us to identify fault lines in current assumptions about the change we are working towards and how to get there.

We see the potential for systems change, and particularly futures approaches, to be used as powerful tools for transformative adaptation and building resilience in ways that are equitable and inclusive. Our hope is that using these approaches will help those working deliberately on urban climate resilience to recognise the mindsets and world-views that are being applied by decision makers, see possible consequences of different types of adaptation decisions and act accordingly. Going deeper and further in thinking about our future in the face of climate change, and doing it together, is what will help us create the visions and stories of change that are authentic and truly inclusive.

Photo by Dibakar Roy on Unsplash.